Central sweeps Western Oregon for first GNAC softball tourney title

Central Washington University had never won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference softball tournament.

No GNAC team had lost its first game of the double-elimination event, then rallied to win four straight games and the championship.

The Wildcats did both Saturday afternoon, sweeping Western Oregon, 11-2 and 9-3, at St. Martin’s University’s field.

You might say Central’s performance was out of this world. Coach Mike Larabee did.

“We’re playing ‘Jupiter ball’ right now,” Larabee said. “There’s rec ball and every other level going up from there. We want to play at the highest possible level. Coach (Jim) Peterson (one of Larabee’s assistants) came up with Jupiter ball, higher than the highest level.”

Central began the tournament earthbound, losing Thursday to St. Martin’s, 2-0, on a three-hit shutout by the Saints’ Kim Nelson.

“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due,” Larabee said. “Their pitcher did a great job. But we had a few balls hit far enough to be home runs that went foul, and a few other bits of bad luck. We talked about it afterward and said, ‘If any team can come back and win four straight, it’s us.’ 

The team that didn’t score in its first seven tournament innings came alive to score 37 runs in its final 23 turns to bat, scoring at least 8 runs against every other team in the field and finishing its opponent after five innings via the eight-run rule twice.

Western Oregon (31-24) needed to win only once Saturday to claim the GNAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Division II tournament — and began the first game as if they might.

Wolves starter Alyson Boytz, the conference strikeout leader during the regular season, held Central scoreless during the first two innings. In the bottom of the second, with Ashlee Lynch aboard via a leadoff single, Lexi Jennings drove a low line drive over the left centerfield fence and Western led, 2-0.

That turned out to be the high point of the day for the Wolves.

Central rallied for a six-run third inning, highlighted by Kailyn Campbell and Andrea Hamada doubles, and would never trail again in either game.

A two-out rally in the fifth allowed the Wildcats to end the first game early.

Celine Fowler singled, then Western ace Sammi Cadwallader, who came on relief with two out in the third, hit Campbell and eventual tournament MVP Alexa Olague to load the bases. Catcher Austin Wilkerson crushed her ninth home run of the season over the left field fence to put the Wildcats up by nine.

Pitcher Kayla Smith, unbeaten in eight decisions this season, finished off a complete-game five-hitter in the bottom of the inning.

The second game wasn’t in doubt for long.

After two innings, the Wildcats had a 7-2 lead, plenty for left-hander Kiana Wood — the GNAC pitcher of the year — who upped her record to 18-6 with a five-hit complete game of her own.

“I challenged her to be a dominant pitcher, which she can be,” said Larabee. “Not with velocity, but with location. If you keep the ball off the white of the plate, you can win, doesn’t matter if it’s Major League Baseball. The three most important things in pitching are location, location, location, and Kiana had it today.”

Offensively, Wilkerson and designated hitter Brielle Copodonna each drove in three runs for Central (38-14) in the nightcap.

Larabee, a Spokane native and former coach at both Kentlake and Kentridge high schools who spent the past six years as the head coach at Arkansas, is confident as the Wildcats await Monday’s announcement of first-round NCAA tournament matchups.

“We’ve done well against the West region teams,” he said.