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Defense highlighted spectacular six-game stretch for Niagara softball


softballNIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- After playing the first 39 games of the 2018 season on the road, the Niagara softball team was ready to settle down and close out the season with a 14-game homestand. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas, as games against St. Bonaventure, Rider and Monmouth all got postponed due to weather while a doubleheader against Buffalo was cancelled. Before they could finally play their weather-delayed home opener against Canisius, the Purple Eagles had to play Saint Peter's in Jersey City.

Entering the doubleheader on April 22, Niagara was 2-6 in MAAC play and needed a spark to keep them in contention for a spot in the MAAC Softball Championship. After the Purple Eagles got out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the third inning, the Peacocks came right back in the bottom half to knot the score up at 2-2. Saint Peter's threatened to take the lead the following inning when a pair of walks and a single put a runner at third base, but Sierra Bertrand and the defense collected themselves to keep the home squad at bay.

Both teams went three up, three down in both halves of the fifth and sixth innings, and each pitcher faced the minimum in the seventh as well (Saint Peter's snuffed out Niagara's at-bat with an inning-ending double play while the Purple Eagles retired the side in order). In the eighth inning, both teams stranded runners after getting their lead batter on, while the ninth saw both teams go down 1-2-3 once more.

In the top of the 10th, Saint Peter's got Niagara's first two batters to ground out to the second baseman, but with just one out to work with, Kendall Watkins put the Purple Eagles in great position after getting aboard with a single, then making her way to third by way of a steal and an error on the Peacocks' catcher. The next batter, Jennifer Timm, brought her in easily by ripping an RBI double to take the lead deep in extra innings. Emily Johnston entered the game in the bottom of the inning to ensure the victory with her third save of the year.

The second game of the doubleheader featured less drama and more run production from the Niagara side. RBI hits from Jerri Ann Orfano and Heather Haberman in the top of the first put the team up 2-0 early. Haberman plated Timm in the third to add another run to the Purple Eagles' lead, which was doubled on account of hits from Erika Siegel, Taylor Moody, Sarah Trifoso, Watkins, Timm, Orfano and Margaret Vesneske. Moody and Watkins accounted for the three RBI that doubled the lead to 6-0 in the sixth inning.

After the Peacocks went down in order in the bottom of the sixth, Moody belted a two-run homer in the seventh to extend the score to 8-0 in Niagara's favor. Saint Peter's got two runners on in the bottom of the frame but couldn't push them across and wound up going scoreless in 16 of the 17 innings they played that day.

Now at 4-6 in the MAAC, Niagara opened up its home slate with a two-game set against crosstown rival Canisius on April 24. Kelsey Harrigan got the Purple Eagles ahead in game one in the bottom of the first, hitting a leadoff home run on the second pitch she saw. Canisius scattered hits over the course of the next several innings but couldn't score on a suddenly stingy Niagara defense.

In the bottom of the fourth, the first three Purple Eagles at the plate reached first base before an out was recorded. Rachel Funk, who led off by reaching on an error, was sent home when Moody singled into center field. Harrigan notched her second RBI of the day by singling into right field to put Haberman across and set the score to 3-0. Canisius failed to get a baserunner on again until the seventh inning, when two walks with two outs saw them threaten to cut or tie the score, but the infield ended the game with a 6-5-2-6 rundown between second and third.

In game two, both defenses neutralized runners until the bottom of the third, when Trifoso was hit by a pitch, took second on a wild pitch, then scored on a Watkins double to finally break through for Niagara. After a six up, six down fourth, Niagara sent seven batters up in their half of the fifth and came away with three more runs. Watkins and Trifoso each recorded an RBI single in the inning, while Harrigan got herself an RBI double. With the scoreboard reading 4-0 Niagara, Johnston entered the game to relieve Jennifer Szilagyi and ended up earning her school record-breaking fourth save of the season. By holding the Golden Griffins scoreless in back-to-back games, the Purple Eagles extended their shutout streak to 28 innings, the program's longest stretch since at least 2003.

The following weekend saw all four games against Rider and Monmouth washed out, so on Monday, April 28, the Broncs came out to Niagara Falls High School to make up the doubleheader. The visitors quickly ended the shutout streak just three batters into the opening game, which they wound up winning 3-1, but the defense sparkled in the closing game which saw Szilagyi throw her first career no-hitter.

Neither team mustered a hit until the bottom of the third inning. With two outs, Trifoso drew a walk and stole second to get into scoring position. After another walk to Harrigan, Watkins lofted a single into left field, allowing Trifoso to come in and give the Purple Eagles the lead. 1-2-3 innings by the Rider offense in the fourth and fifth were separated by a two hit, one run fourth inning for Niagara, when Orfano's leadoff double paid dividends thanks to sac fly from Siegel. The score remained 2-0 as both defenses allowed no hits through the final three innings. In Niagara's first no-hitter in nearly a year, Szilagyi struck out nine and only walked one of her 24 batters faced.

The six game stretch from April 22 to April 30 saw Niagara go from 2-6 to 7-7 in MAAC play and kept them in the thick of the playoff race. In that span, the Purple Eagles allowed just five runs on 23 hits while striking out 46 of the 172 batters faced (26.7 percent) in 45 complete innings. Bertrand and Szilagyi threw two complete games apiece, with Bertrand also hurling a personal record 9.2 in the Saint Peter's opener before Johnston closed the game out in the 10th.

For the 2019 season, Niagara will return all of its top seven batters from a season ago, led by Harrigan (.283 batting average, 43 hits) and Watkins (.386 on-base percentage). Orfano (.283 batting average, 29 RBI, six home runs), Bertrand (7-14, 3.72 ERA, 99 strikeouts) and Szilagyi (5-7, 3.97 ERA, 58 strikeouts) will help make up 2019's senior class of six. Johnston (career 4.66 ERA, .888 strikeouts per inning, program record five saves) will also look to take another step forward in her junior year.

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