2024 Wingate vs Lenoir-Rhyne - NCAA Regional

5 Pivotal Moments That Led To Lenoir-Rhyne's First SAC Title Since 2013

5 Pivotal Moments That Led To Lenoir-Rhyne's First SAC Title Since 2013

Here’s a look back at five crucial moments to Lenoir-Rhyne’s charge to the SAC Championship Series title, their first since 2013.

May 15, 2024 by Leanza Pieroni

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When the call was made for a South Atlantic Conference softball team to step up and be a conference champion last weekend, the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears answered the call.

And now, they’re tussling with some of the top teams in Division II softball as official representatives of the SAC.

For the first time since 2013, Lenoir-Rhyne softball is officially the reigning SAC Championship Series winner, and the Bears (who earned the league’s automatic berth by virtue of winning the league tournament) have already won one game in the NCAA Southeast Regional, defeating Lander by a 10-2 margin in six innings Thursday

They’re scheduled to take on an old SAC foe in Wingate at 10:30 a.m. (ET) Friday — live and exclusively on FloSoftball — in their fifth matchup of the season, with the winner of that being in the driver’s seat with only one win needed from then on out to advance to the Super Regional round.

It was an epic charge for Lenoir-Rhyne to get to the SAC tourney crown, but it took some ups and downs for it to get there. With only the cream of the crop still left playing, the Bears had to get through a lot of adversity and make some big moments happen in order to get there in the first place.

Here’s a look back at five crucial moments to Lenoir-Rhyne’s charge to the SAC Championship Series title as the Bears now try to continue their season for as long as possible in the NCAA Tournament: 

Defeating North Georgia

If you’re a Division II softball team wanting to prove that you belong, there’s no better way to get the message across than by taking down the defending national champions — and that’s exactly what the Bears did (in dramatic fashion) in a nonconference matchup against then No. 1-ranked North Georgia in February. 

A powerhouse program, UNG has won over 1,000 games in the 23 seasons coach Mike Davenport has been in charge and romped to last season’s title after a 64-7 record, plus was already 8-1 on the season going into Feb. 17’s clash against Lenoir-Rhyne at a tournament the Nighthawks hosted. 

But the Bears, unintimidated by UNG’s pedigree, danced for 10 innings with the best of the best in D-II softball and came out of the game as winners. Nine frames of scoreless softball gave way to the tense 10th when the Nighthawks struck first in the top half. 

Lenoir-Rhyne responded to its back against the wall with a last-gasp surge as Lani Warren scored from third on an error, then Julia Mardigian had a walk-off RBI double to clinch it and give the program its first win over a No. 1-ranked team since 2020. Perhaps that game was the first spark toward Lenoir-Rhyne’s belief that it could stand atop its foes this season.

A 4-0 Start to SAC Play

A conference title can’t be won in mid-March, but it can certainly be lost. With that in mind, Lenoir-Rhyne’s flawless first two weekends of SAC play against Limestone and Coker were big in terms of getting off on the right foot and establishing right away that it wasn’t about messing around this season. 

The Bears opened the season against league foes by sweeping a home doubleheader against Limestone on March 7 by doing what they arguably do best — send the ball over the outfield fencing. Lenoir-Rhyne — which currently ranks fourth in all of D-II as of this writing with 85 homers on the season — went yard three times in its conference-opening twin bill, which saw it win 3-2 and 5-1 over the Saints

The wins didn’t stop just over a week later in another SAC doubleheader against Coker on March 16, and while the Bears’ offense did plenty of damage on its own with 10-0 and 10-1 wins in five innings apiece, the real star of the show from that double was pitcher Lauren Rakes, who tossed the third no-hitter of her career in the first game against Coker. 

Those two results extended Lenoir-Rhyne’s then-winning streak to 13 games, made head coach Shena Hollar two victories away from 1,000 in her career, and gave the Bears a big confidence boost for the long haul of the SAC slate.

Lani Warren’s Immediate Impact

A freshman catcher from Forest City, North Carolina, Lani Warren isn’t currently Lenoir-Rhyne’s leader in batting average, home runs, RBIs, or a variety of other offensive statistics. But as a freshman, her immediate emergence as one of the SAC’s best players was a major benefit to the Bears, and it was shown with accolades at the close of the regular season as she became the only Lenoir-Rhyne player to make the All-SAC First Team. 

Warren’s standout play came gradually as she had only tallied three RBIs through her first 12 college games and had a batting average under .200 in late February, but the production eventually came and came rapidly. 

She finished the regular season with seven three-hit games plus one of the best individual performances from a Bear all season on April 3 against Lincoln Memorial, when Warren smashed three hits (two of them home runs) for seven RBIs in a dominant 12-2 Bears victory. 

Entering Friday, Warren ranks third on the Lenoir-Rhyne team in batting average (.357), fourth in home runs (11), and third in RBIs (42), proving that she has plenty of all-around worth that would be desirable from any player, let alone a rookie figuring things out during their first season of college softball.

Beating Wingate When It Counted

Wingate and Lenoir-Rhyne, to put it lightly, have a lot of recent history between them on the softball diamond. In last season’s NCAA Southeast Regional, the Bulldogs and the Bears met three times, with Lenoir-Rhyne winning the first encounter to put Wingate on the ropes before the Bulldogs stormed back to win two games in a row, clinching the Regional title and sending them on to the D-II Super Regionals. 

It was a historic moment for Wingate, which made the school’s first-ever Super Regional appearance at the Bears’ expense, and that taste of glory made the Bulldogs even hungrier for more hardware for 2024 as they stormed to the SAC’s regular-season title for the second straight year, beating Lenoir-Rhyne twice in a doubleheader on March 20 en route to a 22-2 conference record. 

But with the tables turned in this year’s SAC Tournament and the Bulldogs now having the opportunity to eliminate the Bears in the postseason, it was instead Lenoir-Rhyne that rose to the occasion this time around and ensured that it was the one capturing a berth to the SAC Championship Series. In an April 28 doubleheader with no more room for error after losing their opening-round game to Tusculum, the Bears won 5-4 in 11 innings in the opener to set up a winner-take-all final on the same day. There, Lenoir-Rhyne responded to the pressure with clutch play in a 9-8 victory, scoring five runs in the top of the seventh inning to come back from a late deficit and limiting Wingate’s damage to two runs in the bottom half to clinch a stunning sweep and get one step closer to a long-awaited SAC Championship Series crown.

Being Clutch In Close Games

Notice anything about those two postseason scores between Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate? They were both one-score games that the Bears won — a key component of their postseason success in which they stayed cool when things got tight and successfully navigated all sorts of chaotic situations to keep on trucking along in postseason play. 

Starting with Lenoir-Rhyne’s first game back (against Catawba on April 27) from its opening-round defeat in the SAC Tournament, the Bears embarked on a six-game winning streak to the SAC tourney championship in which all six games were decided by one run. Three of those games (against Catawba, the first game against Wingate, and Game 1 against Anderson in the Championship Series) went into extra innings, and on all three occasions, it was Lenoir-Rhyne who stood tall as the winning team and the one who earned the opportunity to advance or put more pressure on a series opponent. 

The final one-run victory of the bunch — a 3-2 win at Anderson last Sunday which officially sealed the deal for Lenoir-Rhyne’s first SAC Championship Series triumph in 13 years — saw Warren go long for a homer and Madison Wilson go all seven innings in the circle while striking out four, both of which helped the Bears official book their spot in the NCAA Tournament for the 16th time in program history. 

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