Underdog softball on to second round

By Tim Murphy

“One game at a time” was the mantra head coach Ruth Kmak adopted for softball before the NCAA tournament. If the Maroons can continue to play like they did Thursday, those games might just start to add up.

Spurred on by aggressive baserunning, golden glovework, and another free pitching clinic from fourth-year Petra Wade, sixth-seeded Chicago (20–13) edged third-seeded Coe (34–11) 1–0 in the first round of the Great Lakes regional in Rock Island, Illinois. After manufacturing a run in the third, the Maroons held their ground the rest of the way against the Kohawks. Wade (19–7, 1.17) made sure the lead stood up, silencing her opponents over the full seven innings with nine strikeouts and no runs against three hits.

The win sets up a rematch with seventh-seeded Hope, a 5–2 victor over Augustana yesterday evening. The Maroons swept the April 22 doubleheader, notching a pair of wins over the Flying Dutch 2–0, 3–0 that would prove crucial to their qualifying campaign.

After Coe and Chicago both went quietly through the first two innings, the Maroons broke through in the top of the third against first-year Ellie Schultz (21–7). Leading off the inning, third-year shortstop Jessica Mayhew slapped an infield single, advanced to second on a passed ball, and swiped third, putting the go-ahead run just 60 feet from home. With one out, first-year second baseman Jen Jacobson hit a grounder to the right side to score Mayhew, who was off with contact. Recognizing that each run could be huge with the way the two pitchers were tossing the ball, the Kohawks went home with the throw. It was too late to get Mayhew, and Jacobson reached first without incident.

“It was kinda lucky,” Mayhew said. “The third baseman missed the ball and I thought I’d be out. Coach had changed her mind a few times on what I should do when I was at third. Right before, she changed her mind and said, ‘Run on anything with a downward angle.’ As soon as the ball was in play, I started breaking for home.”

Schultz escaped the inning without any further damage, but the run would prove costly. Despite hitting the ball hard all game, the Maroons’ offense advanced only three more players as far as second and left six runners on base. With their ace on the hill and an impenetrable defense behind her, it was all they would need.

Pitching on a season-high eight days rest, Wade mowed down a powerful Coe offense that came into the outing averaging 5.3 runs per game and had hit 29 home runs. The Kohawks advanced no runners past second and never had more than one base runner in an inning. Wade, who was named to the second-team all-Great Lakes regional team, went the distance for the 16th time this season.

“Petra pitched amazingly well,” Kmak said. “She got huge strikeouts in key situations. She was really effective mixing up her pitches, and left hitters frozen at the plate with their bats in their hands.”

“She hit her spots real good,” Mayhew said. “She always comes through when we need her to come through. She just went out there and did what Petra does.”

Despite the exceptional all-around effort from the underdogs, the contest entered its final inning with the outcome still hinging on each swing of the bat. The Maroons put a runner on in their half with a single from second-year right fielder Cassie Wierenga, but she was stranded at second, giving Coe one last shot at a comeback. Third-year second baseman Rachel Brinkman, who had hits in her first two at-bats, made it three-for-three with a two-out single and promptly stole second to put the tying run in scoring position. With Wade battling fourth-year first baseman Chris Engel late in the game, second-year left fielder Dominique Marshall chose the perfect moment to leave her mark on the game.

Fighting for her team’s playoff life, Engel lofted a fly ball down the left field line. The ball was twisting foul and in no danger of ending up in play, but Marshall had no intention of letting missed opportunities come back to bite her team. She went after it, battling a fierce wind and steady rain. As she approached the fence, she reached her glove out for the impossible catch. The ball, and with it the game, fell into her mitt as her teammates swarmed the field.

“Everyone started screaming,” Wade said. “We were really nervous and everyone just piled out of the dugout screaming.”

“We’ve been working really specifically on pop-ups, and the outfielders have been working on balls to the fence and the warning track,” Mayhew said. “It was a phenomenal catch. Everybody was ecstatic.”

The upset places Chicago only three wins away from a spot in the NCAA final rounds. The first step will be replicating their earlier success against Hope. When the two teams met at Stagg, Wade and her teammates shut down the Flying Dutch, The ace notched a pair of shutouts as the visitors collected just eight hits between the two contests. This time around, with a neutral location and both squads riding the momentum of their first-round triumphs, the Maroons will have to be on their game if they wish to advance.

“The one thing we have to guard against is overconfidence. They’re coming on strong and they’re going to be fired up,” Kmak said. “But we do have all of our pitching charts, and we know their tendencies.

We came in with the mindset that people thought we didn’t deserve to be here. Nobody said we should be here. We’ve proven we can be competitive with anyone here.”