UMass softball deserves praise, as well as viewers
If you’re a Boston sports fan, I can probably guess what you were watching last May 17 of last year.
The Boston Celtics were hosting the Orlando Magic in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, looking for the right to face Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavalier in the next round of the playoffs.
But unbeknownst to most in the state of Massachusetts, including nearly the entire UMass campus, watching that Celtics game prevented them from watching the best sporting event played in the state on that day, perhaps the month or even the year.
When the buzzer finally hit zero and the Magic came out triumphant over the Celtics, the Massachusetts softball team was deadlocked in a 1-1 tie in the NCAA Amherst Regional with the eventual 2009 College Softball World Series Champion and No. 3-overall seed Washington.
The Minutewomen started play that evening at 5 p.m. in the double-elimination tournament, with one loss already to the Huskies. A 5-1 victory by UMass – the first of only two losses Washington would suffer on their way to the national title – set up a winner take all game that started at 8:05 p.m.
It would take 15 innings and until 1:18 a.m. (softball games generally last seven innings and about two hours for those who do not know) to finally decide who would advance to the NCAA Super Regional, and as this epic unfolded under the temporary lights at the UMass Softball Complex, a fraction of a percent of the campus knew of arguably the best sporting event to be played in the state in 2009 and still to this point a minute number of people know of this game.
“That game will be in my heart and mind for the rest of my life,” UMass coach Elaine Sortino said. “I’ll never forget that game. I think it had to be the greatest battle I ever participated in as a coach.”
The majority of the 501 in attendance were the family of the women playing on the field, close friends or the media covering the event, but those who were there witnessed displays of athleticism, passion, desire and heart that the Celtics and Magic could not come close to matching on that night.
From the two times the Minutewomen threw a Washington player out at the plate, to the homerun UMass’ first basemen Sarah Reeves would have had in the 8th inning if not for being robbed by the Huskies right fielder, to the tears cried by graduated seniors Brandice Balschmiter and Whitney Mollica, no one who witnessed the 15-inning epic can deny that every player on that field left it all out there.
“Nobody can be there like we were there, parents, relatives friends, fans. The emails I got after that game are immeasurable,” Sortino said. “To have felt that and our ability to hold on and relinquish that game no matter what was a test to the mental fortitude that our team will benefit from for ever because that mental fortitude was passed on to this team.”
In the day of sports where we often question whether professional players with multi-million dollar contracts are dogging it as they run down to first base or to shag a fly ball, no one can say that when Washington’s Jenn Salling beat out a ground ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the 15th inning that she was dogging it.
After 10 scoreless innings were pitched by Balschmiter and the Huskies Danielle Lawrie – a duo of pitchers who threw 494 combined pitches in the game and a combined to throw 752 pitches in the two games – since the game became tied at one in the fourth inning, that groundball scored what would be the winning run in Washington’s 6-1 victory.
Now while fans don’t generally tailgate for softball games like they do for college football games, or plan to go to the softball game over the weekend as they would for a college basketball or hockey game, maybe they should. Especially with these Minutewomen.
Balschmiter and Mollica may have graduated as well as last year’s slugger Samantha Salato, whose solo homerun tied the epic game at one in the 4th inning, but so many other key members of last years squad are still here in Amherst.
A little more wind blowing out to right field when Reeves hit that ball that had home run distance and UMass would have advanced to the Super Regional instead of Washington. The Huskies went on to win the whole thing, so who says the Minutewomen couldn’t have?
With such a strong core coming back in Reeves, shortstop Whitney Williams, last years Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Carly Normandin, catcher Jessica Serio and second basemen Kyllie Magill to name a few, this years Minutewomen still have the key parts to what could have been a national championship team last year and what could be one this year.
So while these Minutewomen may not have the appeal of the bigger sports on campus, they are still one of the best teams in the country – they start the year ranked No. 20 – and you may want to strongly consider going to see them play. If that loss did anything positive for this team it gave them more desire, motivation and heart then they displayed in the 15-inning epic.
And trust me, if they ever put on another 15-inning epic – or something close to it – you’ll want to be there to see it. Just take my word for it.
Jeffrey R. Larnard is a collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.