By Justin Jarrett
They lingered on the field and in the dugout well after the celebration on the other side of the field had died down, clinging to the final minutes of an era.
The University of South Carolina Beaufort softball team’s season ended — and with it, the careers of nine seniors who helped start the program four years ago — with consecutive losses to top-seeded Campbellsville (Ky.) in the USC Beaufort Bracket of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round. For the second time in three seasons, the Sand Sharks fell one win short of the NAIA Softball World Series.
But afterwards, the focus was much more on all this group had accomplished.
The nine seniors took part in 161 wins over the past four seasons. They won a regular-season Sun Conference championship, finished as regular-season runners-up three times, and won the Sun Conference Tournament twice, including a run of five straight victories to come through the loser’s bracket earlier this month.
Several times Wednesday it appeared they would add one more victory and one more accolade to the resume.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first inning of Wednesday’s first game, the Sand Sharks rallied to tie it on senior Maddie Byrd’s two-out, two-run double in the fifth. Haley Szpila’s solo shot in the sixth put the Tigers back on top, and USCB was down to its final out when Byrd delivered again, driving a two-run home run to the opposite field for a 4-3 lead.
The Sand Sharks couldn’t hold the lead, though, as Campbellsville’s Jacqueline Roof smacked a double to left-center in the bottom of the seventh to drive in the tying run and force extra innings.
USCB again broke on top in the 10th — again with two outs — when Haley Brown smashed her 14th home run of the season to match Byrd for the team lead. But the Tigers again answered, as Brianna Scott led off the bottom of the inning with a double and scored on Kristin Benton’s infield single. Erin Benton came through two innings later, singling through the left side to score Szpila with the winning run and force a winner-take-all rematch.
Campbellsville again grabbed the early lead in the finale, as Roof homered leading off the third and the Tigers plated two more runs in the inning for a 3-0 lead.
The Sand Sharks struck back in the fourth when senior Sammi Shaffren singled home a run and senior Shelby Zipperer was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, cutting the deficit to 3-2.
Another big inning did in USCB in the fifth, though, as two errors opened the door for four unearned runs, and the Sand Sharks couldn’t muster another late-inning rally.
For the second time, USCB’s juniors and seniors watched another team celebrate an NAIA Softball World Series berth on their field, but after an emotional team meeting, they set about a celebration of their own, albeit a more subdued one.
They celebrated a program that in four short years has grown from infancy to national prominence and nine seniors who made it possible. But the celebrations are over now and it is time to be thinking about the future. And that future holds much promise as the Sand Sharks start to look to next season with the help of rising senior outfielder Bri Kelnhofer from Beaufort. It is tough to lose, but it will make the win sweeter when it comes. And it will come for the Sand Sharks. Just not this year.