Walton’s three-run homer guides No. 22/21 Tech past Illinois, 6-2

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – With the game knotted in the bottom of the sixth, pinch hitter Sierra Walton belted her first home run of the season in timely fashion, giving No. 22/21 Virginia Tech softball a lead it would not relent, winning 6-2 on Friday at the Lexington Regional on the campus of Kentucky.

With the win at John Cropp Stadium, the Hokies (46-9, 20-4 ACC) advance to the 1-0 game, taking on No. 23/20 Kentucky (34-22, 14-10 SEC), which beat Toledo (29-27, 10-9 MAC) 7-2 afterword, on ESPN3.

The win moves Tech to 13-15 all-time in regionals and 4-2 in Lexington. The Hokies will play Saturday at noon ET on ESPN3, while the Fighting Illini (32-23, 9-14 B1G) will face the Rockets at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

In the circle, pitcher Keely Rochard (21-3) shined, tossing six innings with four strikeouts and sprinkling five hits. Carrie Eberle (25-6) came in the final inning and closed the door with a 1-2-3 inning.

QUOTING SENIOR SIERRA WALTON

On her three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning: 

“I did not know it was going to go out, I thought she was going to catch it,” Walton said. “Coach [Pete D’Amour] told me they were bringing in the rise ball pitcher, and that’s particularly who I’m better off hitting. I knew first pitch that was there for me, I was going to hit it, and I ended up putting a good hit on it.”

On the opportunity to make a big play as a senior:
“I would say my role the on the team is our energy person,” Walton explained. “These girls have worked so hard, and to be able to step up in a game like this as a senior in my final season, that is just something I will cherish forever. I’m super excited for us to play tomorrow.”

HOW IT HAPPENED

The game started as a pitchers’ duel early on, with each pitcher getting into a rhythm. But in the bottom of the second after a single through the right side by catcher Mackenzie Lawter, outfielder Al Velazquez roped a double down the left-field line, scoring Lawter on a bang-bang play at the plate to give Tech a 1-0 lead.

But, as was the story for most of the game, the Illini would fight back. In the top of the third, a solo home run down the left-field line tied it back up at 1-all. Now, back to the duel, no runs would score for the next couple innings until the bottom of the fifth.

Shortstop Caitlyn Nolan hit a high fly ball to right field, with the right fielder making the trek back and the ball tipping off her outstretched glove, bouncing to the wall to give Nolan her first triple of the season. The next at-bat, outfielder Emma Strouth hit a sacrifice fly to right, knocking in Nolan to have Tech regain the lead at 2-1.

Yet again, Illinois clawed back and tied it up the next inning, getting a run off a bases-loaded double play that second baseman Maddi Baseman made look easy, looking like Derek Jeter with touching second and jumping in the air and throwing across her body to first. Rochard would get the next out with a fly ball to right for the final out of her appearance.

The homer heard around the world (see tweet below) came in the bottom of the sixth. The frame started with a single up the middle by pinch hitter Cana Davis then Velazquez earned a walk. With two on and one out, the Illini made a pitching change and D’Amour made a chance as well, bringing in his senior who hadn’t had an at-bat in three weeks (March 27 vs. Boston College).

But a gut feeling led him to the decision, bringing in the Iowa native off the bench to face Illinois’ new pitcher, who wasn’t necessarily new to Walton, with them playing each other in high school. After taking a ball below the knees on the first pitch, Walton delivered the three-run blast on a rise ball that went over the fence in left, giving the Hokies a three-run lead, 5-2.

Tech would add on one more after Strouth roped one back to the pitcher that bounced off her, skirting away in the infield to allow outfielder Darby Trull to score, pushing the lead to 6-2.

And in the top of the seventh, Eberle came in and was lights out, getting a ground out, strikeout and another grounder to give the Hokies their first win in the NCAA Tournament since 2014.

NOTES

– Strouth, playing on her birthday, came up big for Tech with a team-high two hits on the day and an RBI.

– Nolan’s triple, the first of her four-year career out of 197 games, gives Tech nine this season.

– Tech won the walk battle over the Illini, as Rochard and Eberle combined for 0 while the Illini had six.

– The win marked D’Amour’s first win as a head coach at a regional and improved him to 1-2 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.

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