TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama softball team knew that for it to advance out of the Tuscaloosa Regional it would likely have to beat Minnesota ace senior Sara Groenewegen twice.
Even though coming into the weekend she had lost just twice all season, that’s exactly what the Crimson Tide did despite scoring just 2 runs against her.
A day after after Alabama ace Alexis Osorio snapped Minnesota’s 26-game winning streak with a nine-inning shutout, senior pitcher Sydney Littlejohn followed suit for 5 1/3 innings as the Crimson Tide closed out the regional with another 1-0 victory on Sunday.
“I wish this was a Super Regional game; it was really the caliber of that round,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “The toughest thing to me when you get to this part of the season is you’re trying to end a senior’s career.
“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for them, their coaching staff. The kid on the mound was unbelievable.”
Alabama (45-16) advanced to its 13th straight super regional — the longest active streak in college softball. It also won its 34th consecutive game in a regional and improved to 45-3 (.938) when hosting.
Playing a rare game at home as the visiting team, but in familiar muggy conditions, Alabama set an early tone when leadoff batter Elissa Brown dropped a bunt down on the first pitch. Even though she was thrown out, the Crimson Tide subsequently struck first when senior right fielder Chandler Dare singled and scored from first on senior designated player Marisa Runyon’s double to left center.
Murphy said he had no doubt about sending her.
“We just really wanted to attack first,” Runyon said.
With a fired-up crowd at Rhoads Stadium, the one run was all Alabama needed, just like Saturday. It was the Crimson Tide’s 26th shutout of the season, trying a program record.
Player of the Game
With the extra game in hand and junior starter Osorio (22-7) having thrown 180 pitches the day before, Murphy opted to start Littlejohn.
Making her last career start at Rhoads Stadium, she scattered 5 hits with 4 strikeouts and 1 walk in 5 1/3 innings. Littlejohn threw 85 pitches.
“The defense was great, amazing,” Littlejohn said after Alabama didn’t have any errors, turned a big double play and benefitted from a diving catch from left fielder Rachel Bobo. “What you don’t know is she does that all the time in practice.”
Osorio got the last five outs to record her fourth save of the season.
Groenewegen played against Louisiana Tech earlier Sunday in an elimination game, starting as the designated player, then moved to the circle in relief of freshman pitcher Amber Fiser when the game was tied after five innings, 1-1.
Having already been removed for a pinch-runner earlier in the game, Groenewegen couldn’t be substituted again when she led off the seventh inning with a walk and then scored from first on sophomore shortstop Allie Areson’s double to left center.
She then ended up giving up a game-tying home run, leading to extra innings. With Louisiana Tech down to its last pitch, sophomore pinch-hitter Taria Page, who has been playing with a herniated disc in her back, worked the count from 0-2 to full before driving a high offering over the right-center wall for her fifth home run of the season. It was the seventh allowed by Groenewegen this season.
“I really like blanked out there for a second,” said Page, who didn’t know what pitch was thrown to her but guessed that it was maybe a curveball.
“Everyone said I looked so composed; I was really shaking in the box.”
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 21, 2017
Groenewegen (31-4), who threw 25 pitches on Friday and 125 against Alabama on Saturday, ended up throwing 58 pitches while getting the win against the Lady Techsters.
She threw 97 more against Alabama, yielding 7 hits, giving her 155 pitches for the day. The only walk she had in two games against Alabama was the controversial bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning Saturday.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” Minnesota coach Jessica Allister said. “They had a lot thrown at them over the last week.”
In a highly controversial move the NCAA selection committee didn’t seed the Gophers in the NCAA Tournament. They were ranked first in the most recent USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll and third in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.
“There’s no question,” Allister said about her team being emotionally tired. “They went through a lot.”
Minnesota’s season ended with a 56-5 record.
What’s next for Alabama
Coming into the tournament, Minnesota’s staff ERA of 1.21 was third in the nation, with Groenewegen’s 0.59 third individually. Now, Alabama gets the team and pitcher that were No. 1 in both categories, Florida (0.74) and Kelly Barnhill (0.33).
The top-seeded Gators will host the best-of-three Super Regional in Gainesville, Fla. The schedule has yet to be announced. The winner of the Super Regional will participate in the Women’s College World Series on June 1-7 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
“People say we have the hardest road to the World Series, but how else would you want to get there?” Littlejohn said.