May 24, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
There was a top-notch atmosphere Sunday in Georgia Tech’s softball stadium. From Mewborn Field, a national television audience could see shirtless students with painted chests and members of the baseball team wearing rally hats and leading cheers for their diamond siblings while the crowd at times stomped aluminum bleachers so loudly that ESPN probably had to dial down the noise.
The locals drowned out the Oregonians in volume, but not by way of resonance as the premier college softball conference made deafening noise not only at Tech but around the nation. The Yellow Jackets fell 4-3 in eight innings, yet didn’t lose to the Ducks so much as the ACC lost to the Pac-10.
When it comes to NCAA Division I softball, the Pac-10 is the Donald, which is to say beyond compare.
The empire – the Pac-10, whose teams have won 21 of 28 College World Series – sent to Atlanta one of its scouts, a squad that finished seventh out of the eight that play the sport in the conference.
With modest artillery (Oregon hit one home run in three combined games) and a brave approach (the Ducks scored most of their runs with two outs) the scout snuffed the ACC champ. “We just played basic small ball,” said Ducks coach Mike White. Tech (51-11) had tied the game with two runs in the bottom of the seventh by playing small ball themselves. But the nation’s No. 2 home run-hitting squad (113 entering the weekend), could not get another runner home despite having loaded the bases with one out.
When many forms of contact might have pushed the winning run across the plate to force another game, Hope Rush struck out swinging and Caitlin Jordon struck out looking.
Oregon (36-19), which had hit 50 home runs entering the weekend, won on a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning. Nothing new; the sport rotates on a western axis. Six teams in the NCAA “Sweet 16” are from the Pac-10.
“They’re always rated the No. 1 conference for reason,” Tech coach Sharon Perkins said.”They have a different type of kid there than we have here, but it was still anybody’s ball game. They’re just different. They’re all California kids and they grow up knowing certain things when they’re 8 years old. Sometimes some of our kids get here and we’re having to teach them.”
In the Pac-10, they play a different caliber of softball. Four Sweet 16 teams are from the SEC, which has made inroads in recent years.
There were times this season when Tech appeared to be gaining traction on a national level.
In the Jackets’ first tournament, they beat last year’s national runner-up, Florida of the SEC, 3-0 as Rush hit a home run and pitched a gem. Also early in the season, Tech beat two more teams that have since made it to the Sweet 16, topping Hawaii 11-2 and Louisiana-Lafayette 7-1.
But more than half of Tech’s 11 losses this season came to Pac-10 and SEC teams after the Jackets fell 4-1 to Cal, 5-4 and 6-3 to Georgia, 13-1 to Alabama, 11-2 and 4-3 to Oregon.
They had shots Sunday, several more than in Saturday’s 11-2 loss to the Ducks. Trailing 3-1, Tech rallied in the bottom of the seventh when Shannon Bear reached by beating out a bunt, Christy Jones walked, and Jen Yee moved them over with a hard ground out to second base.
Kate Kuzma singled up the middle to drive in a run, Kelsi Weseman was walked intentionally to load the bases and for the first time all weekend, Oregon was under pressure. Kristine Priebe singled to tie the game, and “You could feel the momentum shift toward us,” Yee said.
Along the third-base line, several members of the baseball team were whooping it up. In the bleachers, several football players, including linemen Phil Smith and Joseph Gilbert, were stomping up and down. Athletics director Dan Radakovich paced outside the press box.
Oregon’s coach, Mike White, finally made a pitching change.
Freshman Jessica Moore to that point had thrown every pitch of the regional for the Ducks, allowing five runs in 18.1 innings. She shut out Auburn Friday, allowed Tech two runs in the first inning Saturday, and then flummoxed the Jackets for 10 straight innings over two days as Yee’s third-inning homer Sunday was until the seventh inning her team’s only run.
In came pitcher Mikayla Moore.
“That’s what I would have done, too, because you have to break up our momentum, and I thought they did that well,” Yee said.
Down went Rush and Jordan, the Tech freshmen, to end the rally. “I don’t think we handled [the pitching change] well,” Yee said. “You don’t go down with two strikeouts to end the inning like that.”
Perkins said, “I think that always happens when you bring in a new pitcher. You try to get on time and it was somebody we hadn’t faced so every team goes through that a little bit.”
Here, Tech was ruing a lost opportunity in the fifth inning, when Jones broke from second base on one of Kuzma’s three hits, a hard single to center field. Perkins was waving Jones around, but the runner had gotten a late break as Kuzma’s line drive hung up enough that it was not immediately clear whether Oregon center fielder Neena Bryant would catch it.
“I was reading we better take a chance if there was a bobble, and there was bobble but it was pretty clean that she caught it right after,” the Tech coach said. “So I screamed `Back!’ as soon as I saw her field it clean, and she couldn’t get back.” Jones hit third base at top speed at almost the precise moment Perkins changed the call. Bryant had bobbled the ball, but only for an instant. Then, she threw a strike to catcher Ashley Kivett. Soon, Jones was out in a run down, and Tech did not score in the inning.
In the top of the eighth, Carlyn Re led off with a single and then pinch runner Shelley Deadmond went to second on a wild pitch by Rush, and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt.
Here, as Tech was reminded the hard way in the bottom of the seventh inning, a strikeout pitcher would’ve been perfect. Perkins stuck with Rush (28-8), who took both losses over the weekend, over Jessica Coan (15-1 after picking up both weekend wins). On the season, Rush struck out 170 hitters in 222.1 innings, Coan 125 in 85.1. “Nope,” Perkins said. “Hope’s been our top pitcher all season so we were riding her.”
Kivett’s sacrifice drove in the eventual winning run.
In the bottom of the eighth, Endicott registered her third and fourth consecutive strikeouts, retiring pinch hitter Kristen Adkins and Bear. Jones grounded out to the pitcher to end Tech’s season with Yee on deck.
Two years in a row the Jackets have rolled through the ACC. Two years in a row their season has ended with back-to-back losses at home in NCAA action at the hands of a Pac-10 team (last year, it was eventual national champion Washington).
The ACC has no teams in the Sweet 16. The Pac-10 is in a league of its own with 75 percent of its softball-playing members still alive. Cal, Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA and Washington are still alive for the Pac-10, where depth is the word.
Tech hit .242 in the regional with five home runs (four in wins against Jacksonville State and Auburn and one in two losses to Oregon). Beyond Yee, who hit .500, and Kuzma, who had all three of her hits Sunday, the rest of the Jackets were 15 for 76 (.197 average) in the regional. Tech made five errors.
Oregon hit .342 (opponents just .236), and committed one error. Six Ducks finished the regional with a batting average of .333 or better. They combined for one home run, a Kaylan Howard grand slam in the first inning against Tech Saturday. That gave Oregon a lead against Tech that they Ducks never lost in two days.
“We expected to go to Oklahoma [City for the College World Series],” Yee said.
Then, a Pac-10 team showed up.