Lehigh sends Aggies packing in Amherst Regional

AMHERST, Mass. -- There's something about playing softball at dusk that brings back memories of summers spent playing for nothing more than the fun of hearing the ball connect with the sweet spot of the bat and rocket into the distance.

And for a few moments near the end of Saturday's elimination game between Lehigh and No. 13 seed Texas A&M in the Amherst Regional, it was almost possible to forget what was at stake and savor a snapshot of the past.

But instead of mom's call for dinner putting an end to some imaginary sandlot championship, the encroaching darkness in Amherst on Saturday evening promised to bring to an end not just a single game, but a season and careers.

When it was over, the Mountain Hawks of Lehigh had knocked off the bracket's top-seeded team, Texas A&M, for the second time in 24 hours. Lehigh won Saturday's rematch 4-3 and proved that while Friday's win was a monumental upset for the Patriot League champs, it was hardly a fluke.

The win came in Lehigh's second game of the day, having earlier dropped a 6-4 decision to Massachusetts in 10 innings. Coming off the emotional high of an upset on Friday night, the marathon loss that relegated the Mountain Hawks to the loser's bracket could easily have left the team deflated and unfocused.

"I was very concerned going into the game that we would be a little flat," coach Fran Troyan said. "Just because emotionally, the earlier game with UMass was very hard fought and a very emotional game. But that concern really wasn't warranted, because our players came out and played with the same energy and intensity that they've played with all weekend."

Having used freshman ace Lisa Sweeney, the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, for all 10 innings of the game against the Minutewomen, Lehigh again turned to senior tri-captian Lisa Arico, who had been in the circle against the Aggies the night before. Giving a Big 12 powerhouse another look at a pitcher who relies on location and movement more than overpowering stuff was a dicey, but unavoidable proposition.

"My approach wasn't different. I just tend to focus on myself and not worry about who I'm facing," Arico said. But she also admitted, "I did have a little worry in the back of my mind, just knowing that they had seen me for five-plus innings. I knew that I was going to have to keep the ball low and hit my spots. I had a good warm-up, and I felt really good going into it."

While not as sharp as she had been on Friday, allowing the Aggies to get on the board first for the only time in their three games in Amherst, Arico kept Lehigh in the game by scattering five hits and one walk over seven innings.

But trailing 2-0 in a game most expected them to lose, the Mountain Hawks needed some help from the offense. And junior Julie Sterrett, the team's top run producer this season, obliged. Facing a full count, Sterrett blasted a two-run home run to dead center, tying the score and announcing that Lehigh wasn't going to fade away.

"For me, it's just a matter of keeping it simple: seeing it and hitting it," Sterrett said of dealing with Texas A&M changeup specialist Lisa Gorzycki. "A lot of times, I guess I like pressure or something, because I always get myself with an 0-2 count. I think I just get a little extra fired up, and I'm not ready to sit down on the bench."

Texas A&M regained the lead with an RBI single from Megan Gibson in the top of the fifth, but momentum was still on the Mountain Hawks' side. They quickly had runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the fifth, and Mary Wieder, another senior tri-captain, came through with the game-tying single. After A&M brought in Gibson to pitch, Sterrett provided what would become the game-winning run with an RBI single into left field.

Arico finished the job, retiring Texas A&M in order in the final two at-bats of the Aggies' season.

As is often the case with tournament upsets, leadership from upperclassmen -- the same upperclassmen who struggled through an 0-2 record in last year's NCAA Tournament -- proved crucial.

"We have three seniors, and it's an interesting bunch," Troyan said. "Kate Arico is a little more vocal, and Mary Weider rallies them by the way she plays. And kind of the one that's hidden behind the scenes is Ali Linsk. What she does is keeps the bench players totally into the game and totally focused. It's a role that is really never seen in the box score, but it is really important to the program."

From some coaches, that might sound like a practiced line, a flippant and hollow cliche. But Troyan knows what he's talking about when it comes to getting the most out of every member of a program. It's not an option at Lehigh; it's a necessity.

For starters, Lehigh knocked out Texas A&M without the benefit of a single scholarship player. While athletic programs in the Patriot League can now choose to offer athletic scholarships for non-football programs, Lehigh does not.

And as if paying their own way (or signing up for financial aid packages) isn't enough to deter some prospective recruits, there's the small matter of Lehigh's rigorous academics. Famous for its engineering program, the small school of 4,700 undergraduates in Bethlehem, Pa., is a tough grind academically. Maybe overcoming a top-tier softball opponent is no big deal after conquering mechanical engineering.

"The fact of the matter is that we just finished finals -- and Lehigh is not an easy place, it's not an easy school," Troyan said. "We just got our grades back, and we just learned two days ago that this semester, while playing 50 softball games, they have a 3.52 GPA as a team. And it's not like our kids are in really easy majors. They've really embraced the idea of being able to give your best on a daily basis."

They're the kind of kids who could lure a successful trial attorney and former college baseball player out of the courtroom and into a profession where suits and ties are entirely optional.

"I was a practicing trial attorney, but my wife was actually the head softball coach and I helped her out as an assistant," Troyan said of his arrival on the Lehigh scene. "And back in 1996, an opportunity came up for her to jump over and become the head women's basketball coach [both were also assistants on the basketball team at the time and subsequently served as assistants on each other's staffs]. I left my law practice, jumped over and became the head softball coach. She's still the head basketball coach, and I'm obviously the head softball coach. And since that time, we've built our own staffs. And that's really how I got into it."

One of the more unique individuals in coaching, Troyan is a soft-spoken, genial man who seems to get more out of his players with simple encouragement than most coaches do with their entire arsenal of mind games and intimidation.

"It's not that I disliked the practice of law, but there's something special about working with student-athletes who have a desire to learn and get better, no matter what they're doing," he said.

For the moment, what they're doing is playing Massachusetts for a chance to advance to the super regionals next weekend. Win or lose, life will go on for the Mountain Hawks, starting with a graduation ceremony on Monday for the seniors.

"We talk about [the future] a whole lot," Troyan said. "You can't control the past, and you can't really worry too much about the future; you just have to live in the now."

So whether it's for one night, one week or the rest of the postseason, being on top of the softball world is just one more life experience the Mountain Hawks will be able to savor.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.