APPLETON, Wis. — This one got away quickly. Just six pitches into the game, the University of Southern Maine was down 3-0 to Wisconsin-Whitewater, and it never got better.

The Warhawks, their hot hitters backed by the sharp pitching of Scott Plaza, easily handled the Huskies 8-1 in an NCAA Division III national tournament opener Friday night.

Plaza pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out five. He threw 79 pitches, 55 for strikes.

USM (35-14) will face Salisbury (Maryland) in an elimination game at 2:15 p.m. Saturday. The Warhawks (41-7) gave Coach John Vodenlich his 399th victory and will play SUNY-Cortland on Saturday.

After the game, USM Coach Ed Flaherty spoke to his team for about 15 minutes. He did a similar thing in last year’s tournament after USM lost the second game, and the Huskies made it to the championship game.

“I was trying to instill in them the fact they can still win this thing,’’ said Flaherty. “I’ve done enough of these that I figure if you’re going to lose a game, you’re better off losing early.

“Maybe (that’s) contradictory to everything. But if we can win (Saturday), every other game we’ll be playing a team that is coming off a loss. And we’ve just got to get after it tomorrow and stave off elimination.’’

Shyler Scates (6-3) is the probable starter for the Huskies. “We’ve got every pitcher ready to go,’’ said Flaherty.

The Warhawks came in with one of the most dynamic lineups in NCAA Division III, ranking third with 412 runs, and quickly got to USM ace Logan Carman.

After the game’s leadoff batter reached on an error, left-handed batter Dylan Friend hit a blooper that landed inches fair down the left-field line. Then Mikole Pierce, who led the Warhawks in every offensive category except walks, blasted a two-run triple to the wall in right-center and it was 2-0 just five pitches into the game. It became 3-0 one pitch later when Michael Gonzalez singled to left.

Carman got out of the inning without giving up another run, but Wisconsin-Whitewater continued its attack in the top of the second.

Adam Gregory led off with a walk, then stole second. After an out, Friend lined a single to right and stole second, putting runners on second and third for Pierce, who laced a two-run double into the left-field corner. Gonzalez then blooped a single to right, moving Pierce to third, and he scored on a groundout to make it 6-0.

“It wasn’t one guy,’’ said USM catcher Matt Verrier. “We were uptight. That’s all I’ve got.’’

Carman started the third but was removed after one out. Ryan Browner relieved and held the Warhawks down.

But USM could do nothing with Plaza. He had a mild jam in the first, when the Huskies put runners on first and third with two outs, but he escape with a popout. Troy Thibodeau got a one-out single in the bottom of the second but was picked off by Plaza.

Plaza then set down the next 12 Huskies before Paul McDonough singled to center with two outs in the sixth.

By that time Wisconsin-Whitewater led 7-0. A bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Friend made it 7-0 in the top of the sixth. Pierce then crushed a pitch to right-center that right fielder Chris Bernard tracked down. He made a diving backhanded catch, then threw to shortstop Sam Dexter, whose relay to first baseman John Carey completed an inning-ending double play.

USM wasn’t the only finalist from a year ago to lose. Linfield, the defending champion, fell 10-0 to St. Thomas (Minnesota).

“We’ll come back tomorrow,’’ said Flaherty. “We’ve just got to swing at good pitches and play a good game.’’

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH