Friday, May 13, 2016

St. John's peaking at the right time thanks to Kvilhaug's team-first philosophy

                               Photo Credit: Geno Green

Momentum in sports can lead any team to do things that might have seem impossible in another world.

For the No. 3-seeded St. John's Red Storm (29-19), the power of producing has them on an eight-game winning streak and more importantly, one game closer to repeating as BIG EAST Softball Tournament champions for the first time in school history.

Friday's 10-0 throttling in five innings came at the perfect time for St. John's after falling short all three times to No. 2-seeded Villanova (32-18) in regular-season play.

"We are a completely different team we were earlier in the season," St. John's coach Amy Kvilhaug said. "We had a very injury-ridden season and the fact that we are in this position now is a testament to the players who stepped up, despite being in back-up roles before."

Regular season games can provide a good template for analysis, but Kvilhaug knows the overall product is the ultimate judge.

"It's not how you start, but how you finish," Kvilhaug said. "Right now, we are in the bottom of the sixth starting to finish up pretty strong."

McKenzie Murray (7-4) picked up the win for St. John's with a one-hitter, but deferred to her teammates instead.

"A ton of spectacular plays could have been hits and I have to thank the other eight [position] players behind me," Murray said.

Kvilhaug's philosophy has kept the team grounded this season and is paying off when it matters the most in the month of May.

"I am always asked what the strength of our team and I always say the strength of our team is the team," Kvilhaug said. "There's no superstars on this team and it goes along with the philosophies our team this season."

Game Summary:

Yvonne Rericha revved things up with an RBI single to open the scoring for St. John's in the top of the first inning.

After Villanova failed to produce a run in the bottom half of the inning, BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year Kate Poppe (21-12) hit back to back batters, which set up a three-run triple with two outs by St. John's Brittany Garcia to go ahead 4-0.

"We knew Villanova was going to come out and play hard, so we had to bring it knowing we lost to them three times pumped us up even more and gave us an opportunity to open up the gates," Garcia said.

In an instant, Poppe would be pulled from the game after one and two-thirds of an inning, but the onslaught continued.

Left-handed pitcher Jordan Prutzer entered the game for the Wildcats, but Krystal Puga's RBI double finished off a 4-run second inning for the Red Storm to go ahead 5-0 and would not look back by scoring five runs over the next three innings.

Looking Ahead:

St. John's and No. 4-seeded Butler meet in the championship game on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. CT, FS2). Both teams fared 1-1 against each other in a two-game series on April 9-10 in Queens, N.Y.

After Butler's seven-run fifth inning highlighted a 10-6 win over top-seeded DePaul in the first semifinal, Kvilhaug knows anything can happen and never to underestimate any opponent.

"Butler is a scrappy little team who fought their butts off to be here and we definitely do not take that team lightly,"  Kvilhaug said.

Kvilhaug also sees preparation for Butler's pitching in a different light than zeroing on Villanova's Poppe.

"Their pitching staff is similar to ours with having two good pitchers, unlike Villanova having the Player of the Year [in Poppe], but in this case, we have to pitching staff to avoid innings spiraling into multiple runs."

On top of being crowned the tournament champion, the winner will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Women's Softball Tournament.

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Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.