Utley continues perfect start

Central Methodist senior Aubrey Utley recorded her 500th career strikeout for the Eagles on Wednesday against Avila. Utley won the first game 6-0, improving her season record to 15-0. She also earned her 39th career shutout.

By Greg Jackson
Sports Editor

On Wednesday, Aubrey Utley did what she’s been doing all season. She got another win for Central Methodist’s softball team.

Utley notched a two-hit shutout in a 6-0 win against Avila at Cox Softball Complex. The Eagles also won the second game 13-1 for the doubleheader sweep and continue to hold the top spot in the Heart of America Athletic Conference standings.

“I try not to think about it,” Utley said of her perfect pitching record. “That’s my job, to go out and help the team as much as I can to win games.”

Utley struck out four batters in her game-one win. The first strikeout was the 500th of her college career.

It came against Monica Hudson, Avila’s second batter of the first inning. Hudson worked the count full, fouling off four pitches to try to draw a walk against the Central Methodist senior.

However, on the 10th pitch, Utley fooled her with a devastating off-speed pitch. By the time the ball popped into Michele Rupard’s mitt behind the plate, Hudson was already well out in front of the batter’s box.

“She kept fouling them off and we didn’t want to go up (in the zone) because it was a full count,” Utley said. “Just this year, I’ve gotten comfortable to where I can throw changeups on a full count. It was more of a ‘Let’s see if this works’ and it just happened to work and was called as a strike.”

With Utley’s stellar pitching, Central Methodist (26-5, 9-1 HAAC)practically put Avila out of reach with a four-run first inning. With one run on the board already, Bri Boatwright blasted a three-run home run over the left-center field fence to make the score 4-0.

It was the junior’s team-leading fourth home run this season. Boatwright also leads the Eagles with 24 RBIs. Central Methodist has now outscored its opponents 39-13 in the first inning of games this season.

“With Aubrey pitching, sometimes she doesn’t need more than one or two runs,” Central Methodist head coach Pat Reardon said. “Anytime you get a big lead like that, it helps out a bunch.”

The Eagles stranded a runner on base in every inning, with exception to the fourth inning. However, Central Methodist did pick up a run that inning on a solo home run to dead center field by Lauren Geringer, the reigning conference Player of the Year. It was the sophomore first baseman’s third dinger of the year and gave the Eagles a 6-0 lead.

Utley faced the minimum number of batters through six innings. She allowed a leadoff single to start the third inning, but three pitches later, a ground ball hit back to Utley started a routine 1-6-3 double play to eliminate the baserunner.

Avila threatened in the seventh inning with an infield single and an error, putting two runners in scoring position with two outs. Then Utley literally used her body to preserve the shutout, blocking a hard-hit ball by Morgan Greenwood and picked it up and threw it to first for the final out, saving two runs.

The shutout is the 39th of Utley’s career, which currently ranks 10th all-time in NAIA history.

“We’re all just out here, having fun,” Utley said. “That was our goal coming in, having fun and winning.”

The crooked numbers came in bunches during the second game for Central Methodist. This time, Bri Ford was the pitcher benefitting from the Eagles’ offensive support.

“I challenged the girls in the second game and they went out and really showed up offensively,” Reardon said. “Everybody contributed in that second game.”

After scoring two runs in each of the first three innings, the Eagles unloaded for seven runs in the fourth inning. Ford, meanwhile, scattered three hits over five innings and allowed an unearned run in the fourth inning, Avila’s only run scored of the day.

Central Methodist sent 12 batters to the plate in the fourth inning. Jessica Wilmes, one of eight starters with over a .300 batting average this season, capped the offensive onslaught with a two-out grand slam home run. She led the Eagles, going 3-for-4 with five RBIs and also scored a pair of runs.

“Jessie’s been hitting the ball well,” Reardon said. “I had made some substitutions up to that point, but I figured I would let her go ahead and swing. That was good for her.”

Ford struck out three batters and allowed just three hits in the five-inning game cut short by the mercy rule. It was Ford’s ninth win of the season, and behind Utley, the senior right-hander is tied for second in the HAAC for pitching victories.

After suffering its only conference defeat of the season to MidAmerica Nazarene, Central Methodist — which moved up one spot to No. 17 in this week’s NAIA Top 25 poll — has won four straight HAAC games, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Pioneers. The Eagles, now in the second half of the conference slate, travel to Baker on Saturday for a doubleheader and then to Missouri Valley on Tuesday for two games.

The schedule will become much easier as the month of April progresses. Central Methodist saw some of the NAIA’s top competition during spring break at the Gulf Coast Invitational, but now, 12 of the Eagles’ last 14 regular-season games will be against teams with losing records.

“After the first game today, I told the girls this is the second half of our season,” Reardon said. “We finished 8-1 in the first half and now we just have to go out and do the same thing in the second half, and the (conference) championship is theirs. That sounds really easy to do, but every game is going to be a battle.”

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The Eagles went to Springfield last Saturday and swept Evangel by scores of 8-3 and 6-1 in a conference doubleheader.

Michele Rupard was a combined 5-for-9 with four RBIs in the doubleheader. The junior catcher leads Central Methodist with a .432 batting average, the third-highest in the conference.

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