Utah pitcher Mariah Lopez had just given up a leadoff solo home run to begin the seventh inning as No. 9 Washington cut the Utes’ lead to one. The next batter reached on an error, and the tying run was at first base, with the go-ahead run at the plate.

No sweat.

“Yeah, she’s always better after a home run,” coach Amy Hogue said.

During the next at bat, she calmly induced a ground ball double play to secure the 5-4 win over the Huskies last Friday, then allowed one hit and no runs in four innings the next day to sew up a huge series win for the Utes after Sunday’s finale was canceled due to inclement weather.

“I was really proud of her to just go right at the next hitter and do what we wanted to do,” Hogue said.

Lopez’s complete game win capped off a pretty memorable day for the senior, who graduated with her degree in psychology on Friday, then went straight to the ballpark in her cap and gown to warm up for the contest against the Huskies. A large contingent of family and friends in the sold-out stands cheering her on made the day even better.

“It was an unforgettable feeling and I did it with all my teammates and then we came here and just had a lot of fun today. It was great. Great day,” Lopez said.

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It’s been a journey for Lopez, who has grown into Utah’s ace and helped take them to the College World Series last year for the first time since 1994.

Hogue saw the potential in Lopez when she was a pitcher at Centennial High in Peoria, Arizona — mechanically sound, strong, and lots of room to grow.

For her part Lopez was sold on Utah after talking with future teammates Ellessa Bonstrom and Halle Morris and taking a visit to Salt Lake City.

“I came to visit in the summer and it was absolutely beautiful. I loved the campus, I loved the fields, and I loved the team atmosphere,” Lopez said.

From her freshman season, Lopez made an impact — winning five games and earning two saves while leading the team with 66 strikeouts. She started 18 games (30 total appearances, but had room to improve after posting a 6.58 ERA in her first season of college softball.

Each year, her ERA went down and her game became more dominant, and in her junior year, everything clicked.

Her pitch arsenal grew, she got stronger and she gained more velocity, but the real turning point was when her confidence skyrocketed midway through her junior season.

“She believed she could beat anybody and it was really obvious when it happened for us. And then we knew we’d give her the ball more than anybody else,” Hogue said.

Utah did just that, as Lopez pitched in 41 games with 36 starts (23-7 record), striking out 206 batters, posting an ERA of 2.87 and going the distance in 16 games in 2023

The defining moment of her Utah career so far came against No. 13 Oregon in the final game of the 2023 regular season, when Lopez threw a no-hitter to complete a road sweep of the Ducks, giving the Utes momentum heading into the Pac-12 tournament.

“When she no-hit Oregon at their place on day three for the sweep, that started us on a roll that didn’t stop until we got to the World Series,” Hogue said. “I think that was a pretty magical moment.”

Lopez pitched the final two games of the Pac-12 tournament, including a complete game in the championship win over UCLA that punched Utah’s ticket to the NCAA tournament.

Pitcher Mariah Lopez, goes into her windup as the University of Utah softball team plays Ole Miss in NCAA softball regional championship at Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. Utah won 4-1. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Winning the Pac-12 tournament in Tucson with her in the circle was a pretty special moment too,” Hogue said.

Lopez was in the circle for all of Utah’s super regional games against San Diego State, including allowing just one earned run in the winner-take-all rubber match, a 7-2 win over the Aztecs that sent the Utes to the College World Series for the first time in nearly three decades.

While the Utes lost both games in their College World Series appearance, winning the super regional was a monumental achievement for the program and something that Lopez will never forget, calling it her “absolute favorite memory” at Utah.

For Hogue, seeing Lopez grow has been a special process, and her stamina and ability to pitch complete games gives Hogue a huge comfort factor when she is pitching.

“She just has too many tools that she’s hard to scout. That wasn’t always the case, but she kept growing her game and getting better, and that’s why you’ll see so many complete games for her,” Hogue said.

With a career-best 2.27 ERA, Lopez has had another productive season in 2024, pitching in 39 games with 29 starts and 16 complete games with 201 strikeouts and a 21-10 record. She became the first Utah pitcher in more than a decade to have back-to-back 20-plus win seasons and recently was named to the All-Pac-12 first team for the second consecutive year.

Utah started off slow this season in conference play before finding its rhythm in April, building a 13-4 record and closing the month with three straight wins, including two over No. 9 Washington.

Lopez has been a major catalyst in that stretch, winning nine of her last 10 games with an ERA of 1.23. Utah’s ace is rounding into form at exactly the right time.

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“We talk about (getting) hot in May, and it’s basically just taking it one game at a time and kind of just having all the pieces work together to do big things. This team can do really big things,” Lopez said.

Even with a losing record in one of the country’s top conferences (10-13), Utah finished the regular season with a 32-19 record and are at No. 42 in RPI with key wins over Oregon, Cal, Arizona, Baylor and Washington.

The Utes will look to bolster their resume for the field of 64 and begin their Pac-12 title defense on Thursday at 11 a.m. MDT when they face Oregon in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

“Continue to focus on us and how to have fun playing the game that we love … if we care about each other’s success and play as a team and use everybody on that lineup, then I like our chances of continuing on an upward trend,” Hogue said.

Utah Utes vs. Stanford Cardinals at Dumke Family Softball field in Salt Lake City, UT on Sunday, April 16, 2023. Eli Rehmer/Utah Athletics | Eli Rehmer, Utah Athletics
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