• Young Harris junior Haylie Shope eyes a pitch from Texas A&M-Kingsville’s Saidi Castillo during the second round of the NCAA Division II National Championship Tournament in Denver, Co., on Friday. The 2016 Hiwassee Dam graduate had the Mountain Lions’ only run of the game, a solo homer in the top of the seventh. Ed Jacobs Jr./Contributing Photographer
    Young Harris junior Haylie Shope eyes a pitch from Texas A&M-Kingsville’s Saidi Castillo during the second round of the NCAA Division II National Championship Tournament in Denver, Co., on Friday. The 2016 Hiwassee Dam graduate had the Mountain Lions’ only run of the game, a solo homer in the top of the seventh. Ed Jacobs Jr./Contributing Photographer

Young Harris softball goes 2-2 in national championship tournament

    Denver – They might not have won it all, but the Young Harris Mountain Lions did not go down without a fight.
    The Mountain Lions (No. 8 seed, 44-20) went 2-2 in the NCAA Division II National Championship Tournament at Metropolitan State University’s Regency Athletic Complex in Denver, ultimately being bounced from the four-day showcase in a 6-0 loss to the No. 3-seeded and eventual national champions from Augustana, S.D., the Lady Vikings (59-11), on Saturday night.
    “Playing on that stage and playing some of the best softball in the country is what I, as well as all of my teammates, have worked for since we started the sport,” said Hiwassee Dam graduate Haylie Shope, Young Harris’ junior first baseman and cleanup hitter.
    In the program’s first-ever Division II national tournament appearance, Young Harris – specifically, Shope – started the tournament off with a bang Thursday. Pitted against the No. 1 seed, the Long Island University Pioneers (51-13), the Mountain Lions pounced to a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first, when Shope doubled home leadoff hitter Morgan Curley. The floodgates opened thereafter, with Young Harris compiling 17 hits – led by a 3-for-3, three-double, four-RBI game from 9-hole hitter Maddie Urquiola – in a 9-4 win.
    “Knocking in the first run of the tournament and being able to contribute and help my team was so exciting,” Shope said. “For the majority of the postseason, I had not been hitting well, so to come out my first at-bat of the national tournament and knock in a run was exciting.”
    The Lions ran into a tough pitcher in the second round Friday morning. Texas A&M-Kingsville (52-8) entered the tourney as the four-seed, but Saidi Castillo held Young Harris to just three hits in a 3-1 win. The lone Mountain Lions run against the Javelinas came in the top of the seventh, when Shope hit a solo homer to right-center field. She finished the 2019 campaign with a team-best 10 long balls to her credit.
    “Hitting a home run in the national tournament was also an exciting moment,” Shope said.
    “At the time, we were just trying to survive and do all we could to make  a comeback. Even though we didn’t pull it out, I was glad I could produce a run for my team and put us on the board.”
    The loss dropped Young Harris to the elimination bracket, where the program was pitted against the West Chester (Pa.) Golden Rams (40-22) on Saturday afternoon. Starting pitcher Nikkie Kovalsky threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout, while Shope drove in Curley on a sixth-inning single, as the Mountain Lions picked up a 4-0 win. Curley, Kristan Lizardi and Jill Torres each had two hits for Young Harris in the win.
    Young Harris had little time to recover, as the focus quickly shifted toward the match-up with Augustana just a few hours later. The Mountain Lions only mustered two hits in the loss.
    However, their third-place finish is the highest national tournament appearance in the school’s history.
    “Overall, it was an incredible experience. Maybe even once in a lifetime,” Shope said. “It’s hard to put into words exactly how it felt to step on to that field, knowing you were competing for a national title, but it is an experience that I will treasure and never forget.”
    The year might not have ended the way Young Harris players, coaches and fans wanted – especially after such a deep playoff run – but a 15-5 Peach Belt Conference record, two wins over division rival North Georgia in the Southeast Regional and a Super Southeast Regional title is nothing to be ashamed of.
    The Mountain Lions only graduate four players, with eight rising seniors – including Shope – ready to step in and lead Young Harris all the way in 2020.
    Augustana bested Texas A&M Kingsville in a 2-out-of-3 series (2-7, 6-4, 6-4) in the tournament finals. It is the first national championship for the Lady Vikings since 1991.

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