In one of the more exciting softball games of the season, UTEP and North Texas fans were treated to a contest that featured great defensive plays.
Two in particular stuck out as Sunday’s game ended in unique fashion. A pair of North Texas runners were thrown out at home by left fielder Kaitlin Ryder and right fielder Taylor Sargent on back-to-back singles. Sargent’s throw ended the contest and completed a series sweep on a clear and sunny Sunday afternoon at the Helen of Troy Softball Complex.
“They were perfect throws with great tags [by Linda Garcia]. Most of the week with Linda, we’ve been working on catching it and really drop stepping to make sure she’s getting that tag,” fifth-year UTEP head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk said. “So, it’s great that it paid off.”
With the defense making plays there was some offense during the afternoon as the Mean Green (22-20, 8-7 Conference USA) took an early 3-0 lead when Nicole Ochotnicki connected on a three-run home run during the second. However, the Miners (17-26, 7-11 C-USA) have been in this situation before and didn’t let it phase them. The Orange and Blue chipped away at the lead that was capped off with a Courtney Clayton go-ahead two-run single in the fifth inning.
The two teams combined for only 12 hits on Sunday after combining for 39 knocks on Saturday.
The Miners got on the board when Cortney Smith drew a leadoff walk in the third inning. Smith advanced to second on Garcia’s sac-bunt. Ariel Blair then singled with one out, while a throwing error to first base paved the way for Smith to score UTEP’s first run.
Kacey Duffield, whose bat has been lit during the weekend, sent a high-arching solo home run over left on the first pitch from UNT starter Hope Trautwein to get the Miners within a run at 3-2. It was Duffield’s second dinger of the weekend and fifth overall in 2018.
“[Kacey] has always had that power, it was just a matter of her getting comfortable and starting to build her confidence,” Echo-Hawk said.
The Miners took the go-ahead lead, 4-3, in the fifth when Clayton took a 1-1 pitch and singled through the left side with two outs that plated pinch runner Jordyn Quevedo and leadoff hitter Ariel Blair. Linda Garcia led off the bottom half by reaching on an error (Quevedo was then inserted as a pinch runner) and Blair had reached on a fielder’s choice.
Starting hurler Kira McKechnie (9-7) and the defense then took over the last two frames. McKechnie walked a batter in the sixth, but registered her third strike out of the game for the second out, while freshman starting short stop Ariana Valles used her strong arm to threw out a runner at first on a hard-hit ball in deep territory.
The seventh inning started with UNT leadoff hitter Katie Clark drawing a walk. Lindsay Gregory then used a sac-bunt to advance Clark to second. With one out on the board, Lacy Gregory singled to left, but Ryder snagged the ball in front of her and made a direct throw to Garcia to tag out Clark at home for the second out. Gregory would advance to second on the throw to get into scoring position. Déjà vu ensued when Sam Rea singled, this time to right, but Sargent emulated her teammate and threw out Gregory at home for the third and final out.
McKechnie earned her second win of the weekend, while throwing her third complete game of the season. McKechnie also improved to 3-2 in C-USA action.
“[Kira] told me yesterday that if I start her again, ‘I’ll finish the game’,” Echo-Hawk said. “She kept her word and did a great job.”
Duffield finished 2-for-3 with the solo home run and a double, while Blair, Clayton, McKechnie and Smith each tallied a hit.
The Miners have moved up the standings in C-USA and will continue league play at Middle Tennessee April 28-29. UTEP will finish the regular season in the Sun City against LA Tech May 5-6.
“We just have to keep going,” Echo-Hawk said about the remaining conference games. “We started to pick up a few weeks ago. We just need to make sure everything falls into place and maintain confidence.”
UTEP will host New Mexico on Monday, April 16. The Miners and Lobos will square off at 3 p.m. while it’s the second meeting between the two programs this season. UTEP shutout UNM, 8-0  on Feb. 17 as McKechnie and Devyn Cretz combined for a no-hitter in Las Vegas, Nv.
Smith went 2-for-3 with a home run, Clayton went 3-for-3 with three runs scored and Valles connected on a two-run triple that ended the contest in five innings.
Gallery by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta – Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post