As the Binghamton softball team entered day two of the 2019 America East (AE) Tournament in the sixth seed, set for an elimination game against back-to-back defending champion Albany, the expectation was for the Bearcats’ season to come to an end. However, after an outstanding performance from freshman pitcher Morgan Bienkowski and a four-run rally in the sixth inning, Binghamton upset No. 2 Albany, 6-2, and advanced to the third day of the AE Tournament.
“[Bienkowski] threw really well against them during the regular season, so we felt confident that she was gonna be able to do the same thing,” said BU head coach Michelle Johnston. “We didn’t really expect Morgan to go the whole game, but she obviously did what she did on the mound. I think it gave the team a lot of confidence and I think that’s kinda why they went into today the way they did as well.”
Bienkowski pitched a complete game with a career-high seven strikeouts against the Great Danes (26-17, 13-6 AE). This marked her second consecutive elimination game victory, as she pitched a full seven innings in Binghamton’s day-one victory over Hartford.
“[Bienkowski] had awesome composure,” Johnston said. “I think, obviously, for a freshman, and she hasn’t thrown a ton of innings this year, and for her to be able to have the composure that she had in this kind of setting was really good to see.”
After falling to Stony Brook in their opening matchup, the Bearcats (19-29, 8-14 AE) were forced to battle through the loser’s bracket of the tournament. Binghamton was on its toes, knowing that every matchup could potentially be its last. The team then defeated Hartford on day one and pulled off the upset against Albany on day two. However, its season came to an end on day three after losing to top-seeded UMass Lowell in a tight, eight-inning game.
Against the River Hawks (28-20, 16-5 AE), junior pitcher Rayn Gibson was in the circle for the second time this tournament after returning from a wrist injury suffered midway through the conference season. BU took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and a two-run home run from junior catcher Sara Herskowitz gave the team a 3-1 advantage in the third inning. UMass Lowell captured a one-run edge in the bottom of the sixth, but the Bearcats immediately responded with a pinch-hit solo home run from freshman pitcher Sophia Pappas, the first home run of her career, that tied the game and sent it to extra innings.
After a scoreless top of the eighth by Binghamton, the River Hawks loaded the bases in the bottom of the frame with only one out on the board, and a walk-off RBI single gave them a narrow 5-4 victory, ending the Bearcats’ season.
“I was just really proud of how they came together and played as a team,” Johnston said. “I think that was something that we’ve been working for all year, and we haven’t felt like they were able to do it so for them to be able to come together at the time that it mattered most I was really pleased. They were truly in it, from the very first pitch until the last one.”
With an exceptionally young team, this season was expected to be a year of retooling for the Bearcats. While that was how much of the regular season played out, the team performed at a level not previously seen during the season in spite of the heightened pressure of the conference tournament. With just two seniors graduating, Johnston will bring almost all of her team back next season as the Bearcats look to build off of this season’s success and compete for a conference title in 2020.
“We saw a ton of improvement with a lot of those young players throughout the season, and I know that all of them are really hard workers, so I know they have a lot more to go as well,” Johnston said. “We’re just excited for the future obviously. They learned a lot, I think, from this week, we didn’t play like this throughout the year and I think that that’s something they have to take into next year and play every game like it matters.”