The tears started flowing just a few words into their answers. The Utah Utes softball team was minutes removed from unceremoniously being eliminated from the NCAA Women’s College World Series, and the emotional toll of a historic season coming to a grinding halt was simmering just below the surface of coach Amy Hogue and senior Hayley Denning.
As Hogue began her opening statement of the postgame news conference, she kept having to look away from Denning and graduate Ellessa Bonstrom. With a shaky voice, the longtime Utah coach use the word “pride” when talking about her team.
“It’s a whole season that we’re talking about,” Hogue said. “They accomplished so much. It was a fantastic year for the Utes.”
The roaring flame with which Utah entered the College World Series was quickly extinguished with back-to-back losses Friday. After losing to Washington earlier in the day, the Utes suffered a run-rule 8-0 blowout loss to Oklahoma State, ending their World Series run as quickly as it began. Utah hadn’t reached the highest stage of postseason softball since 1994.
“We’ve tried so hard our past five years to get here,” Denning said while barely being able to hold back tears. “It’s just been so awesome to be here. We just wanted to try to win for our team. But obviously sometimes it doesn’t happen like that.”
Utah was originally scheduled to face Washington on Thursday evening. But weather delays for earlier games postponed Utah’s game to Friday morning. With the loss and the double-elimination format, the Utes were forced to have just a few hours between Washington and Oklahoma State.
As a result, the Utes didn’t have ace pitcher Mariah Lopez available against the Cowgirls. She threw 123 pitches in six innings against the Huskies, struck out five batters, and gave up seven hits and four earned runs in the 4-1 loss.
Hogue said Lopez not pitching against OSU wasn’t due to a decision made by the training staff. She added that Sydney Sandez would’ve likely gotten the assignment against the Cowgirls regardless because of her style of pitching.
Sandez started at pitcher for Utah against OSU. She lasted only one inning after giving up six runs and five hits. Halle Morris entered the game and pitched three innings while giving up two more runs.
Both games were uncharacteristic for the Utes from an offensive perspective. They scored only one run through two games and were shut out by the Cowgirls. The last time Utah failed to score a single run was Feb. 17 in a 2-0 loss to Central Arkansas.
In the fourth inning, Hogue began subbing out her regular hitters for bench players in an apparent indication she was waving the white flag. Hogue said she went to bench for three reasons: She believed in them, she thought it would put Oklahoma State off balance, and she wanted to give some of her players a change to see action in the World Series.
Denning and Bonstrom said that at no point before final out did the team think the game was over.
“We’re a team that likes to come back when we have our backs against the wall,” Denning said. “I don’t think there was ever a point really where it felt like it was the end for us. The last inning, we thought we were going to score.”
The Utes finish the season with a 42-16 overall record. They emerged as Pac-12 champions for the first time in school history to end the regular season, and hosted the Regional and Super Regional rounds of the tournament in front of record crowds.
The Utes have some key players who are graduating, including Denning and Bolstrom. But there is belief within the program that it won’t take another 29 years to reach the College World Series again due to how they responded this season after getting left out of the playoffs last year.
“I’m excited for the future Utes because this is going to be a big steppingstone for them,” Bonstrom said. “Like last year, it didn’t go our way. So I can’t wait to see what the Utes are going to do next year.”