Members of Brenau women’s softball pose for a group picture after defeating Coastal to seal their undefeated season during the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)
Members of Brenau women’s softball pose for a group picture after defeating Coastal to seal their undefeated season during the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Golden Tigers Softball is First Undefeated Team in SSAC Conference Play with Sweep of Coastal Georgia

Apr. 21, 2017
Kristen Oliver

The Brenau University Golden Tigers softball team on Friday became the first program to go undefeated in the Southern States Athletic Conference regular season with a doubleheader sweep of the College of Coastal Georgia at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletics Park.

Brenau pitcher Eli Daniel, a freshman from Locust Grove, Ga., pitches in the first inning as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. Brenau defeated Coastal 2-1. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Brenau pitcher Eli Daniel pitches in the first inning as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC). (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

The doubleheader also gave Golden Tigers freshman Eli Daniel of Locust Grove, Georgia, two more chances to make a case that she is the best pitcher in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics women’s softball. The Tigers ace pitched the entire seven innings in Game 1 and came in for two innings of relief in Game 2, picking up her NAIA-leading 37th and 38th wins and recording 14 strikeouts to move her total for the season to 501, also tops in the nation.

With the perfect 26-0 conference record, the Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the nation, finish regular-season play at 47-5 and 21-4 at home. The team clinched the 2017 regular-season conference championship on Tuesday. The Tigers next travel to Decatur, Alabama, for the SSAC postseason championship Thursday-Saturday, April 27-29.

The Golden Tigers, who have already wrapped up the top seed in the tournament, open play at 4 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the day’s earlier matchup between the eighth and ninth seeds. With a win, Brenau would advance to a noon Friday matchup against the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game, while a loss would send them to the loser’s bracket to face a yet-to-be-determined opponent.

This year marks Brenau softball’s final season in the SSAC as the school’s athletics programs move to full-time competition in the Appalachian Athletic Conference in 2017-18.

Brenau head coach Devon Thomas high fives players after his team defeated Coastal clinching an undefeated season during the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Brenau head coach Devon Thomas high fives players after his team defeated Coastal clinching an undefeated season during the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC). (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

“I’ve been here 15 years and this year has really been something,” said head coach Devon Thomas. “In this conference, nobody has ever been through undefeated. To have that, to have this great season with a great team that’s now No. 2 in the country, it’s something. I’m so proud of them to finish off the season 26-0, and in such dramatic fashion.”

The Tigers performance beat the previous SSAC regular-season record of 25-1 set by Auburn University at Montgomery in 2014.

Perfection, however, did not come easily for the Golden Tigers. The visiting Mariners kept the scores tight and the Tigers had to come from behind to win both games – 2-1 in the opener and 3-2 in the nightcap.

In Game 1, with two outs and bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning, junior catcher Courtney Kenney of Jefferson, Georgia, slammed a hard grounder, which the Mariners’ shortstop bobbled long enough for Chelsea Dale to slide into home for the winning run.

“Coming in with two outs I was really nervous,” Kenney said. “It was a make-or-break point, but it was a great feeling to get that hit and do that for my team. And for us to be undefeated – it’s amazing.”

In Game 2, Tigers starter Jessica Rathje, a sophomore from Glencoe, Alabama, gave up two runs in the third inning but kept the Mariners scoreless in the fourth and fifth. In the top of the sixth, Thomas went to Daniel, who gave up one walk in the inning but struck out three batters, which put her at 500 strikeouts for the season.

The Tigers’ rally began when junior catcher Savannah Moore hit in a certain ground-out to third, but the Mariners’ first baseman bobbled the ball and Moore reached first safely. Following a flyout to center, Shelton Kendrix, a freshman from Jefferson, Georgia, walked then advanced to second on a wild pickoff throw from the Mariners’ catcher. Kelsey Payne got a two-out hit to left, scoring pinch runner Lauren Sanders from second and advancing Kendrix to third.

Brenau outfielder Tabitha Morrison, a junior from Dawsonville, Ga., makes it to first base as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. Brenau defeated Coastal 3-2 sealing their undefeated season. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Brenau centerfielder Tabitha Morrison, a junior from Dawsonville, Ga., makes it to first base as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC). (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

With runners at second and third, freshman centerfielder Tabitha Morrison from Dawsonville, Georgia, drove them both in with a solid double into center field.

Daniel did not dawdle when she returned to the mound to finish the seventh. She struck out the first batter she faced to edge her total up to 501 for the season, then forced a grounder to second and a pop foul to shallow right that freshman Caty McCauley from Carnesville, Georgia, easily handled to put the Tigers into the record books.

Daniel entered the day averaging 12.61 strikeouts per game. Throwing her 501st put her No. 2 all-time in the NAIA for a single season behind only Oklahoma City’s Lily LaVelle, who finished with 540 in 2012. With the postseason up next for the Golden Tigers, LaVelle’s historic mark is still within in reach for Daniel.

“I can’t even put it into words,” said the biology major from Locust Grove, Georgia. “I am ecstatic right now. I honestly can’t believe that just happened. I am so confident in my team, and now I just hope we come out on top in the tournament next week, like I know we can.”

A three-time national pitcher of the week, Daniel finished the day with a 0.50 ERA and .122 opponent batting average, both tops in the NAIA this season for pitchers with a minimum of 100 innings pitched.

Brenau outfielder Mackenzie Oliver Mullis, a senior from Carnesville, Ga., warms up between innings as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletic Park, Friday, April 21, 2017. Brenau defeated Coastal 2-1. (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Brenau outfielder Mackenzie Oliver Mullis, a senior from Carnesville, Ga., warms up between innings as Brenau women’s softball takes on College of Coastal Georgia in Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC). (Photo/ John Roark, for Brenau University)

Outfielder Mackenzie Oliver Mullis and infielder Autumn Conaway rank second and third, respectively, for batting average (.415 and .423) in the SSAC.

Mullis also leads the conference in runs scored (45) and stolen bases (38), while Conaway, a freshman from Guyton, Georgia, ranks third in hits (66).

“It is actually unbelievable,” said Mullis, a senior from Carnesville, Georgia. “We’ve been good in the past, but we’ve never been this good. I was out last year, so for me to come back my senior year and really go out with a bang has been awesome.”

Junior outfielder Kelsey Payne of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is tied for third in the conference with five home runs and is fourth in RBIs (35).

This season has been a homecoming of sorts for Thomas and the team as they play on the new Pacolet Milliken Field at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletics Park, located in the New Holland community about two miles from Brenau’s Gainesville historic campus. Thomas, who has amassed a 453-189-1 record in 15 seasons at Brenau, is from New Holland.

“All in all, we’ve had great support from the university,” Thomas said, “great parents, great players, this great facility and a great season.”

General inquiries: info@brenau.edu, +1-770-534-6299 or +1-800-252-5119 | Admissions: admissions@brenau.edu, +1-770-534-6100 or +1-800-252-5119 ext. 6100