Former Lee County softball star and 2007 Herald Player of the Year Sam Posey, far right, races home and into the arms of her elated teammates last Thursday after belting a walk-off, solo home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to lift Valdosta State past Augustana during the Division II National Championship Tournament and keep their season alive after the No. 1 seed Lady Blazers were stunned in their opener a day earlier and had to fight their way out of the losers’ bracket. Valdosta State then won four straight games to capture the school’s first national title. (Valdosta State University/Special to The Herald)
VALDOSTA — It was a no-doubter, the kind you dream about hitting as a kid — the kind you will one day tell your kids about.
There was Sam Posey, former Lee County softball star and 2007 Herald Player of the Year, standing at the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning in a do-or-die game in the Division II National Championship Tournament for Valdosta State.
Posey knew the Lady Blazers were a wrong move away from seeing their hopes and dreams dashed after a season during which they spent much of it ranked No. 1 in the nation and came in as the top seed — and heavy favorites to win it all.
But a stunning Game 1 loss to UC-San Diego put all of that in jeopardy, and in Game 2, VSU suddenly found itself locked into a gritty battle with Augustana, heading to the 11th inning of a 4-4 tie game where no one wanted to blink first.
So Posey closed her eyes and swung.
“It was the best swing of my life,” she said. “Did I know it was gone when I hit it? Definitely.”
The walk-off home run wasn’t just a blast to left center that woke up the entire Lady Blazers softball team, it propelled them to four straight wins and eventually an improbable Division II National Championship two days later after scratching and clawing their way out of the losers’ bracket. It was a blast that added one more championship trophy to the South Georgia community famously dubbed “TitleTown” in 2008 by ESPN.
It was the first one in school history for VSU softball, a program that’d been on the cusp of greatness since it was started nearly two decades ago.
“It was incredible,” Posey said Tuesday during a telephone interview with The Herald. “We not only won the first national title in softball, but we became the school’s first female program to win a national championship in any sport and the first from our conference (Gulf South). It was a dream ride, and I think (Tuesday) after waking up and finally catching up on sleep — because we haven’t slept a lot since winning it Saturday night — it really started to sink in what we’d done and how we’d done it.”
What Posey, the younger sister of Major League Baseball star and Leesburg native Buster Posey, had accomplished was not lost on anyone around the Posey household, which has seen its share of amazing accomplishments over the years — although mostly from the Posey boys up until last week. Buster, the 2008 national college player of the year at Florida State, took the majors by storm in 2010 when he was called up midseason, then won the NL Rookie of the Year award and ultimately led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series. Middle brother Jack was also a star at FSU, and youngest brother Jess just recently wrapped up a great senior season at Lee County and is headed to the University of Georgia.
But what Sam Posey did last week is a feat all her own — and her brothers will likely never hear the end of it.
“The teasing is coming,” Sam’s father, Demp, said with a laugh. “It’s coming. Once the family gets back together after Buster’s season, knowing Sam, she’ll let them know she did something they never did. For all those boys have accomplished, they never won a state title or a national title. I just know she’ll say something like, ‘I hit a home run and helped us win a national championship. Did you do that? I don’t think so.’ ”
Sam joked that she’ll only start in on Buster, Jack and Jess if “they come at me first.” She said that each brother reached out to her individually from the first game until the last one to give her words and encouragement and express how proud they were of her.
“Jess called me and was talking about us all week on Twitter, and Jack called me and later texted me after we won, telling me, ‘Good thing I taught you everything you know!’ ” she said. “And Buster, who played a game the day we won it, called me afterward during our closing ceremonies and we talked forever about the whole tournament, and he just kept congratulating me.
“The funny thing about how Buster found out, though, was that he was being interviewed after his game that day, and I guess some of the (beat writers) for the Giants were kind of following what we were doing at nationals. And in the middle of the interview, one of them says to him, ‘Buster, I don’t know if you heard yet, but we just got word that your sister’s softball team at Valdosta State just won the Division II National Championship.’ And he was like, ‘That’s awesome! I’ve gotta go call her.’ So that was pretty cool.”
