For Cheyenne Gandara, it was an achievement beyond words.

   “I cried,” she said. “I was so emotional. I was so happy we were able to do something like that.”

   What Gandara and her Charleston Southern softball teammates accomplished was big enough, and unexpected enough, to deserve such emotions.

   Led by the freshman pitcher from Hemet, Charleston Southern raced through the Big South Conference championship tournament as a No. 7 seed, beating regular-season champ Coastal Carolina 3-1 in the title game to earn the school’s first berth in the NCAA Division I softball tournament.

   The Buccaneers, at 27-31-1, became the lowest seed to win the conference tournament and earned a date with Tennessee today in the first round of an NCAA regional in Knoxville.

   Gandara was the Big South tournament’s MVP, winning three games and saving one as her team went unbeaten in the double-elimination tournament. In 19 innings over the four games, she allowed 11 hits and four earned runs for a 1.47 ERA while striking out 19 and walking 10.

   “Cheyenne was outstanding all weekend long,” Buccaneer coach Shane Winkler told the CSU website. “She was the best pitcher here, and we relied on her a ton. … The kid was 
so clutch. She pitched better and better the more jams that we got into. When she had runners on base, she was absolutely tough as nails.”

   Said Gandara in a phone interview, “I just wanted to do something to help out the team. They were doing so well hitting-wise,” — the Buccanners outscored opponents 19-8 in the four games — “and I just wanted to be able to do something for them as well.”

   Overall, Gandara is 11-11 with two saves and a 2.25 ERA in 38 games for Charleston Southern, and with 152 strikeouts, is just 13 away from the school’s single-season record. She’s had complete games in 12 of her 21 
starts, quickly dispelling any concerns she might have had about her ability to compete at the Division I level.

   “I was worried a little,” she said. “I thought it was going to be rough for me, but so far I’ve done all right.”

   Early proof that she could compete at a high level came in a March 8 game at third-ranked UCLA, when she took a no-hitter into the fourth inning. Although she eventually took the loss in UCLA’s 4-0 decision, she allowed just one hit and two earned runs to go with five strikeouts and five walks in 4 1/3 innings.

   “I remember watching our school play them (in a tournament in 2013),” Gandara said, “and I told my dad I wanted to experience that, too, and I wanted to be able to be the one to pitch that game, and show what I’m able to do.”

   Gandara said she always knew she wanted to go away from home for college, and fell in love with Charleston on a visit. She’s one of eight Californians on the Buccaneer roster, which she said has helped ease the adjustment 
to life on the East Coast. “Especially the older girls,” she said. “Because they told me on visits how it is, experiencing life away from California.” Right now, the experience she’s relishing most is the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. “We are super excited about everything right now,” she said. “It’s a dream, actually.”


   Cheyenne Gandara had three wins and a save for Charleston Southern at the Big South tournament.

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