MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. – Carson-Newman (2-0) loaded up the busses to the Peeler Complex with reigning SAC Player of the Year Lacie Rinus home sick with the flu.
Her absence didn't matter. The Eagles got timely knocks and a potent performance in the circle from senior transfer Allison Rager (Elkview, W.Va.) to sweep No. 13 Young Harris (0-2) in Milledgeville, Ga. The Eagles won game one 1-0 before rallying in the nightcap for a 3-2 win.
"We said before this season and especially before we left today that we had to respond when adversity comes our way," first-year head coach Michael Graves said. "We have to be good enough that when things didn't go our way, we take up for that person when they go down. They did that today without Lacie."
Carson-Newman improved to 30-2 all-time on opening day and won an eight straight season opener.
The sweep of the Mountain Lions marks Carson-Newman's first over a ranked opponent since the Eagles took two from then No. 21 Anderson 8-4 and 7-2 on April 7, 2015.
Rager pitched all but 1.2 innings of the twinbill with Rinus on the mend. Rager only gave up eight hits across 12.1 innings and struck out six on the day.
"I loved going out on the field confidently, and being able to perform knowing that my team and my coaches had my back the whole way," Rager said. "We have some special talent, and I'm looking forward to battling with these girls all season long."
At the plate, she hit a solo bomb and drove in the winning run in game two with a sacrifice fly.
"Allison was who we fed off of today," Graves said. "Rager is the coolest, calmest ball player I've been around. She doesn't get nervous and she is unflappable. That helps with the team. They since she's calm and it helps to calm the rest of the team down."
Haley Caldwell (Kenova, W.Va.) conked her ninth career home run to set the margin in game one. Janelle Benzick (Virginia Beach, Va.) drove in the other run on the day with an RBI fielder's choice in game two.
"We started off slow on the day," Graves said. "You could see we started to take better cuts as the day went along. We started to build on that as the day went along. Those good cuts started to build on one another. Hitting was contagious in game two."
GAME ONE: Carson-Newman 1, No. 13 Young Harris 0
Carson-Newman and Young Harris stayed deadlocked for the first three innings before Carson-Newman broke through in the fourth.
The Eagles struggled at the plate in the early going. Of Carson-Newman's first 10 batters to the plate, six struck out.
However, that changed when Haley Caldwell (Kenova, W.Va.) came to the plate with two out in the fourth. Caldwell ripped an 0-2 pitch over the wall in left for her ninth career home run.
"I just made an adjustment," Caldwell said. "The first at-bat I had, she threw me the same exact pitch, which was a change up and I struck out looking. I just was able to make an adjustment on the pitch and hit it square."
The solo shot gave the Eagles a 1-0 lead that they wouldn't relinquish.
Young Harris threatened a couple times, but ultimately, the Eagles' defense pulled C-N through. The third proved to be the biggest threat that Young Harris could muster.
Maddie Urquiola led off the inning with a walk, moved to second on a sacrifice, and over to third on a one-out Emily Harris single to left. Harris stole second to give the Mountain Lions a pair of runners in scoring position. However, Allison Rager (Elkview, W.Va.) induced a ground out and a strikeout to end the threat.
The Mountain Lions wouldn't get a runner past first the rest of the game. Young Harris got its leadoff runner on board in four of seven innings, but went just 1-for-11 on the day with runners on base.
Rager kept YHC off balance. The Mountain Lions only hit three balls out of the infield all day.
The senior transfer from Morehead State struck out three and walked three en route to twirling a two-hit shutout. Rager notched the complete-game shutout to start the year 1-0 on just 92 pitches.
Nikki Kovalsky took the hard-luck loss for Young Harris to start the year 0-1. She fanned 10 and didn't walk a soul. The Eagles tallied four hits on her.
GAME TWO: Carson-Newman 3, No. 13 Young Harris 2
Young Harris threatened big time early in game two, but C-N managed to limit the damage.
In the top of the second, the Mountain Lions loaded the bases with one out off an infield single to second, a base on balls and a hit batsman. Katelynn Hodges worked a walk with the bases juiced to give YHC a 1-0 advantage.
However, Young Harris couldn't string together more knocks as Rager as the senior got a pop up and a line out to end the threat and leave the bases loaded.
In the top of the third, the Mountain Lions added to the advantage after Morgan Curley and Haylie Shope started the frame with a walk and a single up the middle. After a Grace Botti sacrifice, Dara Moore singled in Curley with a basae hit to left center that stretched the advantage to 2-0 for the Mountain Lions and chased Rager from the circle.
Abby Hicks (Knoxville, Tenn.) doused the flames with back-to-back groundouts to leave Young Harris with its fourth and fifth runners stranded in scoring position.
Carson-Newman leveled things up in the top of the fourth, but also left a ton out there. Rager tallied her first career bomb in the Orange and Blue with a solo rocket to left center to lead off the inning.
Then, the Eagles loaded things up with no one out. Caldwell singled to second, Taylor Scott (Huntington, W.Va.) to center; then KaraLynne Levi (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) walked to put an Eagle at every base.
Janelle Benzick (Virginia Beach, Va.) grounded a ball to second. Instead of taking a sure out at first, the Mountain Lions went home. Caldwell beat the throw and the Eagles tied the game with an RBI fielder's choice.
Kovalsky reentered the circle for YHC after the Eagles moved through both Kennedy Kotula and Louisa Disi in the inning. Kovalsky proceeded to shut down C-N with three straight Ks. C-N left the bases loaded.
Carson-Newman grabbed the lead an inning later with some timely taps. Abby Fiessinger (Benton, Ky.) led off the inning with her ninth career triple. A batter later, Rager lifted a high fly ball to left center that allowed Fiessinger to tag up for a sacrifice fly that gave C-N a 3-2 advantage after five.
Rager notched the win again in 5.2 innings. She surrendered six hits and two runs, both earned.
Hicks' relief innings proved to be pivotal. She worked 1.2 innings of no-hit, shutout ball.
"Abby really changed game two," Graves said. "They had started to get Allison's timing down. Abby got them back off balance. I don't know if we win without her."
Kovalsky was again the hard-luck loser. She worked three innings of one-run, one-hit ball in relief. Kovalsky struck out five of the 12 batters she faced.
Carson-Newman returns to action Saturday morning at 11 a.m. against Georgia College in another Southeast Regional rematch. Follow @CNathletics on Twitter for live updates of the contest.