For Chicago softball, Thursday’s matchup with Coe had all the makings of an instant classic. There was the fourth-year ace notching strikeout after strikeout from the circle. There was clutch, injury-be-damned defense from its left fielder. There was timely hitting, heads-up baserunning, and a never-say-die attitude. The only thing missing was a win.
In their return to the postseason, the fourth-seeded Maroons dropped their opener at the double-elimination NCAA Regional Thursday at Eau Claire, WI to set up a win-or-go-home scenario for the duration of the tournament. Chicago (25–10) fell 2–1 in nine innings to Coe (28–12), despite a season-high 14 strikeouts from fourth-year righty Petra Wade (15–6, 2.00) and a game-saving catch from third-year left fielder Dominique Marshall. Second-year righty Ellie Schultz (24–8, 0.82) took the win for the fifth-seeded Kohawks.
Getting an early boost to back up their ace, Schultz, the Kohawks struck first in the top of the third thanks to some aggressive baserunning. Stuck on first base with two out and Wade looking like she was going to return her team to the dugout untouched, second-year shortstop Ashley Leonard swiped second to get the rally going, then flew around to score on a single from first-year catcher Abby Wedemeier. The early score was a reversal of last year’s first-round result, when the Maroons got a run in the top of the third off of Schultz and then hung on for the upset.
Taking advantage of a brief fit of wildness from Schultz, the Maroons scraped together a two-out rally in the fifth to even things up. After fourth-year centerfielder Nancy Bugajski and third-year Cassie Wierenga opened the inning with groundouts, fourth-year shortstop Jessica Mayhew and third-year catcher Vanessa Pineros both drew walks to give Chicago two runners on with two down. That brought up the number-two hitter, second-year Jen Jacobson. With two strikes, Schultz jammed the third baseman with an inside pitch, but Jacobson managed a bloop single into shallow left center. Mayhew, taking off at contact, scored to give the Maroons their first run of the day.
Looking to hold on to the tie in the seventh, the Maroons needed a spectacular effort from Marshall to keep the game knotted at one. Chasing down a deep fly ball off the bat of Leonard, Marshall reeled in the catch and then crashed into the outfield fence, pushing it back and prompting the umpires to meet to determine the ruling. The catch stood—robbing Leonard of a home run—and Wade was able to get out of the inning unscathed.
With both hurlers shutting down the offenses, extra innings seemed the only natural conclusion to the pitchers’ duel. While the Maroons hitters made minor adjustments, moving up in the batter’s box to get a cut at Schultz’s dropball before it broke, they were unable to manage anything in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Kohawks another chance to break the game open. This time ,they took full advantage.
With one out, first-year third baseman MacKenzie Lang reached on a single to left, then ran wild on the basepaths to give her squad the lead for good. She stole second, then, with two outs, made a dash for third. Pineros’s throw got past Jacobson at the bag and went into left field, allowing Lang to scamper home with the winning run.
Wade went all nine innings, scattering six hits and no walks in what could be the final start of her career. Although she has pitched consecutive games of doubleheaders in the past and threw all three postseason contests last season, head coach Ruth Kmak indicated that today’s starter will most likely be a game-time decision.
“She was phenomenal,” Kmak said of Lang. “She was hitting her sports real well, she didn’t walk anybody; she threw great.”
Earning the win, Schultz went the distance as well, striking out only four to go with four walks, but conceded just three hits and kept the Maroons off balance with her dropball and by painting of the outside part of the plate.
“She threw a lot of outside stuff. We faced her last year, so we knew she threw a lot of dropballs, so we were working on that in warm-ups,” Mayhew said. “We were just catching the top of the ball and getting a lot of groundballs.”
With the loss, the Maroons will be relegated to the consolation bracket. They can still make it out as regional champions, but their margin of error is now razor-thin. The squad returns to the field tomorrow afternoon and will take on the St. Norbert Green Knights (20–13), 8–6 losers today to Illinois Wesleyan.
“We’re just gonna take it one game at a time,” Jacobson said. “We’re actually in a good place because that’s where Coe was last year [in the consolation bracket], and they ended up winning it.”