OKLAHOMA CITY – Taryne Mowatt cried at the interview podium, unable to answer a question. The emotion decked Callista Balko as she left the field, misty eyed, as a Wildcat for the final time.
The tears of joy from the past two championship seasons turned into tears of sadness Saturday. The Wildcats didn’t get it done this time at the Women’s College World Series, bowing out meekly in two games.
They entered the Series playing their best ball of the season, but seemed to spend most of both games standing around waiting for a fuel-injecting big break that never came.
Coaches and the team’s seniors had been talking about this team not having the same resolve as last year’s Cats, who captured Tucson’s hearts with thrilling comebacks and their never-give-an-inch toughness.
It was the kind of special UA performance not seen on a field or court or pool or course or track since Lute Olson’s basketball team won it all in 1997.
It just doesn’t happen every year.
“I don’t see any other team doing what we did last year – maybe in 10 years, 15 years from now,” Mowatt, a senior pitcher, said after Alabama eliminated the Wildcats 5-1 on Saturday.
“You have to have some luck in this game. It’s talent, skill and luck. Luck was not on our side this week.”
In 2007, second baseman Chelsie Mesa made an over-the-shoulder catch with the bases loaded in Game 2 of the championship series against Tennessee.
If the ball is hit a foot farther, the Vols almost certainly go on to win, sweeping the Wildcats. There would have been no national title, no Mowatt Miracle, no ESPYs.
In 2008, Alabama’s Brittany Rogers bloops a double just over the flailing, desperate, outstretched arms of shortstop K’Lee Arredondo for the go-ahead hit in the sixth inning.
Not much difference in the plays. Big difference in the results.
In 2006, in a Series game against Texas, pinch-runner Kelly Nelson made a mistake on a double steal, breaking from third on pitcher Cat Osterman’s release.
Nelson, who was supposed to run on the catcher’s throw to second, would have been out easily if the catcher had noticed her barreling down the line. It all worked out when Megan Willis threw to second and Nelson beat the throw back home.
In 2008, Jill Malina makes a mistake on a double steal, hesitating on her break from third base and getting caught too far off the bag. She was an easy out.
Same strategy. Two mistakes. Different results.
For a couple of years, every coin-flip play came up in UA’s favor. Not so this season.
“Part of this is luck, and part of it is being in the right position at the right time,” said Balko, a senior catcher.
“At this level, at this tournament, mistakes win games. Half the games are won on errors or a blooper. It’s just freak things that happen. And that’s how you win.”
Funny game, this softball. The thinnest of margins and huge dollops of random chance.
Makes you appreciate the winning – the high level of excellence that Arizona softball has achieved for about two decades – all the more.
UA, over the years, did manage to take some chance out of the equation simply by being significantly better than most of the field. That was the case through most of the middle 1990s.
It’s not that way anymore. With more parity, the more those random factors come into play. Arizona can’t be expected to simply show up, throw a few shutouts, steal a few bases, hit some home runs and reach the final.
It has to have a little luck. It has to show a lot of heart.
Interim coach Larry Ray, at one low point of the regular season, used a Rocky analogy to motivate the team. He recalled how the movie boxer, after he had won the title, stopped working, stopped preparing as hard.
It was unrealistic to expect the back-to-back champion Cats to do what they had done in 2007. Turns out, it was hard for them to recapture the fighting spirit, too.
“Sometimes, that’s a product of winning all the time,” Ray said. “Sometimes, maybe, you take it for granted.”
Next year’s team, stung by the Series’ setback, shouldn’t have that problem. Balko, before she left ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, talked to the team about the importance of leaving a legacy. Like the 2007 team did.
“This feeling will make them appreciate it that much more when they do win it,” Balko said.
“In order to appreciate it, you kind of do have to lose. It might be a good thing for next year. Make them fight a little harder about it.”
WCWS Championship Series
Game 1: Arizona State vs. Texas A&M, 5 p.m. Monday. TV: ESPN2
BY THE NUMBERS
1: Victory, in 11 attempts, by Alabama over Arizona. The Crimson Tide won 5-1 Saturday to eliminate the Wildcats from the Women’s College World Series.
15: Number of times UA third baseman Jenae Leles was hit by a pitch this season.
19: Losses for Arizona, the most since the 1989 team went 48-19.
21: Consecutive years in which either Arizona or UCLA had been in the final of the College World Series.