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Valerie Cagle's pitching, home run lead Clemson softball to regional win over Auburn

CLEMSON — No. 16-seed Clemson softball's NCAA Tournament regional game Saturday was familiar territory. Just as they did last season, the Tigers met Auburn in the winner's bracket in the regional at McWhorter Stadium. And just like last season, the matchup pitted a pair of aces against each other: Clemson's Valerie Cagle and Auburn's Maddie Penta.

In last postseason's iteration of Tigers vs. Tigers, only one run scored, and it belonged to Clemson. History didn't exactly repeat itself Saturday, but the result was the same: Clemson advanced with the victory. Two Tigers homered and Clemson chased Penta in the fifth in the 7-0 win.

Clemson (48-9) advanced to the regional final with the win. The Tigers will face the winner of Saturday night's elimination game, which could be either UNC Greensboro, Cal State Fullerton or Auburn (41-18), on Sunday (noon ET). One more win and the Tigers advance to the super regional.

"There's a much bigger goal to what we want than winning this regional," Cagle said. "But we've got to start with winning this regional."

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Valerie Cagle vs. Maddie Penta

The pitching matchup was the ACC Player of the Year in Cagle and the SEC Pitcher of the Year in Penta. Both entered the game with exceptional ERAs: Penta with 1.11 and Cagle with 1.20.

Cagle took some time to settle in. She walked the first batter she faced on four pitches and gave up a hit in the second. With the help of some excellent defensive plays by shortstop Alia Logoleo and second baseman Maddie Moore, Cagle sat Auburn's hitters down in order in the next five innings. She finished with one hit, one walk and three strikeouts in her eighth complete-game shutout of the season.

Before the fifth inning, Clemson managed four hits off of Penta. The junior right-hander worked will with traffic on the bases, leaving four runners stranded. She threw a three-pitch inning in the second. The fifth inning, however, was all Clemson.

Clemson offense takes off in fifth inning

Clemson got on the board with a solo home run by McKenzie Clark in the third inning, but the fifth made the game for Clemson. It started when Penta ceded a one-out single to designated player JoJo Hyatt. After a flyout, Penta hit Clark to put two on with two outs.

That brought up left fielder Ally Miklesh, who delivered a two-out, two-RBI single. Then, it was Cagle's turn.

Cagle homered off the foul pole in left field. Her 20th home run of the season scored two and made it 5-0 for Clemson, and it was the last pitch Penta would throw.

Clemson junior Valerie Cagle (72) hits a home run against Auburn University during the bottom of the fifth inning at McWhorter Stadium in Clemson Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Clemson junior Valerie Cagle (72) hits a home run against Auburn University during the bottom of the fifth inning at McWhorter Stadium in Clemson Saturday, May 20, 2023.

Auburn went to the bullpen, and reliever Annabelle Widra gave up back-to-back singles that allowed another run to score before the end of the inning. All told, Clemson scored five runs and had four hits with two outs.

"What makes me most proud is that we've turned a corner (offensively)," Clemson coach John Rittman said. "That's the mark of a good team, being ability to make adjustments, change your mindset and come out and compete."

Christina Long covers the Clemson Tigers for the Greenville News and the USA TODAY Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at clong@greenvillenews.com.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson softball beats Auburn to advance to NCAA Tournament regional final