OKLAHOMA CITY — From the moment the ball cracked off Shay Knighten’s bat and sailed toward the left field stands, Auburn senior Tiffany Howard carefully, calmly tracked it, reached a hand back to find the wall, then perfectly timed her jump.
For a game and a comeback defined largely by home runs, it was the ball that never reached its destination and instead ended up in Howard’s glove that saved Auburn’s national championship dreams and allowed the Tigers to beat Oklahoma 11-7 in eight innings Tuesday night. That forced a decisive Game Three in the Women’s College World Series championship series.
Had Howard not so beautifully handled that moment in the top of the sixth inning, the Sooners would have won the game 9-7, are crowned national champions and everyone is heading home Wednesday rather than returning to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium for one more game.
But, as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect, and Howard’s season-saving snag Tuesday night — arguably the greatest defensive play in Women’s College World Series history, given the stakes — was no different.
“We’ve worked on it so much,” Howard said. “I’m talking about we would have bruises on our arms working on the wall in practice, so we’ve done it a gazillion times, so I knew if I could find the wall and get up and put a glove on it, I knew I could catch it.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 8, 2016
For the little girl who used to sit in front of the television each June in Pembroke, Ga., watching every pitch of the Women’s College World Series with her parents and older sister, her monumental catch Tuesday was quite literally a dream come true.
Howard pitched and played shortstop until she was around 16, when her speed — and height — made a switch to the outfield her best move.
“She wasn’t going to get recruited to pitch,” said Steve Howard, Tiffany’s father. “She was only 5-4.”
She ended up at Auburn at exactly the right time; Clint Myers arrived as the Tigers’ new softball coach for Howard’s sophomore season and has elevated the program to unprecedented heights. Auburn reached its first WCWS last year — Howard’s junior season — and is now just one win away from the program’s first national championship.
The Tigers’ prolific offense rightly will receive a sizable portion of the credit for that fact, and why not? Auburn used two home runs to rally from a 7-0, second-inning deficit Tuesday, and that was long before senior Emily Carosone’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the eighth.
But a couple of SportsCenter top-10 level defensive plays in the Auburn outfield have also been critical. In the Tigers’ Sunday semifinal win over Florida State, the Seminoles had two runners on when Morgan Klaevemann roped a shot into left center field.
Auburn center fielder Victoria Draper dove, reached out, caught the ball and held on even as her entire body slammed face-first into the grass.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 7, 2016
And then there was Howard on Tuesday.
Her parents sat in Section 7 behind the Auburn dugout and watched as Knighten’s bomb flew through the night sky.
“When she went up, I didn’t see her catch it because everyone was standing up,” Steve Howard said. “And when she came back, I didn’t see it in her glove.”
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t immediately have a clear picture of what happened. The Oklahoma-heavy crowd was ready to burst when they thought Knighten had given the Sooners a late lead.
“When we saw she fell into the wall and she went up for it, all of Oklahoma’s fans started cheering because they thought it was over,” said Auburn third baseman Kasey Cooper, who had a clear view of Howard’s play.
“I see her put a glove on it, and so I’m jumping up and down going, ‘She just robbed this. This is our game and this was meant to be.’”