That’s a wrap: Utes say their ‘fantastic’ softball season will be a ‘steppingstone’ to more success in Pac-12, nationally
Utah finishes breakout 2023 campaign with a 42-16 record and plenty of optimism moving forward under coach Amy Hogue
Perhaps University of Utah Director of Athletics Mark Harlan put it best after the Utes were eliminated in the Women’s College World Series softball tournament late Friday night in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
“A tough day does not diminish a remarkable year,” Harlan posted to his Twitter account.
Tough day is putting it mildly, after the Utes were forced to play two games on Friday because Thursday’s scheduled opener against Washington was postponed to Friday by multiple weather delays.
“I’m excited for the future Utes because this is going to be a big steppingstone for them. Today didn’t go our way, but I can’t wait to see what the Utes are going to do next year.” — Ellessa Bonstrom
The Utes lost 4-1 to Washington and 8-0 in five innings to Oklahoma State at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex to see their dream season come to a crashing halt, but head coach Amy Hogue refused to blame the blowout loss to the Cowgirls on that unfortunate turn of events.
“I would have loved to spend a bunch of time getting angry about it because that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “But that isn’t going to do anybody any good.
“There was nobody complaining about it — not me and not one of these 23 gals I brought with me. You won’t hear us complaining or making an excuse. … But, yeah, they did hard things today. They didn’t come up on the winning end, but I couldn’t have been more proud.”
As OSU coach Kenny Gajewski put it after his team improved to 47-15 and advanced in the one-loss bracket: “Utah will be back here again.”
It shouldn’t take 29 years, either.
In a magical season that took them to the WCWS for the first time since 1994, the Utes finished with a 42-16 record, their highest win total since they also won 42 games in 2000. Their winning percentage of .724 is the program’s highest since 1994 when, coincidentally, Hogue was a standout infielder on the team.
“I’m excited for the future Utes because this is going to be a big steppingstone for them,” said graduate student Ellessa Bonstrom, a fifth-year player who arrived on The Hill in 2018 and was a vital part of the rebuilding project. “Today didn’t go our way, but I can’t wait to see what the Utes are going to do next year.”
After the season’s sudden end, Hogue waxed philosophical in the interview room adjacent to the stadium in Oklahoma City, echoing Harlan’s sentiments that Friday will soon be forgotten, while other memories from the 2023 breakthrough for the heretofore middling Pac-12 program will last a lifetime.
“The pride that (they) displayed and the way they wore those colors, (I am) super proud. Proud of what they did because it’s an entire season, right, that we’re talking about,” Hogue said. “They accomplished so much. So it was fantastic year for the Utes.”
Memorable accomplishments included sweeping Stanford and Oregon in the regular season, winning the inaugural Pac-12 softball tournament, going 3-0 in Regionals against Southern Illinois and Ole Miss, and then coming back from a Friday setback to San Diego State in the Super Regionals to wallop the Aztecs twice in front of record crowds at Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Along the way, Bonstrom and junior pitcher Mariah Lopez became All-Americans; Bonstrom was named a second-team All-American by D1Softball.com and Lopez was named a third-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA).
“From the very beginning of this year we knew that the World Series was our goal. It started from the very first practice to the very first meeting,” Bonstrom said. “To say that we actually did it is honestly a dream come true. I’m so proud of this team, just the season we’ve had this year. I mean, we broke so many records. It was such a historic year for us.”
In 2018, the Utes went 2-21 in Pac-12 play, 20-30 overall. Bonstrom and some of the other departing seniors started to get it turned around in 2019, when Utah went 7-17 in league play, 19-35 overall. They were 14-4 overall and yet to play a Pac-12 game in 2020 when the pandemic cut that season short.
More setbacks came in 2021, when the Utes went 3-21 in conference, but giant steps were taken in 2022 when they went 27-27 and just missed making the NCAA Tournament.
“To be a part of kind of this rebuilding group of seniors, I mean, we didn’t start out great, and we are leaving the program better than what we came into,” Bonstrom said. “Coach (Hogue) stuck with us for all five seasons. We rebuilt that program. I’m so happy that she got to get back to the World Series and that she has the team that she deserves.”
Clearly, a big key to the Utes’ resurgence in 2023 was the emergence of Lopez, a first-team All-Pac 12 pick and the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Her 23 wins are the most by a Ute pitcher since 2000.
That is why the situation that unfolded Friday seemed so cruel. Asking Lopez to pitch against OSU after she had thrown 123 pitches against Washington was too much, and Hogue went with backups who were pummeled by OSU’s big-time hitters.
“Mariah could have (pitched against OSU),” Hogue said. “I’m sure if we would have caught up, we would have got her ready. But it was a day for those two seniors to go out there and do what they could, and they gave everything they had.”
Added another senior, Haley Denning: “This has been a season that’s been building since the day we didn’t make postseason last year. … We have grit, we have energy, we have all the things. It’s just been really cool to see how we turned the program around from what we were, having the belief and faith that we could make it here.”