It got dark and then the weather worsened. Due to conference rules, Quinnipiac suddenly found its chances from playing the conference championship game gone.
Second-seeded Sacred Heart was declared the Northeast Conference softball champion Sunday after its championship game against No. 3 Quinnipiac was canceled due to “unplayable field conditions,” according to the NEC’s press release.
“We didn’t think there was any way we would be able to play those games on Sunday,” Northeast Conference Assistant Commissioner Michelle Boone said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Quinnipiac never was officially eliminated, going 2-1 in the double-elimination tournament, but because of Sacred Heart’s 2-0 tournament record, the NEC crowned the Pioneers champions. Sacred Heart will play 16th-ranked Texas A&M in the College Station Regional on Friday. Louisiana State and Syracuse are also in the regional.
“I say this in all honesty, I don’t think Sacred Heart had a chance,” Quinnipiac head coach Germaine Fairchild said. “That’s how well we were playing. I think we were coming at them and they knew it, and I think they escaped out of there with a huge sigh of relief.”
The championship game was halted Saturday at 7:49 p.m., according to the Robert Morris live blog, before the fourth inning got underway due to darkness and a possible storm coming.
It was officially canceled Sunday at 9:38 a.m. due to poor field conditions. The game was scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, according to the official NEC softball Twitter account. It was not considered an official game because only three complete innings were played. Quinnipiac trailed 3-2 before the game was stopped.
“There were a couple of spots where we determined that the footing was unstable,” Boone said. “If you put your foot in the ground and your foot sinks in, or the ground moves, that is considered ‘unstable grounds.’ There were several spots that were like that on Sunday morning. There were a few spots in left field that we had seen that were unsafe for students’ welfare and that’s one of the reasons why the decision was made to not continue action.”
Tournament officials and both coaches had the opportunity to consider continuing play.
“We did have discussions with the tournament committee and both head coaches prior to making the call and we wanted to wait it out a bit on Sunday,” Boone said. “Both coaches said that it wasn’t necessary because the field was not going to get any better within a few hours.”
According to the Northeast Conference 2011 Policy Manual, the last remaining undefeated team would win the NEC’s automatic bid if four or five games had been played. If Quinnipiac beat Sacred Heart, there would have been a seventh playoff game, since both teams would have one loss.
If game 7 had been canceled, the team with the better head-to-head record would have advanced. Since both teams would have been tied in that scenario, the championship would have gone to the highest remaining seed, which was Sacred Heart.
“I think that the rainout policy that we have in place is a very good one,” Boone said. “It clearly states what happens with the amount of games played.”
It is the first time a situation like this has happened since at least 2000, according to Boone.
Sacred Heart co-head coach Pam London said both teams wanted to continue to play, but the safety issue overrode it.
“They made the right move,” London said to the Pack Network Sunday. “Michelle worked really hard all weekend and she made the proper decision for safety.”
When the Bobcats heard the news of the game’s cancellation, they were upset.
“There were a lot of tears, there was definitely some anger,” Fairchild said. “They just had a very real sense that they had given up something to prepare to be in the position that we were in.”
The NEC needed to submit a team as the automatic qualifier to the NCAA by 5 p.m. Sunday before the NCAA Selection Show at 10 p.m., according to Boone.
Fairchild said she believes the teams should play the game out, and if no winner is decided before the selection show, designate the conference winner to a region and announce it once there is a winner.
Fairchild also said making the tournament single-elimination could be a possibility for the future, but the tournament could start on a Thursday instead of a Friday like this year. She plans to discuss this in a conference call with other coaches and the NEC.
Quinnipiac staved off elimination by beating Central Connecticut State 8-5 in the loser’s bracket, and eliminating top-seeded Robert Morris 4-3 in the semifinals before playing Sacred Heart in the finals.
Heather Schwartzburg threw a complete game against Robert Morris, striking out five batters for her 23rd win of the season. She pitched all seven innings in the opening game against Sacred Heart and had pitched the first three innings in the finals.
Jordan Paolucci and Jacqueline Ristow each had run-scoring hits in the first inning to give Quinnipiac an early 2-1 lead in the championship game.
Sacred Heart’s Annie Dreher hit RBI singles in the top of the first and the third innings, accounting for the first two Pioneer runs. Nicole Sidor drove in Liz Tsipouras for the third run in the top of the third for a temporary 3-2 lead.
Ristow and Mina Duffy hit back-to-back home runs against Robert Morris in the sixth inning to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead. The Bobcats erupted for 15 hits against CCSU, three by Paolucci, the NEC Rookie of the Year. Paolucci hit her league-leading 15th home run of the season.
“We were just in the zone as an offensive team,” Fairchild said. “I really think that once we made it back to the championship against Sacred Heart we were in an unstoppable mode as an offense and I think Sacred Heart knew that.”
Freshman Emily O’Keefe pitched 6 1/3 innings of four-hit ball after entering the game with two runners on base and the Bobcats already down 4-0 against CCSU.
“I think Emily was able to go out there and use off-speed [pitches] against a team that swings against that pretty freely,” Fairchild said. “I think Emily’s changeup was exactly what we needed to shut them down and to see a pitcher on our team other than Heather shut another team down was a huge boost for everybody.”
Sacred Heart won its only two tournament games, defeating Quinnipiac 4-3 in the opening round and Robert Morris in the winner’s bracket, 7-3.
All Tournament Team
Jen Russell – SHU (MVP)
Taylor Froelich – SHU
Shannon McCoy – SHU
Nicole Sidor – SHU
Mina Duffy – QU
Jordan Paolucci – QU
Alexa Bryson – RMU
Allie Patton – RMU
Liz Montemurro – CCSU
Featured photo credit: Matt Eisenberg