Embroiled in a tight race for a postseason Northern Sun Conference softball playoff berth, the University of Mary could ill-afford to fall victim to a doubleheader sweep.
Junior center fielder Rebekkah Keller took it upon herself to make sure that didn't happen.
Keller's run-scoring single in the bottom of the ninth inning sent home Mariah Sanchez with the winning run as U-Mary edged the University of Sioux Falls 4-3 on Saturday. Sioux Falls claimed the first game 3-0 behind the stalwart pitching of senior right-hander Kerrigan Hoshaw.
With the split, U-Mary stands 10-14 in NSIC play and 19-25 overall. Sioux Falls is 13-11 in conference action and 23-22 on the year.
The Marauders trailed the Cougars 3-1 going into the sixth inning of the second game at U-Mary's campus field. Kyle Alto capped a two-out rally with an RBI single to cut the deficit to 3-2 in the home sixth.
In the bottom of the seventh, Kasidy Chileen's two-out double plated Keller with the tying, but unearned, run. Chileen was later thrown out at the plate by Cougar center fielder Frankie Mickelson trying to score the game-winner on a single by Kaitlyn Alvarado.
Pitchers Sydney Nieveen of Sioux Falls and Brieann Backes of U-Mary got through the eighth unscathed. Backes pitched her way out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the ninth, setting the stage for the Marauder's winning rally.
Sanchez led off with an infield single and Haley Berube moved Sanchez to second with a soft single down the left field line.
That brought up Keller, who had singled in a game-winner on Friday as the Marauders split a twin bill with Southwest Minnesota. Keller grounded a single through the right side to score Sanchez and end the game.
Backes, who finished the day with both a loss and a win, pitched brilliantly in relief in the second game. Taking over at the start of the second inning, she blanked the Cougars the rest of the way, yielding seven hits, walking three and striking out three.
Keller's decisive hit came on her fifth plate appearance against Nieveen. She had already singled twice, scored twice and stolen four bases.
"She did like coming inside on me. ... I changed my approach. If I hit to the right side, it gives the runners (on first and second) the advantage," Keller said.
"In my last at-bat I changed up and took a full swing instead of slapping," added Keller, who bats leadoff.
Keller said averting a sweep was important in several ways.
"When we're put in those situations, especially in the second game, we're getting a lot better at playing as a team and finishing the game," she said.
"It helps the whole mental aspect. You have the momentum to push into the next game," she added.
Ah, yes, momentum. Keller said by scoring in the last of the seventh to force extra innings, the Marauders gained the upper hand.
"I think that switched the momentum," she said. "We really wanted to win, especially for the seniors today."
Seniors Paige Matsuki, Backes and Alto were honored for their contributions to the U-Mary softball program between games.
Hoshaw stamped her name cleanly on the first game. She surrendered two singles in the first inning, stiffened her resolve and simply shut the Marauders down. She retired the last 19 batters she faced and faced only two hitters over the minimum. She struck out three, all in the first three innings, and walked none.
"I just bore down a little bit," said Hoshaw, who won for the third time in her last four decisions to raise her record to 9-8. "I had a rough game Tuesday (against Augustana) and I knew I had to help our team."
Hoshaw said she's pitched much better after she got past the front end of the season. While on the mend from an off-season foot injury, she had to get herself into fighting trim.
"I changed my mental approach and did a lot of extra work that helped me become a better pitcher," she said. "I threw on my own and got back in condition. ... I needed to get where I wanted to be so I could pitch a full game."
Saturday's pitching line, which includes no walks and three strikeouts, tells a lot about Hoshaw's outlook.
"My approach is to keep the ball low and hit the corners," she said.
Rarely will she throw a pitch down Broadway.
"Never twice in a row," she emphasized.
Hoshaw said leaving Bismarck with a split is tough after being so close to a sweep.
"It does leave a bad taste in my mouth. ... We're right there with a lot of conference teams. ... We're all fighting for the same goal," she said.
The Marauders have six regular-season games remaining, four on the road. They play host to Bemidji State at noon on Wednesday, visit Winona State next Saturday and move on to Upper Iowa next Sunday.
U-Mary and Sioux Falls are among six teams separated by just two games in a fight for sixth place in the NSIC. Ten teams advance to the league playoffs.