-- James Madison junior Megan Good might be the best college softball player in the country.
Already the pitcher and player of the year in her conference, she might yet win USA Softball Player of the Year. That was once unthinkable for a player who not only comes from the mid-major side of the tracks but a side in the Colonial Athletic Association that includes such unfamiliar softball beasts as the Blue Hens and Dragons.
Apologies to Delaware and Drexel.
But after a first inning that went awry in the circle during Friday's Waco Regional opener against Oregon State, Good needed some help. She needed it again in the final inning, after Oregon State didn't give her the opportunity to swing the bat to help her own cause.
One run at a time, the help came, concluding with a walk-off single from Taylor Newton in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 win that was too satisfying to savor for a mere 60 feet. Newton instead jogged all the way around the bases, the circuit interrupted only by the mob of teammates waiting at home.
And if it was merely a Friday moment of the sort that the first full day of the NCAA tournament delivers in droves -- this year's smorgasbord of no-hitters, walk-off hits and extra innings being no exception -- it was worth savoring. And more than all the rest, this might have been more than that.
Maybe, just maybe, Good got the second chance that she could ride well past this weekend with a team that, for all the talk about Minnesota, had its own case to play at home this weekend as a national seed.
We've seen this before. Virginia isn't exactly a factory when it comes to top-tier Division I pitching talent, but the state has a track record of some impressive artisanal craftsmanship. It was just about a decade ago that Angela Tincher, who grew up far from the eyes of the national softball scene but very close to Blacksburg, Virginia, lifted Virginia Tech to national prominence.
Tincher beat Team USA in Oklahoma City early in the 2008 college season, then led the Hokies back to the Women's College World Series a few months later. That national stage was the final piece of her successful USA Softball Player of the Year resume. Forgotten now, however, is that her run was nearly short-circuited in the first game of a regional. The path certainly would have been much more difficult had the Hokies lost an extra-inning game against Louisville. Instead, Tincher's teammate provided a walk-off home run, and off the Hokies went.
Good, too, grew up within miles of a Virginia campus, in her case James Madison's home in Harrisonburg. She also slipped under the national recruiting radar, a volleyball player who grew to accept that she had softball height. Paired during her first two college seasons in a pitching rotation with Jailyn Ford, another local find, she went 61-6 in the circle and hit .340.
But not until this season, without Ford around, did she reach her full 5-foot-11 stride. She threw a two-hit shutout against Missouri to open the season. Two weeks later she shut out Auburn with a one-hitter. North Carolina, Oklahoma State, USC Upstate, Wisconsin -- all tournament teams -- couldn't solve her. If not for the presence of Florida's Kelly Barnhill, Good's 0.48 ERA entering the NCAA tournament would have bordered on historic, an ERA 10 to 20 years out of place.
And yet, the first two batters she faced Friday reached on infield singles. Two outs then offered hope of escape, but Natalie Hampton ended a long at-bat with a double to left-center that drove in two runs, just the 11th extra-base hit Good had allowed in more than 210 innings.
James Madison has a promising freshman pitcher in Odicci Alexander, one of the reasons Good is only slightly ahead of last season's workload pace. But an NCAA tournament regional isn't the place for player development. James Madison's fate is tied to Good's arm, especially after a team ranked No. 12 in the USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25 did not receive a national seed and the opportunity to host a regional. Winning two games Saturday and two more Sunday, as would have been necessary after an opening loss, would have been too much for one arm.
Good allowed just three hits without a walk in the final six innings. James Madison got one run back in the fourth, then another on a Madyson Moran home run in the sixth. The stage was set for Good, who came to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third in the seventh, but Oregon State pitched around her, giving her nothing to hit. That was when Newton delivered the winner, a hit that broke the CAA career-record for RBIs.
Good can take James Madison a long way. Friday, her teammates made sure she still has that chance, beginning Saturday against a Baylor team coming off Gia Rodoni's no-hitter against Kent State.
Here are a few other Friday headlines:
Win, win for Minnesota
Minnesota was able to make a point and save its ace some work in an 11-3 win against Louisiana Tech. The second of those is more meaningful in the long run. Sara Groenewegen threw just 25 pitches in advance of what will presumably be a start Saturday against No. 16 Alabama. But the first had to be satisfying for the team inexplicably omitted from the national seeding while it is ranked No. 3 in one Top 25 poll and No. 1 in another. The Gophers needed the minimum five innings for the run-rule win and became just the third unseeded team in the past six years to win that way (South Carolina made it four such instances later in the day).
Don't call it an upset
To be clear, Texas State didn't upset Texas on Friday in a 12-inning marathon. The Bobcats entered with the better RPI. They were the stronger seed within the regional quartet. They beat Texas twice during the regular season. And that's exactly why Texas State's 2-1 win, secured on Taylor Webb's walk-off home run and thanks to ace Randi Rupp's complete game, is a big deal. Coach Ricci Woodard's program, with Rupp in the circle and with former Longhorns legend Cat Osterman as pitching coach, is not the Lone Star State's little sibling -- even if it took Rupp more innings than even Osterman ever had to pitch in the postseason.
Katiyana Mauga inches toward home run record
Arizona doesn't like being second to UCLA in much of anything when it comes to softball, so there is some added significance to Katiyana Mauga pulling level with former Bruins great Stacey Nuveman for second on the NCAA all-time leaderboard with 90 home runs. Mauga's first-inning home run in Arizona's rout of New Mexico State keeps Lauren Chamberlain's NCAA record of 95 in play, but it finally brings at least a share of the Pac-12 record to Tucson.
Haley Meinen's day
The first Friday of the NCAA tournament belongs to the likes of Haley Meinen. The Tulsa sophomore entered a game against Arkansas, the school from which she transferred, with one home run in her first season with the Golden Hurricanes. She doubled that total with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh against her old school.
A run saved ...
It figured that a ball hit over the fence would be important in a good day for Louisiana-Lafayette, the national leader in home runs per game, just not like this. The Ragin' Cajuns didn't hit a home run in a 6-0 win that sets up the rare encounter with No. 13 LSU, but Aleah Craighton's home run-robbing catch saved what turned out to be a no-hitter for teammate Alex Stewart. It was the first NCAA tournament no-hitter for the program since Brooke Mitchell in 2002 and a big deal for someone who allowed just six earned runs in the month leading up to Friday. If Florida senior Delanie Gourley's five-inning no-hitter against Florida A&M was as predictable as a no-hitter can be, Stewart's adds some intrigue to a regional that wasn't lacking in that department.