Sam then paused and let out a big laugh, adding: “I doubt he cried or anything like I did when I watched him and the Giants win the World Series, but I didn’t expect him to. After all, that’s kind of a girl thing.”
Buster may not have shed any tears, but he did say Tuesday that he felt an enormous amount of pride for his little sis.
“I’m very happy and proud of Sam,” he wrote in a text message to The Herald. “She had a great collegiate career and finished on the highest possible note.”
But Sam, a senior third baseman, didn’t do it alone, even if it was her home run that provided the crucial momentum the Lady Blazers needed to reach the goal they set out to accomplish on opening day four months ago.
'Just because you lost a game, doesn’t mean it’s over — crazier things have happened’
Those were the words spoken by Valdosta State A.D. Herb Reinhard as the team bus pulled into the hotel after the Lady Blazers’ Game 1 loss last Thursday — and it was a speech that Sam Posey said was the beginning of the turnaround.
“We were all really upset. We couldn’t believe we’d lost our first game. UC-San Diego came in with more losses than anyone in that tournament. We knew we could beat them,” she recalled. “But just as we pulled up and were about to get off, Mr. Reinhard stood up and asked everyone to wait a minute, that he had something to say. He said, ‘Girls, this is not over. I’ve seen it happen before; teams can win from the losers’ bracket. Just because you lost a game, doesn’t mean it’s over — crazier things have happened. Now let’s go out tomorrow and do what we came to do.’
“When he was done, everyone on the bus was in tears. But we were inspired. And we believed. We believed the dream wasn’t over.”
But that dream took a major hit Thursday when UC-San Diego jumped on Valdosta State and All-American ace Alana Hadley for six runs in the first inning — by far Hadley’s worst outing of the season — en route to a 7-2 upset that left the Lady Blazers shell-shocked.
After all, VSU, which swept its opponents in regionals and super regionals without even really being tested, came in with a staggering 52 wins on the season — far more than any other team in the tournament — and just four losses. Plus, VSU was used to being the fast starter — “All year, we were the team that would come out and put up six runs right away and bury teams, so it stunned us,” Posey said — but UC-San Diego turned the tables quickly.
“After our A.D.’s speech we got together after dinner and did our daily devotions, which was something we’d been doing after games all year because everyone on the team is very religious,” Posey said. “We sat down with our team chaplain, Marty McGhin, and talked everything out. We read passages from the Bible, we aired out our feelings — where we went wrong in that first game and what we could do to be better — and we all prayed.
“By the end, everyone was crying again, but we felt so rejuvenated. There were no more doubts among anyone. It was our best devotion of the season.”
The team then headed to bed, but sleep was limited after such a long and emotional day. They had to be back up around sunrise and at the field by 8 am. for their 10 a.m., do-or-die game against Augustana.
But then disaster struck again, and it once again came in the very first inning.
Augustana rocked VSU starter Courtney Gunby for three runs in the top of the first, putting the Lady Blazers in another hole and briefly shaking their confidence. But VSU would rally and score two runs in the bottom of the second, then fall behind, 4-2, after Hadley, who had come on in relief, was called for an illegal pitch — the first of 19 she was penalized for during the four-day tournament.
Posey said Hadley, who hadn’t been called for an illegal pitch in 56 regular-season or playoff games and certainly hadn’t changed her motion by the time nationals rolled around, had to feel like she was in the Twilight Zone. The senior was also called for several illegal pitches in Game 1 against UC-San Diego, but the one against Augustana was far more costly: it turned a one-run game in the fourth inning into a two-run hole.
In college softball, an illegal pitch is similar to a balk in baseball in that a runner gets an extra base when one is called, and Hadley’s latest “illegal pitch” walked in Augustana’s fourth run.
“She wasn’t doing anything different. The explanation the third-base ump, who was the one who kept calling it, gave (our head) coach (Thomas) Macera was that she wasn’t dragging her foot across the rubber as she released the ball, and she was leaping,” Posey explained. “I mean, she’s an All-American — she knows how to pitch, and do it legally. Our fans were going crazy, our coach got a warning for arguing and all our players were just shaking our heads. We couldn’t believe it. It really felt like (the umps) were out to get us.”
