@LATechSB Took Next Step in 2017

June 1, 2017

RUSTON – Although there were plenty of highlights, Taria Page’s pinch hit, two-out, full count, solo home run in the bottom of the seventh against No. 1 ranked Minnesota in the Tuscaloosa Regional might have been the best illustration of Louisiana Tech softball’s never-say-die mentality in 2017.

Down to their final strike and on the biggest stage of the year, these Lady Techsters weren’t done representing their school, their community, their program and themselves before a national television audience.

Page’s opposite field blast against the Golden Gophers’ All-American pitcher Sara Groenewegen – only the 12th home run surrendered in 60 games by the Minnesota pitching staff – prolonged Tech’s season for two more innings. Minnesota scored three runs in the top of the ninth to pull out the 5-2 win, ending the Lady Techsters memorable run that started in early February.

But it was a perfect illustration of the word senior Tori Charters used three days earlier in the pre-Tuscaloosa Regional press conference to describe this year’s LA Tech team when asked by media members what people would see from the Lady Techsters.

“Resiliency,” said Charters, a four-time C-USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll honoree. “You will see a team that won’t quit playing until the final out.”

Page’s blast extended Tech’s season by just two innings, but it was six more outs that the 2017 Techsters played together, focusing on the process and battling not only the odds but the No. 1 ranked team in the country.

It was a snapshot of a 62-game season that saw head coach Mark Montgomery’s bunch overcome more than its share of adversity on its way to the program’s first C-USA Tournament title as well as its first appearance in the postseason in almost a decade.



“I am most proud of the fact the process remained strong throughout the season,” said Montgomery. “This team continued to work hard and to believe at all times. Even when we struggled or met with adversity, this team remained resilient. We really embodied our core values throughout the year, and those values helped us reach our goals for the season.”

The road wasn’t always smooth. Most of the time it felt more like an old dirt country road. Many times the bumps felt more like sinkholes than potholes.

For the weak of stomach, this roller coaster ride called for Dramamine.

Following a fall season that saw Tech outscore its opponents by more than 70 runs in eight games, Montgomery preached of the depth of his roster. That depth would be tested early and often come spring.

Tech started the season without the services of four-year starter Pauline Tufi, who ended her collegiate career ranked second in career home runs and RBI. Tufi was suspended for the first eight games of the season for violation of team rules.

Then came the next blow. With Tufi one game away from returning to the lineup, sophomore Morgan Turkoly – a C-USA All-Academic honoree and first team all-CUSA selection –took a pitch off the hand in the first inning of a 6-5 loss to Texas in Austin and suffered a fractured knuckle. Turkoly missed the next 14 games before playing the rest of the year with a splint on her hand.

Sophomore cleanup hitter Taria Page – the owner of the dramatic home run against Minnesota – was in and out of the lineup all season due to lower back issues. Page was never close to 100 percent for her team but still led Tech with 42 RBI and a handful of Bobby Thompson-esque heroics late in games.

And Tech saved the most bizarre injury for the final stretch run. With the Lady Techsters fighting for the double bye in the C-USA Tournament, junior shortstop Katie Smith – a three-time Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll honoree – suffered a concussion in the first game of the 3-game regular season finale in Miami against FIU.

Not only was Smith lost for the weekend, but she also missed the entire Conference USA Tournament … all of this after being blindsided by the third base umpire after making a play deep in the hole against the Panthers.

Despite the injuries Tech picked up non-conference wins over South Carolina and Indiana and was painstakingly close to a handful of other RPI boosters that slipped through their fingers.

One-run losses to Power 5 teams Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas and South Carolina were all games that the Lady Techsters had chances to win. Three of those four losses came in the last at bat for the opponent.

They were all opportunities to boost the RPI. They were all losses that hurt in more ways than one. But they were also character builders for a team that was full of characters. They stung at the time, but the Lady Techsters didn’t allow the losses to define their season.

“I feel as though some of the types of games we played early helped us when we needed it down the stretch,” said Montgomery. “Maintaining composure in that close game, staying composed as the pressure of games mounted. We also learned how to find a way to win.

“In some ways we underachieved throughout the year at times in games we should have won, but we continued to grow as a team and when it counted the most we were where we needed to be.”

Tech got off to a fast start when conference play rolled around in early March and quickly showed it would be the cream of the West Division. The Lady Techsters flexed their conference muscle early, pulling off impressive three-game road sweeps over Southern Miss and UAB, the two teams that finished percentage points ahead of Tech in the West Division in 2016.

With the West all but won, Montgomery and Co. turned their attention to the chase for the overall Conference USA regular season title. However, Tech dropped two of three against both Middle Tennessee and UTSA – two teams that failed to qualify for the C-USA Tournament – ultimately allowing the Thundering Herd to pull away for the title.

After sweeping North Texas on senior weekend, Tech had the tables turned in Miami, falling victim to a three-game sweep at the bats and gloves of FIU. It marked the first time in almost two years that a league opponent swept a three-game series against the Lady Techsters. Tech entered the C-USA Tournament as the No. 3 seed, minus one of their emotional leaders on the field in Smith and with a bad taste in their mouth from the sour ending to the regular season.

