Dramatic seventh-inning rally means Oklahoma City for Michigan, uncertainty for Missouri

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It was a rally that left the woman with more wins than any other coach in the sport wiping away tears and dancing, neither an act commonly associated with Carol Hutchins. It was a win she told her Michigan players ranked among the best in the history of one of the most stable, admired programs in college softball and delivered its 12th trip to the Women's College World Series.

Time will tell if it was also the rally that ended Ehren Earleywine's employment at Missouri.

Down three runs entering the top of the seventh inning and three outs from having to play a winner-take-all finale on a day when its pitching ace had already been brought to her knees and dispatched to an ice bath with a sore back, No. 2 Michigan scored four runs before it ran out of outs against No. 15 Missouri. Then it held on by its fingernails to finish a 5-4 win.

"That's one of the very greatest victories ever in the history of Michigan softball," Hutchins said.

This wasn't a referendum on two programs. It was just a softball game between two very good teams. It turned on hits and runs, plays made and not played. It even turned on sunglasses left in the dugout. Both teams accumulated nine hits. Both teams left six runners on base.

Michigan just scored one more run. Such is softball.

But darned if it didn't feel like some sort of parable all the same. Sports does that sometimes.

A game with high stakes nonetheless meandered through the early innings, even the drama of the home run that put Michigan ahead 1-0 undermined by Lindsay Montemarano stumbling as she rounded first base and tumbling to the ground before completing her circuit.

But inning after inning, Missouri starter Paige Lowary grew into the game. And with each easy inning -- Lowary at one point retiring the top six batters in Michigan's lineup in order on only 14 pitches -- the lead looked more tenuous for the higher seed. That was all the more true after Michigan starter Megan Betsa needed treatment from the team's trainer for what she said was the recurrence of back issues.

Betsa stayed on the field, but Missouri's Taylor Gadbois tied the score with an RBI double soon thereafter. And an inning later, with Betsa now out of the game and in an ice bath in the team's clubhouse, Missouri's Rylee Pierce hit a three-run home run to give the Tigers a 4-1 lead.

All Missouri needed to carry its momentum to a decisive third game were three more outs. The first of those looked certain when Montemarano did what so many Michigan hitters did on the day and popped up a Lowary pitch. But on an afternoon that saw sunny skies give way to intermittent clouds passing overhead, Missouri senior shortstop Sami Fagan, playing without sunglasses, lost the ball in the sun.

The ball hit her and fell to the ground, Montemarano safe at first.

"That's a lesson learned the hard way," Earleywine said. "Bring your glasses out before the inning."

Sierra Romero's sacrifice fly after two more singles cut the deficit to two runs, but Michigan also had two outs by then. That's when Kelly Christner and Kelsey Susalla, the latter a cleanup hitter mired in an extended slump, delivered back-to-back RBI hits to tie the score. A wild pitch eventually allowed Christner to come home with the go-ahead run.

Gadbois made it to third in the bottom of the inning, Missouri's running game finally on display after she stole second and third, but the game ended with her there.

It was the fight to make the rally happen that Hutchins suggested moved her to tears. Michigan wins a lot and wins in a way that most hold up as a standard of how college athletics should function and how a coach can be, for lack of a more accurate phrase, a hardass. But it's more about becoming a better person, with athletic success in some ways merely the byproduct.

"Our culture is our strength, I believe that," Hutchins said. "Our culture is more important to me than being able to hit the ball or pitch the ball -- although you need a little bit of that. But culture is what makes everybody accountable. Culture holds the standards high and players rise to the standards. And culture is the only reason I will ever punish a kid, if they try to damage our culture. We have worked really hard over the years and all these young women are just models, models of our culture."

It is the culture that is under fire at Missouri, unfairly if you listen to the fans who made their support of Earleywine evident in both voice and attire here as everywhere else the past few weeks. And unfairly if you listen to any player who speaks publicly. But under fire all the same.

"The past month has probably been the most rewarding month of my life," Pierce said. "Our team and our leaders made huge risks and did things that could really change our program. And the future of our program, being a freshman it really mattered to me. I just love my team. I'm so grateful to have a senior class like those three because they wanted to not only do good this year, but they wanted to leave the underclassmen with the best. And that's Coach E."

What comes next for Earleywine will have nothing to do with on-field performance. If that were the measuring stick, he would be in the dugout when the program opens a new stadium built in large part because of the success of his teams and the loyal fan base eager to pay for tickets. It will hinge on what the university makes from its investigation of complaints it says it received from inside and outside the program about Earleywine and what even he acknowledges is an abrasive coaching style.

But surely it would have been more difficult for Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades, who was present Saturday but not Sunday, to ignore the outpouring of support from fans and a short-lived protest by players had the team completed its comeback Sunday. Had Missouri gone to yet another World Series under Earleywine, surely it would have been more difficult to fire him, barring more damning evidence of wrongdoing than is currently known publicly.

"I don't know if 'fair' is the right word," Earleywine said when asked if the school had treated him fairly through this process. "Maybe different [is the right word]. Maybe if things were handled differently. I don't think unfairly is necessarily the right word but maybe just differently. But at the end of the day, they had accusations that they had to investigate, and as I've said before, I know there are things I can do to be better. ...

"They're administrators, and I'm a coach. And that'd be like them telling me I should have bunted in the fifth inning. That's their game, and I trust that their wisdom, their experience is far better than mine in that regard. So I have to go with the fact that they handled it right, just like they have to go with the fact that I coached this game right. That's their forte, this is my forte.

"So my opinion doesn't really matter as far as how the administration handled it."

