DeLand, Fla. -- The Stetson University softball program waited 23 years for this moment. And Gardner-Webb made the Hatters sweat it out until the very end. But when Melody Harrell's fly ball landed in Amy Joyce's glove to finalize the 6-4 victory, Stetson had captured the 2007 Atlantic Sun Conference Softball Championship and earned its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Hatters (44-20) had to win twice on Saturday and cruised to a 3-0 victory in game one behind a one-hit shutout by Erica Demers. The Hatter sophomore returned to the circle for game two, earning another win after pitching the first four innings. Heather Colding worked the final three innings to nail down her first career save.
"We knew we had to win two in a row today, and after the first win I could feel the tide turning," Stetson coach Frank Griffin said. "But I can't say enough about Gardner-Webb. They played so well and just kept coming at us. No one person won this tournament for us - it was a total team effort."
In the decisive game, Stetson jumped out to early 3-0 and 5-1 leads before the Bulldogs rallied. After a two-run home run by Lindsey Whitfield in the fourth cut the deficit to 5-3, GWU put two on with two out in the bottom of the fifth. That's when tournament Most Valuable Player and second baseman Nicole Forbes made a spectacular diving catch to rob Harrell of at least an RBI single.
"I thought the play of the tournament was that catch by Nicole," Griffin said. "She had absolutely no chance to make the play and somehow did the undoable."
During the tournament, Forbes went 12-for-21 at the plate (.571) and hit a key two-run home run in the first game Saturday.
"It feels great to do something for this program that has never been done before," Forbes said. "From the beginning of the year we were focused on winning the conference tournament. I just wish our seniors from last year could have been a part of this."
Demers (21-5) was dominant in game one, retiring the final 20 batters she faced after a one-out single in the top of the first. She then retired six straight batters to start game two before surrending a solo home run to Joanna Ward.
"I knew I had to come out strong for the team today," Demers said. "We got some runs early but they are a good hitting team so it was good we kept scoring. We knew as a pitching staff we could get it done. I am so happy for our seniors and for Hoss [Heather Colding]."
Colding allowed one run and five hits over the final three innings, and had to work out of a difficult jam in the bottom of the seventh. Haley Scism singled to lead off the inning and pinch runner Lindsay Cox went to third on a one-out double by Abbie Looper. After a visit to the mound by Griffin, Colding struck out Jessi Polk and got Harrell to fly out to Joyce in center.
"Erica did an awesome job today," Griffin said. "I was determined to let her go as long as I could, and I did. Hoss got to rest in game one, and came in and did a superb job there at the end."
Demers finished the tournament with a 4-0 record and a 1.31 ERA.
Offensively, Sherrel Fountain had four hits and four runs on the day to help lead the offense, and Amanda Lindsey hit a solo home run early in game two. But it was a suicide squeeze bunt by Andrea Migliori in the top of the fourth inning that led to two key insurance runs.
"I made up my mind this morning that I was going to force Gardner-Webb to beat us, and I was going to be aggressive on the bases," Griffin said. "Fortunately for us it worked out."
Migliori, who joined Forbes, Demers, and Lindsay Wightman on the all-tournament team, drove in her 57th and 58th runs of the season to break the school single-season RBI record.
"We were really pumped up coming into today, much more so than yesterday," Migliori said. "We knew if we scored some runs that our pitchers would shut them down, and they did."
The conference title is the fourth all-time for Stetson, and the first since winning three straight as members of the New South Women's Athletic Conference from 1986-88. An automatic NCAA tournament berth did not accompany those titles. Stetson's fastpitch softball program began competition in 1985.
"I don't want us to be satisfied just making it to regionals," Griffin said. "I want us to go there and perform well, and then let the best team win."
Stetson will learn its destination during the NCAA selection show on ESPNNews from 3 p.m. - 4 p.m. on Sunday. The Hatters will watch the pairings announcement at Beef O'Brady's in DeLand.