Michigan softball blanks Louisville, 4-0, to win NCAA regional title
Note: This story was updated at 4:37 p.m. with additional details and post-game reaction.
By Matt Slovin
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Late-game heroics weren't necessary this time.
Neither was a decisive second game, as the Michigan softball team completed a clean sweep of a double-elimination NCAA regional tournament Sunday by defeating host Louisville, 4-0.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Junior second baseman Ashley Lane came to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the first inning and jump-started the Wolverines’ second tournament win over the Cardinals (55-5), who lost just three games during the regular season and were unbeaten at home.
Lane was 1-for-14 with the bases loaded this season, but this time she came just a few feet shy of clearing them.
“We knew that they were struggling to get it over the plate and we were going to take advantage of that,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.
In the first, sophomore leftfielder Nicole Sappingfield walked, advancing to second when senior first baseman Amanda Chidester slapped a single up the middle. Louisville starter Tori Collins issued another free pass to designated hitter Sara Driesenga, and the rally was on.
That allowed Lane to send two runners home with her timely hit, forcing Cardinals coach Sandy Pearsall to yank her starter after she retired just one batter.
“We didn’t set a really good tone in that first inning,” Pearsall said. “That came back to haunt us.”
Sara Driesenga added an RBI single in the second inning and Amanda Chidester an RBI single in the fourth.
The early Michigan (42-15) run support proved to be plenty for freshman ace Haylie Wagner, in the circle for the third consecutive day. Wagner’s effort in her 32nd start of 2012 was enough for her 26th complete game of the season.
The victory also gave her Michigan’s all-time record for wins by a freshman, edging former All-American Jordan Taylor with 32.
When she retired Cardinal batter Katelyn Mann with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning on a hard line drive to left field, Wagner had recorded every out in each of the Wolverines’ three weekend victories. Louisville scoring chances were hard to come by, just as they had been for the Cardinals on Saturday and for their in-state rival, Kentucky, on Friday.
That’s not to say Wagner didn’t have any help from the fielders behind her. Senior third baseman Stephanie Kirkpatrick flashed the leather repeatedly during the regional, earning her coach’s praise.
“Having (Kirkpatrick) there and being able to trust her to make those plays -- it’s definitely great,” Wagner said.
Added Pearsall, who pointed out Kirkpatrick’s fielding specifically: “(There was) tremendous defense from that team. They made some great plays. That helps a pitcher out a lot when you can make those kinds of defensive plays.”
Louisville led off the seventh with back-to-back singles from Alicja Wolny and Jordan Trimble. But Wagner, who lost seventh-inning leads in Michigan's previous two games, retired the next three Louisville batters to preserve the team's 11th shutout of the season.
It’s the 10th regional championship in 12 seasons for the Wolverines, who will travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a best-of-three series next weekend against Alabama, the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Crimson Tide (53-7) beat South Alabama, 6-0, in its regional final on Sunday.
“They’re powerful,” Hutchins said. “They’re speedy. They’ve got great pitching. They’ve got great coaching. They’re definitely a tough opponent.”
The Wolverines may have a mountain to climb to advance to the College World Series, but Hutchins allowed her team to enjoy the victory on Sunday.
“We’re thrilled to be advancing.”