For all the drama of the final innings at Alumni Field on Sunday, the most powerful moment of human emotion might have come in the minutes after the final out was recorded. As Hutchins, albeit very briefly, joined her players dancing and laughing to a Soulja Boy song playing over the public address system, Earleywine sat alone at the far end of his team's dugout. Fagan stopped as players filed by and hugged him.

Soon thereafter, Larry Earleywine walked over and sat down next to his son.

Of his thoughts in those moments, the younger Earleywine said he was thinking only of the three seniors -- Fagan, Gadbois and Emily Crane -- who contributed so much to the program.

He said he knew of no timeline for a decision and didn't know if he would be back.

"I don't want to picture my college career without being coached by him," Pierce said. "So I'm counting on the cards that they figure out he did nothing wrong and that he coaches me for the next three years."

One team is going to the World Series. The other is going home.

In a contest defined by rules and reaction times, it is surely a coincidence that the former is revered for its culture while the latter is under fire for the same.

But it is also true.

Player of the day

It was a bittersweet day for the softball Fagans. Missouri senior Sami Fagan played her final game in the loss at Michigan, but younger sister Haley helped ensure the family will be in Oklahoma City by supplying offense in both of Auburn's wins to complete a super regional comeback against Arizona.

Out much of the season because of a knee injury, it was unclear if she would even try to come back for the postseason at the expense of the entire year of eligibility (although as a transfer from South Alabama who previously sat out a season, she would have needed to apply to the NCAA for a sixth year). Auburn needed her Sunday. Down 1-0 in an elimination game, Fagan's double drove in two runs to put her team ahead to stay in the fourth inning. That win earned the Tigers a winner-take-all finale, and Fagan punctuated that win with a fifth-inning home run.

She had only one hit in six appearances when the day began. She had three times that many hits Sunday.

Highlight of the day

It's not so much the highlight as the explanation. Lindsay Montemarano was a spark for Michigan in both games of the Ann Arbor Super Regional, offensively and defensively. But while her home run early in Sunday's game was of great value to the Wolverines in what turned out to be a one-run win, it may be remembered -- certainly by her teammates -- for the tumble she took as she rounded first base. As quick with her words as she is with her glove at third base, at one point after the game noting coach Carol Hutchins had been at Michigan for "about 100 years," she attempted to explain the play as only she could.

"I knew I hit it well off the bat, and I thought it was going over," Montemarano said. "I was really locked in on the ball, probably shouldn't have [been]. Then I thought she was going to maybe catch it, and I thought maybe then she wasn't going to catch it and I could get a triple out of it. So I didn't really take a correct turn that I needed to get to second as quick as possible.

"So when I saw it go over, I wasn't even going to try to save myself. I figured I'd just fall because I had some time to get around the bases."

Looking ahead

Perhaps the best day of every softball season -- Thursday in Oklahoma City -- awaits. It is a day with no shortage of softball or optimism, the four games that fill the schedule played between teams that all believe they are just a few days away from lifting the championship trophy. Reality will set in for all but one, nerves will fray and bodies will tire. But for a day, anything is possible.

And in a field that includes all seeded teams but not No. 1 Florida, there might be eight paths to glory.

So with the super regionals complete, here's a quick first look at what's ahead.

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 10 LSU: Fifth in the nation in ERA itself, LSU is the only team in the World Series that faced two opponents ranked in the top 15 in ERA -- James Madison and McNeese State -- during the tournament. Michigan, by contrast, has yet to face a team ranked in the top 80 in ERA. So while the spotlight will be on Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper against a Michigan offense that leads the nation in scoring, the flip side of an LSU lineup -- better than its postseason numbers -- against Michigan ace Megan Betsa is compelling in its own right.

No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Alabama: Will one game be enough for teams that produced two long-form postseason epics, first in the 2012 championship round of the Women's College World Series and a year ago in the Tuscaloosa Super Regional? Well, they made the best of seven innings earlier this season, an Oklahoma win in which a two-hit shutout from Sooners ace Paige Parker trumped 13 strikeouts, including an incredible 11 in a row, from Alexis Osorio. At the time, other than that March duel, neither sophomore had really hit full stride. Both now have.

No. 4 Auburn vs. No. 12 UCLA: Both teams had to win twice Sunday just to get here, the Bruins doing so despite coming within two outs of elimination in the day's first game at Oregon and then facing a rested Cheridan Hawkins with everything on the line in the final game. Their route to Oklahoma City is not the only similarity. Auburn is still the new kid in a World Series with no first-time participants, and UCLA has been to more of these than any other program. But in terms of those who will play, these rosters are more alike than not. None of the players had been to a World Series until a year ago, when the Tigers beat the Bruins 11-10 in an elimination game. Now all of them know what to expect. Both teams also pitch by committee. That was more of a liability than an asset for the Bruins at times this season, but in the tournament, Johanna Grauer came within an out of a perfect game in regionals, Selina Ta'amilo shut down Oregon for nine innings to force Sunday's winner-take-finale, and Paige McDuffee then pitched 6 2/3 innings of one-run relief to complete the rally.

No. 8 Florida State vs. No. 16 Georgia: One team gets overlooked because it's isolated in the ACC. The other gets overshadowed by the depth of the SEC. After they play Thursday, one of them will be a win away from the World Series semifinals. That's heady stuff for the Seminoles and Bulldogs. The only other time a No. 1 overall seed was eliminated in a super regional, the team responsible, Hawaii, kept the momentum going through an opening-game win in Oklahoma City. Georgia ace Chelsea Wilkinson has been on much more of a roll in the tournament than Florida State's lineup.

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