AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn softball didn’t change its routine ahead of the NCAA Tournament regional games at Jane B. Moore Field.
Clint Myers’ seniors didn’t dwell on the fact that these are the last days of their college careers. There weren’t long, heartfelt pregame speeches.
Even breakfast before the regional final against the California Golden Bears, at least for some, wasn’t exactly that of champions. Shortstop Haley Fagan went with biscuits and gravy while catcher Carlee Wallace opted for leftover chicken parmesan.
Still, the Tigers did make one striking adjustment last weekend which helped Auburn clinch a spot in the NCAA Super Regionals against Oklahoma, the team that beat them in the Women’s College World Series Finals a year ago.
“We’ve just been having a lot more fun lately,” Fagan said after Auburn’s second straight win over Cal. “And doing it for us and nobody else. We’re playing for each other.”
The liveliness was evident from the minute the Tigers stepped on the field for warmups. It was obvious when the team gathered to watch a couple of freshmen engaged in a heated dance battle minutes before the final. And it continued as Auburn dominated its opponents.
Auburn is fired up heading into its regional final matchup against Cal, courtesy of Alyssa Rivera & Justus Perry pic.twitter.com/6Jp1cldohk
— Lauren Shute (@LShute13) May 21, 2017
Through wins over East Tennessee State and Cal, Auburn drilled 40 hits and built a .426 batting average while the duo of Kaylee Carlson and Makayla Martin totaled a 1.67 ERA in the circle.
The atmosphere prompted Wallace to reflect on some of her other fond postseason memories. The junior was quick to admit the regional games were some of the most enjoyable so far this season.
“It’s so fun to see everyone’s hard work show and to see everyone, like one through nine, be successful at some point during the game,” Wallace said. “It’s fun to watch. It’s fun for yourself, but it’s fun to watch everyone get in. Everyone wants in on the action.”
Despite what’s been at times an unusual season at Auburn, the team has only grown closer, and the Tigers are continuing to bond as they navigate the postseason.
“I think we all rub off on each other in a good way,” Fagan said. “I’ve never played with a group of girls like this that’s as close as we are. We all fight for each other and play for each other.”
Yet when first baseman Kendall Veach caught the last out Sunday afternoon, there was no remarkable celebration.
There were smiles and cheers. Myers’ team crowded around home plate and sang the fight song with fans. But there was a clear all-business vibe even before the announcer finished praising the regional champs.
Auburn’s leaders, players like Wallace, Fagan and senior Kasey Cooper, are making sure the fun is balanced with focus.
The trio was responsible for a 2-run double, a 2-run home run and a solo homer, respectively, in the 8-2 victory over Cal.
“The bats are coming on at the right time. You can’t ask for a better time for the bats to get hot, going into Supers,” Fagan said. “I know that’s really important for our pitchers, it takes a lot of pressure off of them. The more we can hit, it’s better for our whole team.”
The Tigers’ defense was sharp, too. Auburn turned a couple of key double plays and a handful of players managed to make what looked to be uncatchable grabs.
Every move is made with mindfulness — and every player knows the team hasn’t reached its final destination just yet. That would be Oklahoma City, site of the Women’s College World Series.
“It’s not a hope, it’s an expectation. We don’t hope we’re going to get there. There was never a doubt in my mind that we weren’t going to blow through these other teams and get [to the Super Regionals],” Wallace said. “Now that it’s done we can say that. Before it’s you have to respect the other teams and give them their chance, but we played our hearts out, we played hard. If we do that, no one here is going to stand in our way.”
The path to another WCWS appearance will only get tougher.
That was clear the instant Oklahoma beat Tulsa in a rubber game Monday to advance to the Super Regionals. The Tigers beat the Sooners in the season opener this year, but can’t seem to get away from the team in crimson and cream.
Even so, Auburn is anything but intimidated. It has no intentions of squandering its chance for a national title.
The balancing act has to continue. Every laugh needs to be matched with a big play. There’s nothing better than that equilibrium.
“I’m just excited. I’m excited to have some fun. This is the moment we live for,” Cooper said. “All the blood, sweat and tears — the pukes occasionally in the fall — it pays off for this moment. Because right now everyone is on a clean slate. What you did previously got you here, but it won’t get you to the end. If you don’t show up, you’re not going to win. This is what we’re living for.”