Katie Merchant nearly carried the University of Jamestown softball team to a Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament championship in 2019.
Two years later, and without senior star Morgan Geiszler in the lineup, Merchant helped shoulder the postseason burden yet again Wednesday in Fremont, Nebraska.
Jamestown's No. 2 pitcher turned in six innings of one-hit softball against GPAC tournament bracket host and No. 1 seed Midland University, before handing the ball over to Kat Miska in the seventh who locked down her first save of 2021.
The Jimmies upset the Warriors 1-0, finishing the opening day of the conference tournament with two victories after defeating Northwestern College 3-2 earlier in the day. The Jimmies can win the Midland Bracket on Thursday with a victory over either Midland or Northwestern at 2 p.m. and return to Saturday's championship series at the home of the higher seed.
"With Morgan not being with us, yes, it's a huge hit to our team, but it also has kinda fueled our fire," Merchant said. "We're all playing for her and we're (hoping) to get her back on the field as soon as possible."
Geiszler, batting .422 with 23 doubles and 40 RBIs from the leadoff spot, is in COVID-19 protocol and her status is unknown.
The Jimmies, however, defiantly pitched on.
Midland's Katlin Anders was stranded at second base after doubling with two outs in the first inning Wednesday, and the Warriors wouldn't collect another hit against Merchant on their home diamond. The UJ junior sat down the Warriors 1-2-3 in the second, third, fifth, and sixth innings by way of five ground-ball outs, three flyouts, and four strikeouts.
Merchant punched out four hitters over her final six outs of work -- five in total -- fanning Midland's Andrea Cespedes for the last out of the sixth.
"The approach was to try to jam them. Get them to roll some ground balls over, get them to pop up," said Merchant, who tossed 62 pitches. "Just let the hitters get themselves out and let my defense make the plays.
"The changeup was feeling good today. That was working really well to get those pop-ups."
Calling in the conference's best pitcher to shut the door in the seventh was an easy call for Jamestown softball coach Kevin Gall. After tossing 100 pitches and recording 12 strikeouts in UJ's win over Northwestern earlier in the day, Miska needed just 13 pitches to retire Midland in order for the fifth time in the game.
Midland, ranked 25th in the NAIA, shut out the Jimmies 5-0 and 10-0 last month in Jamestown.
"I try to be smart," said the affable Gall, needling himself. "If you can't win with the best pitcher in the GPAC out there, then you tip your cap to the other team.
"Any coach I think probably would've said: This is tournament time, we gotta shut 'er down."
Merchant was in complete agreement. It's possible Miska's closer role isn't finished for the week.
"Kat coming in was really a no-brainer," Merchant said. "She is a phenomenal pitcher and I have all the confidence in her to do her job, and she came in and shut 'em down and we got the win."
The Jimmies scratched across their lone run in the sixth unearned, after Jenna Remenar led off the inning by reaching on an error. A sacrifice bunt dropped down by Santino Zito moved a pinch-running Lauren Diemert to second and a single off the bat of Sydney Prussia plated Diemert from second with one out.
Remenar, normally Jamestown's second baseman, was penciled in at shortstop Wednesday, while Lorigan Steuben started at second in the absence of Geiszler.
But the game 2 story was all about Merchant, who improved to 13-7 on the year.
Merchant was used extensively during the 2019 postseason, going 4-3 in the circle in all seven games played by the Jimmies in the GPAC tournament that spring. Merchant logged 33 1/3 innings, and in her four victories she allowed just seven earned runs and recorded 13 strikeouts before the Jims fell 3-1 in the series championship to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
"She's pitched well enough to win all year and it was just kinda one of those deals where we had good defense behind her and she stepped up in tournament time like she's done in the past," Gall said. "It was fun."
Jimmies 3, Raiders 2
Coaches can be superstitious about a lot of things. In the fifth inning against Northwestern, it was a screaming electric guitar.
Let coach Gall explain.
"They were playing Van Halen on the PA system before the inning, so I thought, well, this is the inning."
The Jimmies sent seventh batters to the plate and Sydney Prussia drove in the go-ahead runs with a 2-RBI single smacked through the infield and into center field.
