Softball team wins conference championship

The UNA infielders, along with junior pitcher Hillary Carpenter (right), celebrate after recording an out against Union April 16. The Lions won the Gulf South Conference Championship May 1 after defeating Valdosta State 19-9.

The UNA softball team has accomplished many of their goals this season, and now they can add a Gulf South Conference tournament championship to the list.

After trailing 5-1 through three innings against Valdosta State, the Lions recorded 18 runs on 13 hits in the fourth inning, propelling UNA to a 19-9 victory and their first conference tournament championship since 1986.

In the midst of a record-breaking 49-5 overall record, winning the championship was important to the team, but a loss would not “make-or-break” the season, said UNA head coach Ashley Cozart.

“You always want to win the championship, but we had done so well all year long,” Cozart said. “We were regular season champs, and I kept saying one weekend doesn’t define the year we had, and they still proved me wrong.”

In their previous two tournament games, the Lions shut out both Delta State and Valdosta State, paving the way for their championship run.

Despite giving up a season high nine runs, the UNA offense was up to the challenge. Senior catcher Carmen Whitfield sparked the rally with a two-RBI double. Eight out of nine batters recorded at least one hit in the inning.

“I need to step up right here for my team,” Whitfield said. “I have to be the senior leader in this moment. The only thing that can stop us is ourselves. I don’t think there is a team in Division II that can stop us.”

Cozart said the rally represented the team’s resilience.

“We earned every single run we got,” Cozart said. “That just shows you the hard work and the focus and the confidence in this team.”

Senior third baseman Harlie Barkley, who went 4-4 with two home runs and five RBI’s in the championship game, earned the GSC’s Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament.

“She is a prime example,” Cozart said. “She didn’t get (regular season) all-conference, and she comes out here and shows them what’s up and gets MVP.”

Barkley fouled off six pitches in her final at-bat before hitting a three-run home run. That at bat exemplified Barkley as a player, Cozart said.

“She’s been that type of player all year long,” she said. “That’s just a senior getting up there with so much heart and not wanting it to be over.”

Seniors Brooklynn Clark and Courtney Shields, along with junior pitcher Raven Cole represented the Lions on the all-tournament team.

UNA remains the frontrunner for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA South Regional. As the top seed, the Lions are unofficially scheduled to host the first round of the NCAA playoffs May 5-7 at the UNA Softball Complex.