HARRISONBURG — It was, perhaps, the greatest drop ball Heather Kiefer has ever thrown — not so much for the pitch itself, although it was crisp and well-located, but for what happened after it came out of her right hand in front of 392 people in the top of the second inning.
“It was a pretty good one,” the James Madison pitcher said, laughing.
The result was even better.
That drop ball produced a 6-2-5 double play, deflating a bases-loaded no-out threat from Towson, and sparked the Dukes to a 4-0 win and the 2014 Colonial Athletic Association softball championship Friday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Park.
“Now you don’t have a runner on third base anymore, you have two outs, and it was like, all the weight in the world, you could see it lift from your shoulders,” JMU coach Mickey Dean said of the double play that started with shortstop Caitlin Sandy, who threw home to catcher Erica Field, who slung it back to third baseman Madyson Moran.
JMU (44-13) — which has now won 11 straight games over Towson (29-25), including five in a row this season and two in the CAA tournament — clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This will be the Dukes’ second straight NCAA appearance after going as an at-large team in 2013, Dean’s first year as coach.
The NCAA selection show is Sunday night.
This is JMU’s second-ever CAA softball championship. The Dukes, who played their inaugural season in 2002, first won the title in 2009.
“I don’t even know if it’s set in yet really,” said Sandy, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after going 5-for-9 with three RBIs, two doubles and two runs in three games. “It’s awesome. It’s an amazing feeling, but I think that we’re still hungry to go to regionals and to be successful in regionals. So it’s an awesome feeling; it’s in the moment now, but we’re going to be on the grind tomorrow.”
Sandy, also the CAA Player of the Year, went 1-for-3 on Friday. The 5-foot-4 senior had a two-run double — it was a sky-high bloop that landed in shallow right field between three Towson players — in the bottom of the third that put JMU ahead 3-0.
Earlier in the inning, Jailyn Ford put the Dukes up 1-0 on a line-shot single through the left side that scored Tahli Moore (who made a stylish dive to get by the catcher) on a tight play at the plate.
Moore had two hits, as did Hannah Hayes. Taylor Newton drove in JMU’s fourth run on a single to center field in the sixth inning.
Kiefer, a 5-8 junior from Potomac Falls, pitched six innings in relief of JMU ace and CAA Pitcher of the Year Ford, who left after walking the first two batters in the second inning. For the three-day tournament, Ford threw 209 pitches, including 115 in Wednesday’s first-round win over Towson.
“I was just watching her, and her legs and upper body just weren’t together,” Dean said. “I didn’t want to leave her in there to let Towson get any type of momentum, and so I felt like I could make the change now. And I have all the confidence in both J.J. and Heather; it’s a toss of the coin. But I felt I needed to give her a break and brought Heather in.”
The move worked. Kiefer gave up just three hits on 64 pitches, retiring eight in a row at one point. After the second inning, she allowed only two base-runners and cruised thanks to that drop ball and a more-dominant-than-usual circle changeup.
“It just felt really good,” Kiefer said. “And Coach Dean, the last couple days, he’s told me, ‘Just be ready — be ready when we need you. It will be big.’ So I was just trusting it and ready. … There’s a flow. There’s a certain timing, a certain rhythm that I get into, and I can feel it, and when I feel it working, I know it’s going to be a good day.”
Dean said Kiefer threw more changeups than normal Friday, and it kept the Tigers — an aggressive offensive team — off-balance and off the base-paths. But it was Kiefer’s drop — a pitch, she said, she’s thrown all her life and is her most reliable — that got it done when the Dukes needed it most: the bottom of the second.
After Ford walked the first two batters, Kiefer allowed a bunt single up the middle that loaded the bases with no outs. The next batter, Jessica South, grounded to Sandy to start that key double play. Kiefer struck out the next batter to end the inning.
“That was a rally inning for them because they got two runners on with no outs, then bases loaded no outs,” Kiefer said. “But just getting that play lets them know it’s our field; we’re in control of this field; we’re in control of this game. We just didn’t give them a chance to score.”
Towson 000 000 0 — 0 3 0
JMU 003 001 x — 4 9 0
McCormick and Holiday; Ford, Kiefer (2) and Field. W — Kiefer (20-7). L — McCormick (17-11).