Fortune-kissed Utes down Ole Miss again, will host a super regional this week
Thanks to No. 2 UCLA’s ouster in its regional, No. 15-seeded Utah will stay at home this week, and is two wins away from World Series
Rocking and festive Dumke Family Softball Stadium is where it all went down Sunday afternoon, as the No. 15-seeded Utes took care of business when another high-profile Pac-12 team could not and dropped Ole Miss 4-1 to stay unbeaten in postseason play and win the NCAA’s Salt Lake City Regional.
“That doesn’t happen very often. Usually I am sprinting around first, but that one I knew it was gone.” — Utah freshman Karlie Davison on her two-run home run.
But in a way, the biggest win of the weekend for coach Amy Hogue’s crew came Saturday night when Liberty eliminated No. 2 seed UCLA in the Los Angeles Regional, meaning that Utah will host a super regional, against San Diego State, this week for the first time in program history.
The streaking Utes (40-13), who have won nine straight, are two wins away from advancing to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), a remarkable accomplishment for a program that went 27-27 in 2022 and 22-33 in 2021.
“Eleven hits today for us. That was fantastic. I am really proud of this team (for) accomplishing something we’ve not done,” Hogue said. “We have never had the opportunity to host the supers and I would love anybody to come here and play this team right now (and show they can win) because we are playing great. We just earned a couple more days of ball.”
San Diego State downed Liberty 6-3 Sunday to advance.
“Everyone is great, and they are going to be gunning for us, so we will know a whole lot more before we get to the end of the week,” Hogue said when asked about her familiarity with the Aztecs and Flames, who knocked off UCLA 2-1 Saturday after Grand Canyon had upset the Bruins 3-2 late Friday.
As for their league mate’s disastrous regional, Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez and shortstop Karlie Davison said they watched it Saturday night, while Hogue said she caught just the last six outs.
“It just made (Sunday’s win) that much sweeter,” she said.
Utah will be heavily favored, obviously, after record crowds — Sunday’s announced attendance was 2,506 as red-decked fans filled the seats and the grass berm beyond the outfield — watched the Utes roll through Southern Illinois 11-9 Friday and Ole Miss 7-1 Saturday before the defensive struggle against the Rebels (32-28) on Sunday.
How good are these Utes?
Third-year Ole Miss coach Jamie Trachsel, whose team went 8-16 in the rough-and-tumble SEC, said Utah can not only advance to the WCWS, but win a few games when it gets there.
“Utah has a really dynamic offense,” Trachsel said. “They are really balanced … They can kinda bleed you to death.”
As for the huge crowd that pitch-by-pitch did its best to will the deep, speedy and talented Utes to the victory, Ole Miss shortstop Mikayla Allee said it was impressive, but not something the Rebels weren’t used to seeing.
“The SEC kinda prepares us for that,” she said. “We have played big games with big crowds the last eight weekends.”
In what was arguably the biggest game in the Hogue era, the Utes delivered.
This week’s visitor from the Mountain West won’t be nearly as prepared. After SIU, the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champion, fell to the Utes Friday, its players and coaches said they had never seen anything quite like it.
Hogue said the kind words from Trachsel “mean a lot,” because the Rebels made the Utes earn it.
“They were tough. We were studying them and knew that they had been coached up well, and knew that they would be so tough. So that’s a lot of respect, and I appreciate that from her,” Hogue said.
Utah pounded out 39 hits in the three games, while junior lefty Lopez won all three from the circle, going the distance both times against Ole Miss.
“Having Mariah just give up one run two days in a row to them just feels unreal,” Hogue said. “But that’s how good she was.”
Lopez’s earned run average in her last seven games is 1.69.
But while the Tucson, Arizona, native overpowered Ole Miss on Saturday with a season-high 10 strikeouts, on Sunday the Rebels attacked her differently, and she still won. She “only” struck out five, so Utah’s defense behind her had to be solid — and it was.
Could she have gone longer?
“Yeah, as long as we need to go,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Utah failed to get a runner aboard in the first inning — the only inning that happened all tournament — then seized control in the second when freshman Davison belted a two-run home run well over the left-field fence.
“We had been talking about that (low, inside) pitch in particular because it got me out twice yesterday and I knew it was going to come again,” Davison said. “So it was just a matter of time before I got it, and I wasn’t going to let them get me out on that pitch again. I just put a good swing on it, and I am just glad it went out and we put two runs on the board.”
Davison, who also belted a homer against SIU and had five RBI in that game, said she knew it the second it left her bat. It was her team-leading 11th homer of the season, passing Ellessa Bonstrom’s 10.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Davison said. “Usually I am sprinting around first, but that one I knew it was gone.”
After Davison’s homer, Abby Dayton singled up the middle, went to second on Haley Denning’s sacrifice bunt, and scored on Kendall Lundberg’s single.
The uprising ended when Utah’s Shelbi Ortiz was thrown out at the plate, with Hogue acknowledging after that she was “so aggressive” there and wanted that decision back. She also noted that aggressive base running is a team trademark, and paid off later in the game.
“I am going to live and die with that,” said the 16-year coach.
The Utes went up 4-0 in the fourth when No. 9 hitter Ortiz led off with a double and scored on Aliya Belarde’s single, a single that chased Ole Miss starter Catelyn Riley. Grace Sparks came on and shut out the Utes the rest of the way, but the damage had been done.
Ole Miss threatened in the fifth, scoring its lone run on Jalia Lassiter’s RBI double. Lassiter got greedy and tried to make it a triple, but was gunned down at third on a nice relay from center fielder Dayton to shortstop Davison to third-sacker Julia Jimenez.
In the sixth inning, Utah’s crowd starting doing the wave, then stood in unison in the seventh when Lopez closed out the visitors, assisting herself for an out when she snagged a line drive, snowcone-style, off the bat of Lassiter.
“They were cheering the whole time, and that was really keeping us up, and us wanting to do it not only for our team and our coaches, but for the fans,” Lopez said.