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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Wolverines take Regional opener against Kentucky

By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 18, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Kent. — It was 362 days ago that the Michigan softball team watched its season end with a 2-1 defeat to Kentucky.

But the Wolverines didn’t want to watch a live replay.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, freshman designated player Sara Driesenga slapped a double down the third base line, scoring senior center-fielder Bree Evans from second base and sophomore right-fielder Nicole Sappingfield all the way from first.

Michigan (40-15) stopped holding their collective breath and jumped out of their dugout. The monkey was off their back.

“Our motto is ‘it takes everybody’ and it took everybody,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I thought we stayed cool and calm, even in the seventh when I thought we gave it up. It’s easy to get down and fold.”

The Wolverines faced Kentucky ace Chanda Bell, but used a strong showing from their top pitcher to counter. Freshman left-hander Haylie Wagner held the Wildcats (29-29) scoreless through six innings while allowing just six hits and one earned run.

Despite pitching 217 innings in 45 appearances this season, Wagner appeared fresh. She struck out four without allowing a single walk in a complete game, but for a moment she almost gave up everything she had worked for.

Kentucky began the seventh inning with a leadoff single and used a sacrifice bunt to move the runner to second. After a strikeout, Wagner forced Kentucky batter Emily Joyce to stay alive by fouling the ball off with two strikes. Joyce finally got a hold of a pitch and hit it right at junior shortstop Amy Knapp. Knapp checked third base, turned to second to record the final out, but was late. One run had scored to tie the game.

Hutchins came to the circle to calm her pitcher, but Wildcat star hitter Brittany Cervantes came up to bat next and hit another ball off of Wagner. Once again the ball was hit to Knapp, but this time she mishandled the sharply hit ball and Kentucky’s second batter came home from second.

But Wagner downplayed the inning, showing no fatigue in her arm.

“(The arm) felt fine,” Wagner said. “It was just something that happened and something I had to bounce back from. I had to overcome that.”

Michigan began their comeback when Evans advanced to first on a fielder’s choice. Sappingfield followed with a walk — putting the winning run on base. After senior first-baseman Amanda Chidester struck out, Driesenga hit her walk-off double.

“I told (Driesenga) to attack it," Hutchins said. "When you get after it and attack it you’ll have a tremendous at-bat. And she did.”

Previously, Michigan had taken the lead in the fourth inning after Wagner was hit by a pitch. She was replaced by pinch-runner Jaclyn Crummey, who stole second and used a single from senior third-baseman Stephanie Kirkpatrick to score.

Combined, the Wolverines mustered just five hits through six innings and struggled to hit off of Bell, who overpowered Michigan with her speed.

“She was just working up in the zone,” Driesenga said. “We were just swinging at them and we shouldn’t have been.”

With a 2-1 loss to Kentucky in last year’s Regional final, this year’s victory felt even sweeter.

But Hutchins doesn’t think reminiscing is necessary with two more games left this weekend.

“The most important thing I told my kids was ‘enjoy their victory and get back to the hotel,’ ” Hutchins said. “We don’t want to get too high, we have a game tomorrow. Regardless of who we play we need to focus on Michigan softball.”

Michigan will face Louisville on Saturday at 3:00 p.m, after the Cardinals also won in walk-off fashion. Louisville used a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to knock off Valparaiso.

The Wolverines, who dropped a 2-1 decision to the Cardinals in the Red and Black Tournament on March 10, will look to slow down Louisville’s offense.

“We need to have fun. We need to have faith in each other, faith in ourselves and just need to come out aggressive tomorrow to have a good time,” said Louisville coach Sandy Pearsall. “This is like a conference weekend. You don’t get a whole lot of rest in conference weekends. We need to come out with some attitude, confidence, have fun and that's when we're at our best.”

Michigan doesn’t want more rest going into next season. But they’d love to let someone else take a break.