The adversity was just piling on the Lady Blazers, but their never-say-die-attitude and resiliency came alive again in the sixth when they drew within one run, 4-3, but could get no closer in that inning. That put VSU down to its final three outs in the bottom of the seventh, setting the stage for the first hero of the day, Sarah Vaughn.
With runners on first and second and two outs (yes, VSU was down to its final out), Vaughn — a pinch-hitter — smashed a single up the middle that scored former Darton College star Natalia Morozova from second base to tie the game at 4-4 and send it to extras.
“Sarah has come up with clutch hit after clutch hit all year for us, and she did it again right there,” Posey said. “That’s our team. We fight to the end, even down to the very last out.”
After three scoreless innings, Posey came to the plate, knowing she needed to make something happen.
And she did.
‘I was just thinking base hit — not home run’
Posey is the first to admit that when she stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th, she had been struggling.
“I had one hit all day in that game, a little single, and I struck out twice on bad pitches that I had no business swinging at, which is rare for me because I don’t strike out a lot,” said Posey, who came into nationals batting .364 — third on the team — with seven home runs. “So I was struggling, and to make things more difficult, Augustana was bringing in their ace to face me. Coach Macera just told me that he noticed they were pitching in on me and the ball was breaking around my hands, so he told me to step off the plate a little bit. And when I did, I saw what he was talking about — her first pitch was down and in for a ball.”
Ahead 1-0 in the count, Posey stepped out of the batter’s box, took a deep breath and stepped back in, knowing she had a good idea right where pitch No. 2 was going to be.
But was she thinking home run?
“Definitely not,” she said. “I was just thinking base hit — not home run.”
But a home run is exactly what she got.
“I put the bat over the middle of the plate and swung away,” said Posey, who made national headlines on ESPN last season when she hit for the home run cycle in one game against Albany State. “I think this one went about 220 (feet) or so — right over the fence in left center field. As soon as it left my bat, my teammates poured out of the dugout, and before I knew it I was halfway around the bases headed home.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve never run that fast in my life.”
It was Posey’s first walk-off of her softball career, and it brought an overjoyed Demp and Sam’s mother, Traci, to their feet as they watched it all unfold from the stands in Louisville.
“I knew it was gone as soon as she hit it,” Demp said. “We were sitting about halfway down the third-base line, and as soon as it came off her bat, we knew it was out. Traci and I have watched Buster, and Jack and Jess have some big hits over the years in big games, but Sam’s is right up there as one of the biggest.
“You just always feel so good for them when they have a moment like that because they all work so hard.”
Macera, meanwhile, said he wasn’t sure if he was more excited for his team or for Posey.
“She made the adjustment we talked about, she listened and it paid off. She’s one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever had, and that was such a huge moment for her, for us, for everyone,” said Macera, who was making his fifth trip to nationals, having won two titles before this one with Lynn University and Thomas University — so he knew what it would take to get another. “I wasn’t going as crazy as the rest of the girls when she hit it — I have to be more subdued — but inside I was going nuts. To see her struggle was frustrating for her, I know. But to see her come out of that, and to hit a home run to keep our season alive in (what could’ve been her final at-bat of her career), was just so special. I was so happy for her.”
Of course, all Posey’s HR did was extend the season by one more day. There was still work to be done later the day in Game 3 against Southern Connecticut.
But in the minds of Posey and the rest of the Lady Blazers, the national title was now theirs for the taking.
“We felt like we were back. Back to being the same team that came in No. 1 and (was 52-4),” she said. “We felt like we were back on track, and it was our time.”
Four up, four down
Games 3, 4 and 5 now seem like a blur, Posey says.
The Lady Blazers were back at the field once again at 8 a.m. that Friday, first to face Southern Connecticut, which they dispatched of easily, 6-3, thanks to a Morgan Johnson three-run homer.
Macera said if teams in the tournament didn’t know VSU was the one to beat after that game, they weren’t paying attention.
