Clock strikes midnight for Cinderella softball at NCAAs

By Tim Murphy

For a little while at least, “Team Disney” seemed destined for a fairy-tale ending. But after an opening-round upset at the Great Lakes regional, softball received a cold, harsh dose of reality.

Needing four wins to advance to the national finals in Raleigh, Chicago (20–15) fought valiantly but came up short, falling to seventh-seeded Hope (33–14) 2–0 Friday in the second round and bowing out against fourth-seeded Aurora (38–11) 9-–2 in a do-or-die game Saturday. Third-year righty Petra Wade (19–9, 1.46), who emerged as the team’s ace after the departure of fourth-year All-American Hannah Roberts, took the loss in both games. The squad’s elimination brought to an end a remarkable season which saw the Maroons return to the NCAAs after a two-year absence, place three on the all-region team, and adopt a new G-rated nickname in the process.

“Team Disney is our joke about how our season mimicked a blend of The Mighty Ducks and Miracle. We were this scrappy team that no one expected to win and we came out of nowhere, enduring injuries, tough losses, and other setbacks to end up on top,” Wade said. “Our theme for Regionals was ‘Lights. Camera. Softball.’ Everyone thought we were crazy walking around with a video camera and trying to remember funny lines for our ‘script,’ but no one can say we didn’t enjoy ourselves at the tournament.”

Amidst a stiff wind and foreboding rain, Friday’s second-round matchup with the Flying Dutch looked more beastly than beautiful from the outset. Looking to avenge their regular-season sweep by the Maroons, Hope put a first-inning run on the board on a pair of singles to take the 1–0 against Wade and company. The righty pitched out of trouble in the subsequent innings, escaping a two-on, two-out jam in the third, and benefiting from some solid defensive play in the fourth to keep her team in the game. With runners on second and third and only one out, the Maroons were able to cut down the lead runner at the plate on a fielder’s choice.

Her offense could have used a magic lamp to help her out against fourth-year righties Becky Whitman and Kelsey Guisbert. Chicago left runners on base in six of seven innings, with the best opportunity coming on a second-inning drive off the bat of second-year right fielder Cassie Wierenga that died at the warning track in center.

After fourth-year shortstop Emily Adams took Wade yard leading off the bottom of the sixth to make it 2–0, the Maroons had one final chance to come back. They almost made it happen. With Wade on first with a leadoff single, Wierenga turned on a Whitman offering, coming within a few feet of the game-tying long ball. The wind kept the ball in, however, and Wierenga settled for a double with Wade stopping at third. Guisbert came on in relief and put out the fire, inducing Mayhew to pop up to the second baseman. Wade, who was tagging on the play, was thrown out at home, and the next batter, second-year catcher Vanessa Pineros, flied out to end the game.

Allowing two runs, both earned, on six hits and no walks to go with six punchouts, Wade went the distance in a losing effort. Whitman (13–2) earned the victory, shutting out the Maroons over six innings on six hits and two walks. Guisbert retired both batters she faced to record her fourth save.

“We had our chances but we didn’t finish,” head coach Ruth Kmak said. “We had some great opportunities initially but we didn’t finish; we couldn’t move the runners over. Then we got runners and we couldn’t get them in.”

The loss meant it was win or go home for the South Siders the rest of the way. With their ace on the hill once again, this time against a team they swept April 26 in Aurora, the Maroons had no worries going into Saturday’s contest. For four innings, the confidence seemed well taken.

The affair had the makings of a pitcher’s duel early on as neither squad could put anything together in the first two frames. Battling hard against Spartans first-year righty Nicole Capone, the Maroons pieced together a run in the bottom of the third to go on top. Third-year shortstop Mayhew, who was electric at the plate and on the basepaths all weekend, singled with one down to get things going, and a single from Pineros and a walk from first-year second baseman Jen Jacobson loaded the bases. The next batter, fourth-year third baseman Kayti Fuhr, pushed the run across with a fielder’s choice grounder to the second baseman. It was a good bit of situational hitting, but considering the stakes, the Maroons could have used a few more runs to make the lead a bit more comfortable.

As it was, Aurora came back to tie it in their next at-bats, and one inning later, the stampede came through. The Spartans struck Wade for five in the fifth, one in the sixth, and two more insurance runs in the top of the seventh to grab a commanding 9–1 lead. A ninth-inning Chicago rally plated one, but it was not enough to make the Maroons part of that world.

Hindered by a head injury suffered sliding home in the seventh inning of Friday’s game, Wade allowed a season-high nine runs, eight earned over seven innings, on nine hits and five walks. Capone mowed down the Maroons in a complete-game effort, painting all the corners of the plate while allowing two runs, both earned, on five hits and four walks to go with four punchouts.

“I know I had a much harder time with both teams,” Wade said. “That was the third game they’d seen me this year, and I really wasn’t nearly as effective. You win some, you lose some.”

The weekend’s defeats served as a swan song for the prolific careers of the squad’s graduating class. On a team with so many uncertainties entering the season, the veteran corps of Fuhr, first-baseman Rachel Cohen, designated hitter Kate Rhodes, and rookie senior reliever Courtney Uchytil set the tone for Chicago’s improbable success.

“The most important thing ‘the dynasty’ brought to this program was leadership. Each one of the girls had All-Region seasons, but it was their attitude and drive that kept us going,” Pineros said. “They are so passionate about the sport, and that kind of dedication and enthusiasm is infectious. No matter the situation, they were there to pick us up and motivate us,”

While they came up short in the end, the Maroons’ performance in Rock Island proved to the rest of the region that they deserved their bid, and with a solid nucleus returning next season, they’ll have some unfinished business to take care of next season. Wade will serve as the number one starter again, and shouldn’t have much trouble finding her new groove next spring.