FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas All-SEC freshmen Mary Haff and Hannah McEwen had led the Razorbacks to first-time hosting a NCAA Women’s Softball Regional at Bogle Park.
On Sunday, before 2,142, the third largest Bogle Park crowd ever, the freshman phenoms led the Razorbacks to playing in their first-ever Super Regional next weekend against the reigning national champion Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma.
Pitcher, Haff after throwing complete game two-hit and one-hit shutouts Friday and Saturday in 2-0 and 5-0 victories over DePaul and Wichita State in relief of starter Autumn Storms, won Sunday’s Fayetteville Regional championship game, 6-4 over Wichita State after the Shockers clawed out of the loser’s bracket final Saturday night.
They beat Oklahoma State in the four-team double-elimination tournament.
Right fielder McEwen’s two-run home run, her team-leading 12th, ascended third-year coach Courtney Deifel’s Razorbacks from down 4-3 to up 5-4 in the fourth with Arkansas adding an insurance run with catcher Kayla Green leadoff, doubling in the sixth and pinch-runner Sydney Benz on a wild pitch, scoring on her behalf.
McEwen, who had deemed herself not hitting up to snuff, hit her two-run shot over left against reliever Caitlin Bingham.
“I thought I was due for something,” McEwen said. “It’s been awhile, so I was ready for it for sure but I didn’t know it was going to be that. I was just hoping no one would get to it and once I saw it was carrying I was running to first going, ‘Please, keep carrying.”
Haff, tagged for Asea Webber’s two-run double scoring inherited runners from Storms as the Shockers took the 4-3 lead during a three-run third, pitched out of a one-out bases-loaded, two hit batters and one walk fifth inning jam.
With a short non-advancing fly to center and a strike out, Haff fended off the Shockers in the fifth then struck out the side in the sixth.
Adrenaline pumping, a resurgent Haff concluded her amazing weekend, retiring the Shockers 1-2-3 in the seventh.
“I definitely wasn't feeling amazing after pitching two games the past two days,” Haff said of taking Sunday’s mound completing her three games of 18 and two-thirds innings with 20 strikeouts, no runs charged and four hits. “But I knew I had to go out there and grind for my team and do whatever I had to do to make outs. They were behind me to make some really good outs and helped me out at the plate, too, on the other side with Hannah's home run. After she hit that, I was like, 'I'm not letting the game go. We're not losing this game.”
Fittingly, Arkansas senior third baseman Autumn Buczek of Greenbrier, who had weathered playing for former coach Mike Larrabee’s 16-37, 1-23 SEC team in 2015 and Deifel’s, 17-37, 1-23 SEC team in 2016 then helped last year’s 31-24 team reach regionals, recorded the last putout with a lunging snag of Ryleigh Buck’s not far above ground short, foul popup.
“It was awesome, but you can’t do it without the team before that,” Buczek said. “My team did a great job of being resilient that whole game. Mary Haff faced adversity but she didn’t let it faze her. So, there was resiliency the whole game, and it was great. The game was right in my heart. I just wanted to end it, just wanted it to be over.”
Deifel recalled all in the dugout figuratively sharing Buczek’s catch.
“I think we were all willing her to make that catch,” Deifel said. “And then, you hear a roar of pure joy. Autumn is the only one who can make that play, and you just saw so much heart going out there doing what she could to win this game.”
Heart and guts, Deifel said referring to Haff.
“She has a lot of guts and she's a consistent fighter for us,” Deifel said. “It's at that point of the season where you don't count pitches anymore. Tired is not in your vocabulary. You just do whatever you need to for your team to win. And that's exactly what Mary did this weekend.”
Wichita State showed plenty of guts, too, Deifel said starting with pitcher Bailey Lange who threw 341 pitches for the weekend, beating Oklahoma State twice Friday afternoon and Saturday night, between losing to Arkansas Saturday and starting again Sunday.
“Wichita State fought, and fought and fought,” Deifel said. “Lange is such a fighter. I watched her battle against us yesterday and then night against Oklahoma State. I give her a ton of credit. She pitches with a lot of heart.”
But Lange was “gassed”, Wichita State coach Kristi Bredbenner said from her weekend and relieved Sunday by Bingham after Arkansas’ three-run first.
It included singles by McEwen and Buczek before Ashley Diaz’s RBI single, Katie Warrick’s sacrifice fly and Diaz scoring when WSU catcher Madison Perrigan forgot there was no force after Tori Cooper grounded out to first and merely stepped on the base rather than tagging Diaz who scored.
Storms, “we needed her every pitch today,” Deifel said of prolonging when Haff had to pitch again, was tagged for Lange’s double and Laurie Derrico’s RBI single in the first. She pitched a 1-2-3 second with two strikeouts before running into trouble in the third. She was removed leaving the bases loaded and one out and other run in before Webber greeted Haff with the two-run double.
Then, Haff slammed the door.
National champion Oklahoma, blowing out Missouri in its Norman Regional final Sunday, looms next but didn’t Sunday night.
“I first just want them to enjoy this,” Deifel said. “This is such a big moment for them and for our program. So I just want them to enjoy it. Then I want them to rest. Then we'll go to work.”