The inning accounted for all three of the Jimmies' runs, as well as three of the team's seven hits. Mariah Wick started things with a one-out single, and Jenna Remenar swatted an RBI double to left prior to Prussia's clutch two-out knock with runners on second and third.
"It was on 0-2 pitch as well," Gall said. "She probably over-swung on the first two pitches and then just contained herself and put the bat on it.
"She's got talent, she's just gotta contain her talent and try to be consistent."
The inning jump started a team adjusting to a lineup sans Geiszler. Prussia, UJ's left fielder, batted 3-for-6 on the day and drove in three of Jamestown's four total runs.
"Just try to put people in positions to make up for it," Gall said. "Anybody, even Morgan, can go out there and go 0-for-4. It's just a matter of keeping things simple and just doing what you can do and, good Lord willing, we can make good things happen."
Miska was her dominant self, allowing just two runs -- one earned -- on two hits and a pair of walks. Miska's ERA and opposing batting average have dipped to 0.94 and .163, respectively.
Merchant believes the Jimmies will be up to the task Thursday against either the Warriors or the Raiders. Northwestern and Midland play at noon.
"We just gotta come in and play our game, maybe put a couple more runs up on the board," Merchant said. "But our pitchers are gonna come in firing as always."
2021 GPAC Softball Tournament
(RV) University of Jamestown 3, Northwestern College (Iowa) 2
N 000 011 0 -- 2 4 0
J 000 030 X -- 3 7 2
Batteries: N, Kameryn Etherington and Emily Bosch. Kat Miska and Katie Reisdorfer. W-Miska. L-Etherington.
Highlights: N, Etherington 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 SO, 121 NP; Jordyn Kramer 1-3, 2B, R; Emily Strasser 1-2, 2B, RBI; Jessica Mouw 2-3, R.
J, Miska 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 12 SO, 100 NP; Jenna Remenar 1-4, 2B, RBI, R; Sydney Prussia 2-3, 2 RBI, SB; Kassi Ward 1-1, R, 3 BB, SB; Mariah Wick 2-3, R, 2 SB; Katie Merchant 1-2.
Records: Jamestown 32-13. Northwestern 26-17.
(RV) University of Jamestown 1, (25) Midland University 0
J 000 001 0 -- 1 5 1
M 000 000 0 -- 0 1 2
Batteries: J, Katie Merchant, Kat Miska (7) and Katie Reisdorfer. M, Aliyah Rincon and Ali Smith. W-Merchant. L-Rincon. S-Miska.
Highlights: J, Merchant 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 SO, 62 NP; Miska 1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 SO, 13 NP; Sydney Prussia 1-3, RBI; Gracie Fisher 2-3, Lauren Diemert 0-0, R; Santina Zito 1-2, Mariah Wick 1-3.
M, Rincon 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 7 SO, 93 NP; Katlin Anders 1-3, 2B.
Records: Jamestown 34-12. Midland 33-8.
G1: (4) Jamestown 3, (5) Northwestern 2
G2: (1) Midland 3, (8) Briar Cliff 0
G3: Jamestown 1, Midland 0
G4: Northwestern 4, Briar Cliff 2
G5: Northwestern (27-17) vs. Midland (33-8), noon
G6: Jamestown (34-12) vs. Winner G5, 2 p.m.
G7: If necessary (G6 winner/loser), 4 p.m.
Sioux City, Iowa
G1: (3) Concordia 5, (6) Doane 1
G2: (2) Morningside 6, (7) Mount Marty 5
G3: Concordia 9, Morningside 3
G4: Doane (25-23) vs. Mount Marty (19-19), 10 a.m.
G5: Winner G4 vs. Morningside (41-8), noon
G6: Concordia (31-9) vs. Winner G5, 2 p.m.
G7: If necessary (G6 winner/loser), 4 p.m.
At Highest Seed
(Best 2 of 3 Format)
G1: Midland Bracket Winner vs. Morningside Bracket Winner, 11 a.m.
G2: Midland Bracket Winner vs. Morningside Bracket Winner, 2 p.m.
G3: If needed, TBA.