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College Softball: North Central comes up one game short of nationals in loss to St. Thomas

Vlasta Mangia and North Central College could only keep St. Thomas’ bats silent for so long.
 
The Tommies’ potent softball lineup came alive in a big way Sunday, rallying past the Cardinals 10-4 in the final of the NCAA Division III super regional at North Central’s Shanower Family Field.
 
In the process, North Central (33-13) was denied what would have been its third trip to the national tournament and first since 2001.
 
“They have a tremendous lineup,” North Central coach Jim Kulawiak said. “We made a few mistakes and they took advantage of them.”
 
The two teams split a pair of games Saturday. North Central forced a winner-take-all in the best-of-three series by erupting for a 10-run fourth in a 12-2 win.
 
The fourth inning was a game-changer again — for the other side.
 
North Central had gone ahead 4-1 with a four-run third, with Carly Trenhaile’s two-run single the capper, but that momentum was short-lived.
 
No. 13 St. Thomas (42-7) sent 10 batters to the plate in the fourth to surge ahead 6-4. Brenna Walek’s two-run homer, her 16th of the season and the Tommies’ 50th, started the damage. The bigger blow was Jenna Hoffman’s two-out, two-run, go-ahead single she chopped over North Central’s drawn-in second baseman.
 
“We really just tried to stay in the moment,” said Hoffman, named the super regional’s Most Outstanding Player. “We can hit and we know that. We had seen both of their pitchers Saturday and we started to get a little more comfortable in the box.”
 
The Tommies added three more runs in the fifth.
 
“When we went up 4-1, I knew the key thing was going to be us being able to hold them to zero or one run in the next inning,” Kulawiak said. “I felt if we could have done that we would have been in pretty good shape. I probably went one inning too far with Vlasta. I had a feeling we might have to use two pitchers. When they got to 9-4, that’s hard to make up.”
 
Mangia, North Central’s all-time leader in wins and innings pitched, had held down St. Thomas in Game 2 Saturday. She shut the Tommies out for six straight innings between the two games, but knew what she was up against. St. Thomas came into the weekend hitting .385, tops in all of D-III, scoring 7.7 runs a game.
 
Five errors behind Cardinal pitchers didn’t help any.
 
“Once you see a pitcher so many times they’re bound to hit you,” Mangia said. “They’re a great team. That’s why they’re going to nationals.”
 
Mangia is one of just two seniors departing off this NCC team, and appreciated the experience. The Cardinals won their third regional championship, hosting the first super regional in front of huge crowds at home.
 
“It’s been such a blessing to play with all these girls,” said Mangia, a Morton High School product. “They’re friends for life.”
 
North Central’s other senior, second baseman Taylor Ryan, enjoyed a tremendous weekend. The No. 9 hitter from Willowbrook reached base seven times and seemed to always be in the middle of Cardinals’ big innings. Her single started North Central’s four-run third Sunday.
 
“Taylor Ryan, she doesn’t get enough credit. She’s a lot better than people think,” Kulawiak said. “We’re going to definitely miss her next year, and Vlasta.”
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