BY ADAM ROGAN
The Drake Softball season couldn’t have gotten off to much better of a start as the Bulldogs won four out of five games at the UNI-Dome Classic last weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“We all feel pretty good about last week. We all realized the places we need to work on and where we can improve,” sophomore Tasha Alexander said. “Overall, I’m pretty proud of myself and pretty proud of the team.”
Drake’s best game was the first of the season, a 7-0 blowout of the Saint Louis University Billikens. Neither team scored in the first three innings. But a double from freshman Gabbi Jonas in the top of the fourth, one of three hits in her debut collegiate game, plated two to get Drake on the scoreboard.
Jonas picked up her third RBI in a 4-run sixth for the Bulldogs, highlighted by a Kaitlin Finneran RBI double. Finneran finished the game with two runs and two RBIs on three hits.
But it wasn’t the offense that was most notable for the Bulldogs. It was the pitching from sophomore right-hander Nicole Newman.
Newman hurled a complete game, racking up 13 strikeouts. She had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning when junior Mackenzie Peter doubled, the only Billiken hit in the game.
“Being able to come out the first game and being able to win seven to nothing; great start for the team and me,” Newman said.
That success didn’t last long, however, as the Nebraska Cornhuskers ran up the score and won 11-2 in five innings via mercy rule.
Freshman Kennedy Frank contributed both of Drake’s runs with an RBI double in the third and a single in the fifth. Frank was the only Bulldog with multiple hits. The team only got on base six times in the game.
Senior pitcher Mariah McKinnon was the victim of the Cornhuskers hitters. She gave up 11 runs (all of which were earned) on 14 hits, three walks and didn’t record a single strikeout.
The third game of the tournament was an afternoon game against the University of Wisconsin — Green Bay Phoenix and was the closest of Drake’s games over the weekend, coming down to the last at-bat.
With Newman on the mound, Green Bay got out ahead early on a one-out RBI double for junior Allie Taylor in the top of the first inning.
Drake took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third on back-to- back RBI doubles from Ashlie Chambers and Finneran.
The Phoenix responded with a four-run fifth inning rally to reclaim the lead. The Bulldogs closed the gap to one on a two- RBI single from Jonas in the bottom of the inning.
The Phoenix got two runners on base in the top of the seventh, but Newman managed to strand them both to keep Drake behind by just one as they entered the bottom of the final inning.
With one out and runners on first and second, Jonas singled to load the bases, her third hit of the ballgame.
Alexander entered the batter’s box with the tying run just 90 feet away and the winning run not far behind. With the Phoenix hoping to end the game on a double play, Alexander singled into the outfield to score both runners – a walk-off.
It was Alexander’s second hit of the season and her first RBIs. “I was pretty excited because I hadn’t been hitting really well so far and then to get that big hit boosted my confidence and helped me with games later on,” Alexander said.
Stellar pitching in games four and five against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and Western Illinois Leathernecks, respectively, extended Drake’s winning streak to three in the wake of Alexander’s walk off.
Against SDSU, Newman allowed three runs in seven innings of work with eight strikeouts in a game where the Bulldogs never trailed. Her record improved to 3-0 on the season with the win.
Alexander launched a two- run homer to center to open the scoring in the top of the second. Frank added another home run in the third to put Drake up 4-1. Taryn Pena walked with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh to bring about the final score of 5-3.
Frank finished the weekend batting .500, three runs, four RBIs and a slugging percentage of .833. She didn’t even strikeout in 20 plate appearances.
With stats like that, it’s no surprise that she earned the MVC Softball Newcomer of the Week award. If she keeps playing like she has thus far, it won’t be the last time she is so honored.
“I was really nervous before, so it felt really good to not suck my first game,” Frank said with a laugh.
Against Western Illinois on Sunday, McKinnon gave up a run in the first, but then threw five consecutive shutout innings before giving up one more in the seventh on the way to her first win of the year.
The Bulldogs scored five runs in the fourth through seventh innings to build a secure lead, highlighted by junior Megan Sowa’s first home run of the season, a three-run shot in the top of the fifth.
After being picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference, Drake’s 4-1 start to the season is a sign that the prediction may be incorrect. Of the nine teams in the MVC who have already started their seasons, Drake is one of two with 4-1 starts – the other being Evansville, the team tabbed to finish last in the conference.
Drake looks to continue their strong start at the Razorback Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they will play four games on Feb. 27 and 28.