New London - In two straight games in its recently completed conference tournament, the Coast Guard Academy softball team went down to its final at-bat trailing.
It happened for the second time Saturday against Springfield College. Behind 4-2, the Bears rallied to tie in the seventh, then won in the eighth.
"I'm trying to avoid thinking about it ending," Coast Guard pitcher Hayley Feindel said. "Even in the bottom of the sixth inning when we were losing, I never thought I would never walk out here again."
Coast Guard (26-17), the sixth seed, rallied to win the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference tournament with three victories on the final day, earning its fourth straight bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
The NCAA bracket was announced Monday morning, with the Bears receiving the No. 5 seed in the Mansfield Regional. Coast Guard will face No. 4 Ithaca (30-12) in the first round of the double-elimination bracket beginning at 1:30 p.m. at the new softball field at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Eastern (40-1), ranked second in the nation, is the top seed and will meet Lesley University at 11 a.m. Rounding out the bracket are No. 2 Tufts, No. 3 Rochester, No. 6 St. John Fisher (N.Y.) and No. 7 Salem State.
Eastern has won its regional each of the last two years, beating Coast Guard in the championship. Ithaca is making its 25th appearance, most in NCAA history, and have been to the College World Series 11 times.
"They're unfazed (by the tough bracket)," Coast Guard coach Donna Koczajowski said as her team gathered to watch the tournament selection show. "They're excited to be in the tournament, 'Let's go play.'"
"We've seen Eastern before," said Coast Guard senior second baseman Jamie Kim. "I'm anxious just to see how we play against any team, not just against Eastern."
Kim, who set the program record for games played Saturday with 171, said there's a difference between other teams wanting to win postseason games and Coast Guard players wanting the same thing.
"They're playing to win," Kim said. "At our school, we're playing for more time, more time together before we get shipped off to our assignments."
Kim will report to Alameda, Calif., in the coming weeks. Feindel will head to Kodiak, Alaska, to begin her career.
Feindel, who became Division III's all-time wins leader Saturday (122), was named the NEWMAC tournament's Most Outstanding Player. She had help, however, with junior Holli Bastinck hitting .565 with four homers and 14 RBI with a slugging percentage of 1.087.
Feindel (19-8), a returning All-American who missed 16 games this season with a broken finger on her pitching hand, rested for almost the entire week leading up to Saturday's three games. She is also the Division III career leader in strikeouts (1,431) and innings pitched (1,000.7).
"She showed a lot of character and heart," said Eastern coach Diana Pepin, who admitted not being sure she'd see the Bears in this year's tournament with the injury to Feindel. "I have a lot of respect for Hayley. She's smart. She knows the game. She's overcome a lot of adversity."
"I never know what to expect from my team," Koczajowski said. "It was the seventh inning, down with one out and the Bears pulled it off. They continue to do that."