'Pure joy': UA softball team captures regional, faces Oklahoma next

By: Bob Holt
Published: Monday, May 21, 2018
Hannah McEwen rounds third and high fives Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel following a home run in the Razorbacks' game against Wichita State Sunday May 20, 2018 during the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. Arkansas won 6-4 and advanced to its first super regional.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Hannah McEwen rounds third and high fives Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel following a home run in the Razorbacks' game against Wichita State Sunday May 20, 2018 during the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. Arkansas won 6-4 and advanced to its first super regional.

Autumn Buczek didn't have time to think. She just dove.

"The game was right in my heart," she said. "I just wanted to end it."

Buczek, the Arkansas Razorbacks' senior third baseman from Greenbrier, did just that as she laid out for a popup off the bat of Wichita State's Ryleigh Buck.

The ball went into Buczek's glove for the final out of the Razorbacks' 6-4 victory on Sunday at Bogle Park before an announced crowd of 2,142.

It was the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville softball team's 27th home victory this season, but this one carried extra significance.

Arkansas (42-15) won its first NCAA regional championship in its eighth appearance going back to the 2000 season.

"I think we were all willing Autumn to catch it," Razorbacks Coach Courtney Deifel said of the last out. "I think we were all trying to catch it for her -- and then you just hear this roar in our dugout.

"It was just this moment of pure joy, so much pride. Autumn is the only one who can make that play, and you just saw so much heart going out there doing what she could to win this game."

Arkansas advanced to play a super regional on the road against two-time defending national champion Oklahoma next weekend. The Sooners won their regional with a 7-0 victory over Missouri on Sunday.

"I'm proud of this program and really excited that we spend more time together," Deifel said. "I'm not ready for this year to end."

Razorbacks freshman right fielder Hannan McKwen hit a two-run home run -- with Haydi Bugarin on first base after walking -- against Wichita State pitcher Caitlin Bingham to give Arkansas a 5-4 lead in the fourth inning.

"After Hannah hit that, I was like, 'I'm not letting the game go. We're not losing this game,' " said Arkansas freshman Mary Haff, who pitched the final 4 2/3 innings. "That was just my mentality."

It was McKwen's team-leading 12th home run this season, but first extra-base hit in three regional games. She didn't believe the ball was going out initially.

"I was just hoping no one would get to it and once I saw it was carrying I was running to first going, 'Please, keep carrying,' " McEwen said. "But I was just trying to hit something hard to move people."

Shockers Coach Kristi Bredbenner said McEwen -- a left-handed batter -- hit a good pitch that was down and outside for her opposite-field home run.

"When you're facing a drop-ball pitcher, the one thing you definitely want to do is let it get deep in the zone and try to drive it opposite field," Bredbenner said. "It was picture perfect for her right there of exactly what you want to do with that type of a pitch.

"We had some opportunities that we could have capitalized on, too, and we couldn't get that type of a hit. Credit her for stepping up and barreling something out of the ballpark."

Wichita State loaded the bases with one out in the top of the fifth inning when Haff hit Madison Perrigan and walked Buck and Paige Luellen, but she got out of the jam by getting Neleigh Herring on a fly ball to center field -- which was too shallow to score the runner from third -- striking out Ashton Esparza to keep the Razorbacks ahead 5-4.

Arkansas added an insurance run in the sixth inning when Kayla Green scored on a wild pitch after doubling and going to third on a groundout.

"It was nice to know we had that extra cushion," Deifel said. "But the way Mary was pitching I don't think we needed it."

Haff, who threw shutouts in beating DePaul 2-0 Friday and Wichita State 5-0 Saturday, came in for Arkansas starter Autumn Storms on Sunday with the bases loaded and the Razorbacks trying to hang onto a 3-2 lead.

Asea Webber greeted Haff with a two-run double on a 3-2 pitch to put the Shockers ahead 4-3.

"When Asea got in there and ripped a double over the left fielder's head, I was pretty fired up," Bredbenner said. "I thought the last couple innings she started to turn it on a little bit and find a little bit better zone.

"She worked ahead and got us to chase some pitches out of the zone. She did a great job."

Haff retired the final eight batters she faced, including five strikeouts.

"Mary kind of worked herself into a tough count and [Webber] hit a good pitch." Deifel said. "That happens in this game. Even some of Mary's good pitches get hit.

"But I thought she settled in and responded really well. Our defense played really well and we came up with some big hits and had her back."

Sunday's victory was especially sweet for Arkansas' seniors who endured back-to-back 1-23 SEC records in 2015 and 2016.

"We have the utmost belief in ourselves and our coaches," Buczek said. " We know we deserve to be where we are. We know we've earned it.

"So when you look back, yeah, it's hard to believe. But when you look at what we've done this year, we know we're here for a reason."

Sports on 05/21/2018

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