Montgomery and Co. did receive some good news the day prior to the conference tournament starting. A program-record six players earned all-league honors, including first teamers Ali Galaz, Turkoly and Krystal De La Cruz and second team selections Preslee Gallaway, Jazlyn Crowder and Marilyn Rizzato. De La Cruz also earned Newcomer of the Year accolades while Rizzato picked up a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman team.

Individual honors were nice, but it was the team title and a bid to the NCAA Regionals that were the focuses heading into the 8-team league tourney.

The clock almost struck midnight (literally) on the Lady Techsters in Hattiesburg. After run-ruling Charlotte 11-1 in their first game of the tournament in a contest that didn’t start until after 11 p.m. and that ended at 12:32 a.m. due to a pair of extra-inning games preceding it, LA Tech fell the next day to FIU 7-1.

Tech was down to its last strike. One more loss, and the 2017 season was over. The Lady Techsters only hope was to fight their way through the elimination bracket and into the title game.

With their backs against the walls, Tech came out the following day picked up two big wins – a 1-0 10-inning victory over WKU and a 4-2 win over 23rd ranked and regular season champion Marshall. Tech piggybacked those wins with a 1-0 win over FIU in the championship game less than 18 hours later, defeating a Panthers team that had defeated the Lady Techsters four times over the previous eight days.

Gallaway and De La Cruz combined to toss 25 innings without allowing an earned run against three of the top hitting teams in the league. Defensively, play after play was made – from the routine to the unbelievable.

And offensively, Tech found ways in crucial times to provide game-winning hits – from Turkoly’s two-out single in the bottom of the 10th vs. WKU to Tori Charter’s infield RBI single with two outs in the top of the 7th vs. Marshall to Pauline Tufi’s solo home run in the top of the 7th vs. FIU.

All three wins came in their final at bat.

“It is so easy to say that winning the conference tournament and going to an NCAA Regional is what made this season so special, but it really is so much more than that,” said Smith. “I think the most rewarding feeling is knowing all the work we put in from September through May paid off.”

The celebration that followed De La Cruz’s final strikeout to end the 1-0 win over FIU in the championship game was therapeutic. Gloves flew into the air. Tears flowed down cheeks. Players embraced and coaches high-fived.

“This team went through so much, bad losses, important wins, struggles in our personal lives, the typical things,” said Smith. “But it honestly was extremely special to see us come together at the most perfect moment in the postseason. In that moment, there was absolutely nothing more important than winning.”

Instantly, all of those struggles, all of those bad losses, all of those dips in the roller coast ride were worth it. This Adidas-clad group donning Louisiana Tech across their jersey’s and Conference USA championship hats on their heads reaped the benefits of countless hours on the field, countless mornings in the weight room and countless obstacles that made them stronger.

“We proved this season that we are among the best of the best,” said Turkoly. “I think next year we just need to go into every game believing and expecting to with no matter who we play. We have a great chance to go even further next year.”

Thirty hours after winning the championship in Hattiesburg, the Lady Techsters gathered as a team with friends and family as ESPN revealed the 64 teams and the 16 regionals. Tech had the unenviable task in most people’s minds of heading to the tournament’s toughest regional where both perennial WCWS contender Alabama and No. 1 ranked Minnesota awaited.

Yet, the Techsters viewed it as an opportunity to show the country their brand of softball on a national stage.

That stage proved to be a little too big the first day. LA Tech looked out of character in an 11-3 loss to Minnesota.

“We allowed the moment to get too big,” said Montgomery. “I was proud that we finally settled down and kept competing and fighting, but by the time we did, we were down 7 or 8 runs against one of the best teams in the country.”

However, as they had all year, these Lady Techsters learned from their experience and came back to easily defeat America East champion Albany 8-1 on the second day. The victory gave LA Tech a second chance at Minnesota.

Sunday’s showdown proved to be a different story. The Techsters played within themselves, making great defensive stops early and riding the arm of Gallaway in the circle. The Lady Techsters played toe-to-toe with the No. 1 ranked Gophers, proving they belonged on the national stage.

Although the loss ended Tech’s season, it also left a taste of wanting more heading into the off-season.

“Obviously the stage and playing important games against top opponents will help us feel comfortable playing in almost any environment next season,” said Montgomery. “I would think it will also give us the utmost confidence that we can not only play with but beat any top ranked opponent. What is so amazing is that this team is still inspired, and they really want to work hard for more.”

Montgomery’s players agree.

“The experience of winning C-USA and playing in the NCAA regionals will benefit us tremendously next year,” said junior Karlee Jensen, a three-time C-USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll honoree. “We understand how much energy is needed to keep us fighting all the way down to the last out. I know the returners are not settling for anything less next year.”

“I think for this program to go even further we need to keep working hard, try to be more consistent, and never be satisfied,” said Crowder, a 2017 Conference USA Academic Medalist.


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