“Our defense is what led us all year, but the fact that our lineup — any one of these girls — could hit one out of the park at any moment is the reason we still had a great shot against any team we played,” he said. “Look at Sam, she weighs — what — a buck-twenty-five, soaking wet? And she smoked one.”
To further illustrate that point, in Game 4 later that afternoon against Kutztown, it was Courtney Albritton’s turn to play hero as she jacked a homer in the first inning that Macera said “took the wind right out of Kutztown. You could see it in their faces.”
VSU won, 3-1, despite Hadley being called for nine more illegal pitches, one of which extended a called third strike into an extra pitch, which the Kutztown batter hit a homer on.
“We just laughed when that happened,” Posey said. “Now, if we weren’t ahead and that homer would’ve cost us the game, we wouldn’t have been laughing. But to keep seeing those illegal pitches get called and then see a girl hit a homer off one when the inning should’ve been over, we just thought it was funny.
“We’ve talked about it since then, and we figured out that for us to win the national title, we were having to get five outs an inning sometimes. It was unreal.”
Because Kutztown was the only unbeaten team left, VSU had to turn around and play the Lady Golden Bears again Saturday morning for the right to advance to the winner-take-all title game against either Central Oklahoma or UC-San Diego.
And after dispatching of Kutztown, 8-2 — thanks to a bases-clearing triple from April Hutchens that broke up a one-run game — Posey said there was no doubt who the Lady Blazers were rooting to see for the championship.
“We wanted UC-San Diego,” she said without hesitation. “We went back to the hotel and watched the game, and we rooted for them the whole time. We knew how they played, and we knew we could beat them. There’s no denying that. We wanted revenge.”
They got their wish when UC-San Diego advanced, setting up a showdown at sundown at 6 p.m. Saturday.
And while the title game had yet to be played, when you take into account all that VSU had overcome at that point, you could’ve already written the story and the headline:
COMEBACK KIDS — VSU STORMS BACK TO CLAIM FIRST NATIONAL TITLE!
In the championship, Albritton homered again, Hadley found redemption and was in command from start to finish on the mound and Posey had a hit.
Better yet? Posey also recorded the final out in the 4-1 win.
There was just no denying this bunch.
“It was surreal,” Posey said. “When I fielded the ball and threw to first and saw it hit the glove, it was just shock. I still think I’m in shock.”
Macera said he wasn’t shocked by the fact Posey was the one who corralled the final out.
“That final out ... that ball was crushed. It bounced up, hit her in the chest and she still pulled it down and made the play,” he said. “Most any other player, that runner would’ve been safe. But not Sam. It was a fitting way for it to end.”
Welcome home, champs; so long, Sam and seniors
A weary Lady Blazers team left Louisville around 4:30 a.m. Sunday and didn’t make it back to Valdosta until Sunday afternoon.
But they arrived to a hero’s welcome.
“We flew into Jacksonville (Fla.), and from the moment we hit the Georgia state line, we had a police escort back to the school — with ‘NATIONAL CHAMPS’ written in shoe polish all over the bus and all the cars (caravanning),” Posey said. “And when we got back, there were hundreds of people waiting for us at the field. Fans, firetrucks, news crews, our friends and family — everyone was there.
“I think that’s when it truly started to sink in what we’d done.”
Posey and her seven fellow seniors received a special standing ovation, and then more tears were shed.
“Looking back, I feel like we spent a week crying and celebrating, ... crying and celebrating ... crying and celebrating,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s a week we’ll never forget, the good or the bad.”
Posey will be around the VSU campus for another year as she finishes her undergraduate degree in public relations. She wants to pursue a PR job in sports — “Maybe even with the San Francisco Giants, working (alongside) Buster ... who knows?” she joked — but she knows it will be hard to walk around campus in the coming semesters and not want to trot out to the Lady Blazers’ field and take BP or field a grounder or two.
Macera, however, is certain of one thing — if Posey could do that, he’d welcome her with open arms.
“Sam ... I’m going to miss her tremendously,” the coach said with a somewhat somber tone. “Those will be some hard shoes to fill.”