NNU Storms Back Through Bracket To Team Of The Week
Northwest Nazarene won four elimination games in two days to win the GNAC Championship and ensure their second consecutive NCAA Regional berth. Photo by Jacob Thompson.
Northwest Nazarene won four elimination games in two days to win the GNAC Championship and ensure their second consecutive NCAA Regional berth. Photo by Jacob Thompson.

Monday, May 9, 2022

PORTLAND, Ore. – Although their run through the GNAC Championships began with an unexpected hiccup, the Northwest Nazarene softball team was able to build a tidal wave of momentum that made them nearly unstoppable come championship Saturday.

Entering as the top seed, the Nighthawks dropped their first game in a double-elimination tournament to No. 4 seed Central Washington, but rebounded to win four elimination games in two days and take the GNAC Championship.

That earned NNU the GNAC’s automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Softball Championships and the Nighthawks were rewarded with the No. 8 seed in the West Regional during the NCAA Selection Show on Monday. For the conference tournament win and regional berth, the Nighthawks have been selected as the GNAC Team of the Week.

“Making it to the end of the GNAC tournament is a grind,” head coach Rich Wagner said. “We decided to do it the hard way.”

Although the Nighthawks left themselves no margin for error with their opening loss, they made winning the next four games look relatively easy. Pitching provided NNU with a huge boost. Tournament MVP Sidney Booth finished with a 0.63 ERA, giving up two earned runs on 14 hits in 22.1 innings, walking four and striking out 14. Tori Hensley, NNU’s No. 2 arm, had a 0.60 ERA in 11.2 innings pitched.

On Friday morning, the Nighthawks knocked out defending tournament champion Western Washington behind a three-run first inning that keyed a 4-0 victory. Booth was ruthlessly efficient, throwing 55 of her 77 pitches for strikes and setting the tone with a four-pitch 1-2-3 first inning. Booth threw a complete-game three-hitter and drove in the first run of the ballgame with a sacrifice fly.

Friday afternoon provided a rematch opportunity against Central Washington. Northwest Nazarene took the lead two batters into the bottom of the first, when Emma Mulligan walked, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a base hit from shortstop Ivy Hommel.

As it turned out, that would be the Nighthawks’ final hit of the game, but it was all they needed. The defense which let the Nighthawks down in the opening game – which saw CWU score four unearned runs off Booth in a 4-1 Wildcats win – stood firm and played errorless softball. Hensley sparkled, allowing one run on five hits with five strikeouts in a complete-game effort. Northwest Nazarene utilized a walk, a pair of wild pitches and an RBI groundout from Booth to push across the eventual winning run in the fifth inning.

Saturday required Northwest Nazarene to beat Saint Martin’s, who were unbeaten in the tournament, twice to take the title. Once again, the Nighthawks were up to the task. The first game got out of hand quickly, as Booth provided an RBI single in the first inning before NNU got three runs in the second on a sacrifice fly from Madison Felter, an RBI single from Hommel and a first-and-third double steal that saw Mulligan swipe home. Charlotte Forniss added three insurance RBI on a third-inning sacrifice fly and a sixth-inning two-run double. With Booth giving up one run on three hits, the Nighthawks won via run-rule, 9-1 in six innings.

Northwest Nazarene had all the momentum and it showed in the winner-take-all game. The Nighthawks scored three in the first inning when Maia McNicoll singled through the right side to score Mulligan, Hensley drove in Booth with a groundout and Abigail Gagnon brought McNicoll around to score with another base hit. Hensley started on the mound and pitched 4.2 shutout innings. After an early single and walk, Hensley retired 13 straight Saints hitters. With two out and two on in the fifth, NNU went to Booth in the circle. Booth worked around a lead-off single in the seventh to complete the save and lifted her arms in the air before the final out even entered Felter’s glove in center field, finalizing a life-long special moment for the NNU squad.

“We had some seniors miss graduation to be here and that showed how close this group is,” Wagner said. “The girls stayed focused and played well enough to make some memories.”

The Nighthawks will play next at the NCAA Division II Softball Championship, facing No. 1 seed Cal State San Marcos at noon PT on Thursday. Depending on their result, the Nighthawks will then match up with either No. 4 Sonoma State or No. 5 Cal State Monterey Bay.