By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – The 13-12 win over second-ranked Chipola was a start. Saturday's 5-4 extra-inning victory over Pensacola State makes it a streak.
Yep, the NWF State softball team (22-24, 7-10) is starting to put it all together after back-to-back walk-off wins.
Ashley Autuori's two-out, walk-off hit Saturday in the ninth-inning lifted the Raiders into a third-place tie in the Panhandle Conference, which is controlled by Chipola (40-4, 15-1). Gulf Coast State (33-14, 10-7) is 5 ½ games back in second.
Chipola's lone loss came Wednesday after coming back from 12-5 down in the seventh inning at NWF State, which leaned on the heroics of Emily Sinclair to avoid a complete meltdown.
Sinclair belted her second homer of the night to finish 3-for-4 with four RBIs, two runs and a walk. Thalia Vieira da Silva also had three hits to accompany three stolen bases and three runs and Venice Sanders and Makiya Giles belted solo homers.
Niceville alumna Sydney Byrd also had three RBIs and Autuori had three runs, two RBIs and a pair of walks amid a 1-for-3 effort.
Earning the win was Brookelyn Sweeney, who in relief allowed three runs on two hits and a walk over just 1/3 innings. NWF starter Lauren Rase allowed nine runs on 13 base knocks and six walks over 6 2/3 frames.
Come Saturday it was Autuori's turn to deliver the late-inning base knock.
After NWF State rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the sixth and the Amber Byrd silenced Pensacola State's bats, Ariana Cipriano led off the ninth inning with a triple to right. Nicole Smith reached on a bunt and, after Marcie Bewley struck out, Da Silva loaded the bases with a bunt single.
After Maggie Wheless fouled out, Autuori delivered a two-out single up the middle to end the marathon.
But this is what NWF State has come to expect from Autuori. After all, it's been that amazing a year for the freshman from Trinity, Florida.
Autuori is batting .450 with a .497 on-base percentage and an .845 slugging percentage. Her 60 RBIs rank fourth in the country and she has eight homers, 30 extra-base-hits, 39 runs and six stolen bases.
And fun fact: She's struck out just once in 129 at-bats, the top ratio in the country.
Her clutch base knock awarded the win to reliever Amber Byrd, who struck out six and allowed two runs – zero unearned – on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings. NWF State starter Alexa Veamoi gave up two runs on five hits and a walk while striking out four over 3 2/3 frames for the no-decision.
The Raiders next welcome Tallahassee to Niceville on Wednesday for a 5 p.m. first pitch.