Coming into their final day of action Monday in the NCAA Central Region Final, the University of Chicago softball team (29-11) needed to win either of two games against Alma College (39-7), ranked third in the nation, to advance to the six-team Division III Championship.
After beating Alma on Sunday to advance to the final, the team unfortunately lost both decisions: 4-1 in the first game and 1-0 in the winner-advances final.
Chicago appeared to be in command of the regional tournament, as they had won their first three games. But on Monday something about the Maroons changed. All-American pitcher Hannah Roberts, who had shut out the Maroons' first three opponents over 23 innings of work, struggled in her start against Alma. She gave up an uncharacteristic three earned runs in the first inning, matching her total in the entire regular season.
Alma picked up another run in the second inning and the Maroons' offense was never able to answer effectively. Chicago's offense struggled the entire tournament, averaging just 1.4 runs per game and scoring more than one run only once in five games. As has been the case the entire season, Roberts and the rest of the pitching staff kept the team in games long enough for them to edge out opponents.
The second and deciding game remained scoreless for eight-and-a-half innings before a one-out flare over first-year shortstop Nancy Bugajski's head by Alma's Laura Bell drove in a runner from third to end the contest and the Maroons' season. Bell took advantage of a drawn-in infield, trying to prevent the runner from scoring on a groundball.
The hit came off Roberts, who was working in relief of first-year Petra Wade after she gave up a leadoff double in the ninth. First-year Lauren Hula started the game, and allowed four hits and no runs in 5.1 innings.
Before Monday's games, Chicago's pitchers had given up no runs in three games. On Friday, Chicago defeated Edgewood 4-0 in their first game of the tournament. Roberts and Wade combined for three hits over seven innings. Second-year third baseman Kayti Fuhr was 2-3 and scored twice.
In their second game on Friday, the Maroons edged out Augustana 1-0. No runs were scored until the top of the 11th inning, when second-year centerfielder Kara Thaw scored off an Augustana error. Roberts pitched a complete game shutout, allowing just five hits and striking out 15 in 11 innings.
Sunday, Chicago picked up their lone win against host team Alma, 1-0. Roberts threw another complete game shutout, walking none and striking out nine against the very productive Scots. The game's lone run came in the sixth when Thaw walked, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and moved to third and scored on consecutive sacrifices.
Fatigue certainly must have played a factor in Chicago's collapse; prior to Monday's first game, which was originally scheduled for Sunday before Saturday's games were rained out, Roberts had thrown 23 innings in just three days. She walked an uncharacteristic five batters in her start. The team's penchant for close games finally caught up with them.
For the second year in a row, Chicago's season has ended in an extra-innings loss in the regional finals. Their 29 victories this season were a school record, breaking the 2001 team's mark of 26.