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Bulldogs reach Final Four after Long’s return

OXFORD, Ala. — A last-minute return by a legendary coach, a first-inning outburst, and a Herculean pitching performance by Anna Avant paved the way for Mississippi Gulf Coast to be one of the last four teams standing at the NJCAA Division II Softball Championship.

The seventh-seeded Bulldogs knocked out fifth-seeded Highland in the consolation bracket semifinals Thursday night with a 5-3 win at Choccolocco Park.

“Final four is so good,” Gulf Coast coach Kenneth Long said. “This team has battled back so many times. So many comebacks. We’re getting rewarded for that play. That was super right there.”

Next, Gulf Coast will play Louisburg, which beat Des Moines Area late Thursday. The Bulldogs are scheduled to play at 1 p.m. Friday after Jones and Phoenix play in the winner’s bracket championship game at 11 am. That loser will play at 4 p.m. against the winner of the second game.

Start times were moved up an hour late Thursday to try to beat threatening weather. All games are streamed at https://www.njcaa.org/network.

Long made a comeback of his own. He missed the first game of the day, an 8-2 extra-inning win over six-seeded Highland, after being struck by a kidney stone attack. He felt fine at breakfast in the hotel lobby, but when he went back to the room, he felt an unfortunately familiar twinge that grew into something unbearable.

He was at the hospital for tests and medication, and he walked onto the field less than five minutes before the first pitch of the nightcap.

Gulf Coast promptly put up four runs in its first at-bat. Rakeya Travis (So., Poplarville/Poplarville) had an RBI groundout, and K.K. Agner (Fr., Horn Lake/Magnolia Heights) followed with an RBI single.

After a Briana Shores (So., Richland/Richland) double, Hannah Herrington (So., Enterprise/Enterprise) hit a top-spin chopper at the shortstop. She was playing deep and had to retreat further. When the ball kicked away, it let two runs score.

“We jumped on them,” leadoff hitter Alexis Laughlin said. “We don’t really do that a lot, but, hey, that’s what we did. We kept shutting them down. They left a bunch of runners on, and we kept getting outs.”

Highland (46-9) got two back in the bottom of the inning, but Avant got a strikeout and fly out to strand two runners. That would keep happening, even as she plowed through her second complete game of the day.

Avant’s pitch count would to 230 on the way to picking up two wins. She didn’t seem fazed by the workload at all.

“It feels great,” she said. “Physically, it’s a little sore, but mentally, I’m ready to go. I’m telling myself it can hurt after the tournament. I was just trying to think of one inning at a time, one pitch at a time.”

She followed a 125-pitch, 84-strike effort against Highland with a 111-pitch, 67-strike night. She threw 15 innings on the day, allowing 15 hits, but only two earned runs. She struck out 10 and only walked one.

Travis saved a big inning in the second. With the bases loaded and one out, she fielded a hot groundball, tagged the runner from second and completed the double play across the infield.

After the Scotties and Bulldogs exchanged runs in the third and fourth, Avant pulled another Houdini in the fifth. Back-to-back leadoff singles, followed by a sacrifice bunt, put runners at second and third.

Avant fielded a dribbler back to the mound, pumped to first and turned to catch the runner at third straying too far. She prevented the run, then struck the next batter out looking to strand two.

“I can’t say enough about that kid. I asked her tonight before the game if she was going to be OK. It was really hot today. She said, “Coach, I promise I’m good. I promise I’m good.” She said it three times. And she was good.”

Avant retired six of the last seven batters, and the Bulldogs got to celebrate

“It means a lot to be top four out of tons of JUCOs,” Laughlin said. “It’s a lot to come here and be one of 16, but to be top-four means a lot.”

Shores had three hits, and Laughlin and Agner had two each.

For more information on MGCCC’s 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.