Danielle O’Toole crouched in the circle, alone in her thoughts, touching the pitching rubber, saying her personal goodbyes.
Another senior, Eva Watson, was on her knees in the outfield, crying, holding the hands of teammate Alyssa Palomino. Nearby, coach Mike Candrea gave a long hug to senior Katiyana Mauga. Yet another senior, Michelle Floyd, sat on home plate, knees up, staring out at the field and surely pondering what the hell had just happened.
Hillenbrand Stadium — nearly cleared out after Baylor rallied for a 6-5 victory to win an NCAA Super Regional on Sunday and advance to the Women’s College World Series — was hushed. You could hear a tear drop.
I have covered college softball for almost 30 years. I have seen Arizona lose to rival UCLA in the title game at the World Series. I saw the Wildcats lose a heartbreaker in the 1998 title game to Fresno State on a late home run. I have seen plenty of postseason eliminations.
But I have never, ever, seen an Arizona softball defeat as soul-crushing as the one Sunday.
“I feel gypped,” O’Toole said amid tears at the postgame press conference. “I don’t want to take the jersey off. I spent two years in it and I feel gypped. And it’s not anyone’s fault … I didn’t think it would be the last day.”
Arizona’s hopes of getting back to the College World Series has turned into a seven-year itch.
The Wildcats — winners of eight national titles from 1991 to 2007 — haven’t been back to Oklahoma City since 2010.
This was their best chance since then. They had all the pieces. They won the Pac-12 for the first time in a decade. They had O’Toole. They had the power. They were back.
But they coughed up a late lead to Baylor in Game 2 of the Super Regional and then was punched in the gut again Sunday, this time when the Bears — all due credit to their talent and feistiness — scored three runs in the top of the seventh.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 29, 2017
This game had homers, heroes, lead changes, pitching changes, intentional walks, a runner missing third base … all that and more red-line drama amid the backdrop of Arizona’s best team in years desperate to get to the World Series.
It was one of the greatest games I have ever seen … until it wasn’t.
At least for Arizona.
Candrea even invoked the old Wide World of Sports tagline.
“Unfortunately, the agony of defeat sometimes outweighs the thrill of victory,” he said. “It will definitely be one that I will ponder for quite some time.”
Yes. Two things in particular to ponder.
Up 5-3 going to the top of the seventh, Candrea pulled O’Toole, who had given up 10 hits and allowed 12 base runners in six innings. She wasn’t exactly fooling anyone with her change-up. With the middle of the Baylor’s order due up, Candrea — in what he called a “staff decision” — put in sophomore Taylor McQuillin.
She gave up a leadoff double. The Baylor rally was on.
Then came Candrea’s second fateful decision. For the second consecutive time, he intentionally walked cleanup hitter Shelby Friudenberg, who homered earlier. She had two hits and a walk Saturday. Candrea would later say, “she owned us.” He knew the risk: The move put the tying run on first base with no outs.
And it brought the go-ahead run to the plate.
Shelby McGlaun followed by hitting a fly ball that kept carrying … and carrying … and carrying … all the way over the batter’s eye in center field for a killer three-run homer.
“Hindsight is pretty easy in this game,” Candrea said. “When you’re doing it at that moment, if it works, great. If it doesn’t, you eat it. So, it didn’t work.”
Early on, it didn’t look like Arizona’s day, but it rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game in the bottom of fifth and then took the lead with two runs in the bottom of the sixth. In the top of the inning, Baylor seemingly took a 4-3 lead but Taylor Ellis was called out for not touching the base while rounding third.
Arizona’s Hillary Edior spotted the miscue from the dugout; Arizona went to the umpires, who called Ellis out in an incredible momentum shift in a winner-take-all game.
The softball gods were seemingly smiling on the Wildcats … until they weren’t.
In the bottom of the seventh, after a leadoff walk by Tamara Statman, pinch-runner Alexis Dotson tried to go to second on passed ball. But the ball caromed perfectly off the brick behind home plate, right back to the catcher, whose throw beat Dotson to the bag.
Two more walks put Arizona in business again, but Ashleigh Hughes flied out to center and pinch-hitter Nancy Bowling grounded out to second to end the season.
Then the tears. Then the long hugs. The unhappiest of endings.
Arizona came close to the World Series last season, losing at Auburn after winning the first game of the Super Regional. But the Wildcats were just trying to steal glory last season. Auburn was the better team. This year, the Wildcats owned glory … until they didn’t.
“Obviously, very disappointed,” Candrea said.
“I think they put Arizona softball back on the map, even though we fell short. … Most of the time when you go through a year, you’re going to have some issues. But this team didn’t have any. I feel bad that we had to end it on the note that we did.”
In the end, it was Baylor who got to show up at the postgame press conference wearing hats that read “OKC BOUND.”
Arizona will have to wait ’til next year.
But, as somebody said to me after the game, looking for big-picture perspective, that ninth national championship is always the hardest to win.