After two high-scoring games that helped set a Super Regional record for most runs, Washington beats the Utes 2-1 to claim the series.
It took an extra day, but ultimately the sixth-seeded Washington Huskies got the result they wanted: A second win over Utah and that coveted trip to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
A day after the Utes staved off elimination with a gutsy 9-8 win over their hosts, the Huskies held onto a slim 2-1 lead to advance to the World Series for the first time since 2013 and sending seniors Ali Aguilar and Casey Stangel to Oklahoma City for the first time in their careers. The Huskies will open with Oregon (52-6) on Thursday. The Ducks won their Super Regional in Eugene.
The big win helped UW avoid snapping a little known, but impressive Husky softball streak: No senior class has ever left the UW without playing in the College World Series.
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Now, the streak lives on for at least four more years as Heather Tarr leads the Huskies to their fifth World Series in her 13 years as head coach.
“It’s amazing to see yourself set a goal and work hard for months as a group and go through the adversity and highs and lows and find yourself achieving the goal,” Stangel said. “It’s not the ultimate goal, but it’s a really big goal, and it’s just the greatest feeling. I’m just proud of our team.”
In an ironic twist, the game that helped UW and Utah set a combined record for runs scored in an NCAA Super Regional series, also turned out to be the lowest scoring game of the six played between the Pac-12 foes this year.
Game 3 was more a marathon than a sprint. The Huskies’ normally dynamic offense simply couldn’t find traction against the Utes. Utah starting pitcher Katie Donovan found a way to quiet the Huskies’ bats, notching two strikeouts and retiring the side in order in the third, fifth and sixth innings.
Through six innings, all UW had to show for itself offensively was a single and double from Kirstyn Thomas and a single from Aguilar.
After picking up her first win against UW the night before, Donovan deployed a different weapon to quiet the Huskies’ bats: the drop ball.
It was a pitch she’d worked hard to learn this offseason and had used to spotty success throughout the year.
“She’s worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. It’s something that’s been all right. But today, it was phenomenal,” Utah coach Amy Hogue said. “She used drop balls today and got kids out. I’m looking down the list at the number of kids who didn’t have a hit, and it was because of Katie and her drop ball. She really gave her team a chance to win this thing, and I was so proud of her.”
Donovan notched two strikeouts, but kept the Huskies on their toes.
UW finished with only three hits to Utah’s eight, but it was just enough to hold off the Utes.
Aguilar got the Huskies started in the first with a run off a wild pitch by Donovan.
In the second, it was Aguilar again — this time with a sacrifice fly to right field — to score Trysten Melhart, who’d gotten on base on a walk, and advanced on a single by Thomas.
Melhart’s run tied the record set at the Athens, Ga. Super Regional in 2011 (33) for runs scored in an NCAA Super Regional series. Then, Utah’s BreOnna Castaneda scored on a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning to get the Utes on the scoreboard and break the record for runs in a Super Regional series — 34.
With their offense stymied by Donovan’s stellar pitching, the Huskies’ defense came through in big ways. Aguilar, Sis Bates, Melhart, Morganne Flores and Taylor Van Zee all made huge defensive plays in the late innings to preserve their slim lead.
But amid the highlight reel worthy fifth-inning diving catches from Bates and Melhart, and Flores and Van Zee’s head’s-up exchange in the sixth to catch a runner stealing, the biggest defensive play was arguably the final one Aguilar made in the seventh to close out the win.
After catching a fly ball in the infield for the second out of the final frame, Aguilar found the ball coming her way again — this time a pop up from Utah’s star batter, Hannah Flippen that floated toward the third baseline.
As Aguilar raced in, determined to get the final out, all she could think was, “Whatever ball comes my way, I’m going to catch this. I don’t care if I have to do a freaking cartwheel and jump over the fence.”
“I was pretty emotional,” Aguilar said. “We have a saying, ‘Keep the pleasure greater than the pressure. I had that tense competitive attitude the whole game.”
The ball hit Aguilar’s glove and she jumped for joy, whooping as her teammates swarmed her and the stadium erupted in cheers.
“This is one of the best teams I’ve ever coached. It’s because of the leadership by Casey and Ali and (Van) Zee, and the younger ones behind them,” Tarr said. “I think we can finally, not take our foot off the pedal, but relax a bit to understand this is a grand achievement and how we got here should we celebrated. These things are very hard to come by.”