UTEP’s 2016 successful season came to an end after suffering a 10-4 loss to Southern Miss in the second round at the Conference USA Softball Tournament in Lovelace Stadium on Wednesday night.
UTEP finished with a 23-32 overall record, its most wins since 2010, while its 13-11 C-USA record was the first winning mark in program history.
The highlight of the day, along with sophomore Courtney Clayton winning the 2016 C-USA Player of the Year, was Kawehiokalani Netane, who tore her ACL a few weeks back. The senior was inserted as a pinch hitter against Southern Miss and singled to center field to end her playing career in the top of the seventh inning.
The Orlando, Fla., native connected on a 1-1 pitch and limped to first base as softball fans, players and coaches all applauded and cheered loudly as she took first base.
“Having her get her last at bat and hit the ball the way she did – you can’t ask for a more storybook ending to finish her career,” third-year head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk said. “I’m just so proud of her and glad she got the opportunity to do that.”
Prior, the Miners won their first postseason contest after rallying to defeat FIU, 5-4, for the first time since defeating Southern Miss 5-4 on May 8, 2009 in El Paso. Echo-Hawk also won her 200th-career game on Wednesday afternoon.
After Wednesday’s contests, the 2016 Miners set multiple single-season record. The Orange and Blue finished with the highest batting average in school history (.307), most hits (451), most double plays turned (30) and assists (533). The current squad also finished with the second-most doubles (85), second-most total bases (699), third-least errors (61) and fourth-most home runs (51).
“I can’t say enough about these kids, it was a great experience,” Echo-Hawk said. “We’ve done things that UTEP has never done and that’s a great foundation. But moving forward, I’m excited super excited because a lot of our core kids are underclassmen. So we have a good group coming back. Hopefully we can do it again.”
UTEP 5, FIU 4
Kaitlin Ryder recorded a career-high four RBI and Ariel Blair tallied her first career RBI, as No. 6 UTEP rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat No. 7 FIU.
UTEP ended the contest by turning another double play, its 29th prior to the Southern Miss game.
Earlier in the campaign, UTEP found itself down in all three contests at FIU and rallied to comeback to win. In game one, the Miners were down 1-0 – won 2-1, in game two, down 5-4 – won 7-6 and game three, down 3-0 – won 6-4.
The Panthers jumped on the Miners in the third, as Gabby Spallone connected on a three-run home run over right center, giving FIU a 3-0 advantage.
The Miners answered in the home half with two outs. Cortney Smith led off with her fourth double of the season. After a pair of fly outs in center, in which one advanced Smith to third, Blair singled on a slap hit that sailed over the third baseman, plating Smith for the Miners’ first run. Ryder followed with a hard double hit to deep center, scoring the speedy Blair from first base.
After a scoreless fourth in which both teams went down in order, FIU added another run in the fifth to go up 4-2. Stephanie Texeira used a sacrifice fly to right to plate Ashely Leon, who led off the inning with a triple.
Again, the relentless Miners would answer.
After relief pitcher Megan Kugelmann (7-6) forced a pair of quick outs in the home fifth, Clayton doubled to deep right center. It was Clayton’s league-leading 21st double of the season. Blair followed with a solid at bat, drawing her sixth walk of the season. Ryder then blasted her sixth jack of the season that hit the scoreboard, giving her squad a 5-4 lead.
“The kids are just resilient, going down three runs. That’s hard to comeback, especially how we’ve been hitting lately,” Echo-Hawk said. “They responded with two quick runs, then when [Kaitlin] Ryder hit that three-run home run, it just solidified how much fight this team has.”
In the seventh, Kaitlin Fifield (11-17) forced Leon to groundout to short for the first out. Texeira followed with a single through the right side, bringing up Spallone. She hit a ball that was lined out to Smith, who made a great diving grab to her right side and popped up to throw out Texeira at first to end the ball game.
“The way they ended the game with Cortney Smith and the diving play to make a double play, they have a ton of fight,” Echo-Hawk said.
UTEP 4, Southern Miss 10
Jade Rodriguez ended her UTEP career with an outstanding performance, as the senior centerfielder tallied her first career triple and recorded a career-high three RBI. But it wasn’t enough as the Miners fell 10-4 to the No. 4 Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss jumped on UTEP early, as Lauren Holifield connected on a grand slam in the second inning, putting the Golden Eagles up 5-0.
UTEP found itself down 9-0 after Southern Miss put up four more runs in the next two frames, highlighted by another Holifield home run, a solo shot.
But the Miners, playing relentless all season, answered in the top fifth with three runs to make the score 9-3. Rodriguez tallied a two-out, two-run triple to extend the contest, while Clayton followed with her own triple to plate Rodriguez.
“They didn’t quit,” Echo-Hawk said. “They just kept going at it, scoring runs to keep us in it. But Southern Miss is a great team. When you lose to a great team, it’s a little bit easier to take.”
Southern Miss tacked on another run in the bottom fifth, making the score 10-3.
But Rodriguez and the Miners wouldn’t go down without a fight as she plated Hope Moreno, who led off the seventh inning with UTEP’s 85th double.
Samantha Robles (18-10) earned the victory for Southern Miss, throwing 7.0 frames.
Southern Miss will advance to play No. 2 UAB on Thursday.