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Stony Brook eliminates Binghamton in AE semifinals

Michelle Burrell had said prior to the America East tournament that the 2013 Binghamton softball team was the best defensive squad she’s fielded in her four years at the program’s helm.

But on Friday, the second-seeded Bearcats committed three errors and misplayed a few other balls, and fourth-seeded Stony Brook took the elimination game, 9-0, in five innings at the Bearcats Sports Complex.

Binghamton (30-17, 14-4 America East) fell down 5-0 in the first inning, as junior third baseman Mikala King made two errors. The devastating blow, though, came with two outs and the bases loaded when SBU senior second baseman Gina Bianculli hit a line drive to left field. BU senior left fielder Jessica Phillips dove for the ball but couldn’t get her glove on it, and three runs scored.

“Jess made the dive in left field, and you know what? She makes that catch a lot of the time,” Burrell said. “She was aggressive and went after that. Had she made that catch we’d be in a much different situation, but I told her it was a great effort.”

While the defense struggled, the America East’s most potent offense went dormant.

SBU sophomore pitcher Allison Cukrov worked efficiently, pitching to contact and never needing more than 19 pitches to navigate an inning. She finished with just two strikeouts, but she allowed only one hit and one walk.

The Bearcats consistently got under the ball, popping up and flying out a combined 10 times, and Stony Brook (35-23, 10-8 AE) made all the plays.

With the stakes higher than ever, Binghamton froze.

“We kind of just let the situation get to us,” Burrell said.

The Bearcats, who beat third-seeded Hartford in the opener, were forced into the elimination game with Stony Brook after falling, 4-2, to top-seeded Albany on Friday morning.

In that game, BU freshman first baseman Lisa Cadogan drove in freshman right fielder Sydney Harbaugh to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. But the Great Danes (37-15, 15-2 AE), who would eventually fall to Stony Brook in the championship, responded with one run in each of the first two innings.

In the third, Harbaugh reached on a fielder’s choice but was caught stealing with freshman designated player Tiffany McIntosh at the plate. McIntosh homered to left on the next pitch, tying the game.

But Albany junior first baseman Charlise Castro belted a two-run homer in the bottom of the third.

The Great Danes were aggressive against BU sophomore Demi Laney, who surrendered two home runs. Castro’s came on the second pitch of the at bat while senior catcher Kylie Apostolina drilled the first pitch of the second inning over the left center wall.

Laney left the game after 2.1 innings, having allowed four runs on five hits and a walk.

Binghamton had made just one America East tournament before 2013, carrying an underdog role as the No. 3 seed in 2011. This year, the Bearcats, playing at home, expected to compete in Saturday’s championship game.

With 2013 as a groundbreaking year — the Bearcats won a program-best 29 games and posted their highest finish in the AE standings — Burrell said she hopes to be in this position consistently moving forward.

“I truly think this is where we expect to be each year,” she said. “It just comes down to we’ve got to learn how to win those important games at the end of the year.”

Junior second baseman Jessica Bump, whose .349 batting average and 10 home runs led the team, said the Bearcats already have a strategy in place for 2014.

“One thing we just talked about [after being eliminated] is next season we’re going to play every game from the first week in February until now like we can’t lose,” she said.

With the bulk of the roster set to return next year, the Bearcats should be one of the America East favorites. Phillips, outfielder Shannon Kane and pitchers Kate Price and Rhoda Marsteller are all seniors, but Laney led the team with 15 wins and a 2.33 regular-season ERA and the top six average hitters are all expected back.

“I think we put ourselves in a really good spot,” Burrell said. “We expect that everybody’s going to be contributing, and I really think that we’ve just got to learn from the pressure of the tournament situation.”