For Coast Guard softball, the end justifies the means

Mansfield - Coast Guard softball won in typical fashion Thursday.

The Bears fell behind, sharpened their competitive focus and rallied to win their NCAA Division III Mansfield Regional opener.

Hey, whatever works, right?

With a dramatic 2-1 win over fourth-seeded Ithaca College in eight innings, No. 5 Coast Guard advanced in the double-elimination tournament. Up next is host and top-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University (41-1) at 4 p.m. today.

Freshman Erin Lisko's two-out single provided the winning margin.

"An exciting start and only the Bears' way," coach Donna Koczajowski said. "It seems to be our M.O. lately - get behind, tie it late and go ahead."

The Bears (27-17), who came out of the losers' bracket to win the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference tournament championship last weekend, rebounded from a 1-0 deficit in the first inning against Ithaca and finally broke through after stranding runners all game, leaving 11 on base overall.

Their confidence never waned.

"We knew we would come through," Lisko said. "We've been hot."

Senior All-America pitcher Hayley Feindel (20-8) settled into a nice groove, scattering six hits while striking out eight without issuing a walk. Her only blemish came in the first inning when Ithaca (30-13) scored an unearned run on Sydney Folk's RBI groundout.

Still recovering from a broken middle finger on her pitching hand, Feindel needed a few innings to get a good feel for her pitches.

"One drawback not being 100 percent healthy is I can't warm up as long as I like," Feindel said. "During the game, I start to find it a little better as the game goes on."

Her offensive support finally arrived in the fifth inning. Reliever Jillian Olmstead, who ranks second in the country with eight saves, walked Maddie Buchert with one out and then Jesse Richardson reached on a fielder's choice.

After Holli Bastinck walked, sophomore Kaitlin Ward lined the first pitch to right field for a two-out base hit. Richardson slid in to barely beat the throw home to tie game at 1-1.

Coast Guard's defense delivered in the sixth inning. With a runner on first and two outs, Folk singled to right field. Junior Stacia Sarwinski fielded the ball and made a strong throw to third baseman Devin Fellman who tagged out pinch-runner Nina Lindberg for the final out.

"It was huge," Feindel said.

The Bears placed two runners on base with one out in the seventh but failed to score.

They didn't waste their next opportunity.

Freshman Chloe Harmon hustled to reach on an error to start the eighth and went to second on Sarwinski's sacrifice bunt. After senior Jamie Kim grounded out, Lisko, the No. 9 batter, slapped the first pitch to left field for the game-winning RBI.

"It feels good," Lisko said. "I'm always looking for something good to hit. I just think how hard we've worked and our coaches always say go up there and swing hard.

"So I did."

Feindel retired the side in order to close out the victory. Richardson, a freshman catcher and the NEWMAC Rookie of the Year, had three of her team's seven hits.

The Bears also left the field with a better frame of mind.

"We were a little bit tight and nervous and then we started to have a little bit of fun," Koczajowski said. "Hayley led us and the bats came through."

The victory set up a showdown between two of the top New England Division III powers in the last several years in Coast Guard and Eastern.

It also pits Feindel against All-America ace Molly Rathbun who helped beat Lesley University, 10-1 in five inning, in Thursday's opener.

"She's an amazing athlete," Feindel said. "That's (who) you want to play against. If you're going to win, you want to win against the best.

"I'm looking forward to playing them. I know they're a strong team, but so are we."

g.keefe@theday.com

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