IN THE WORLD of women's collegiate softball, games are often played in relative obscurity. The loudest cheering comes from the players themselves, not scores of fans. Publicity? Forget it. Some coaches have never met a reporter or a minicam. And by the way, how many college softball games have you seen lately?
Nevertheless, here is Jo Evans, coach of the University of Utah women's softball team, appearing on the national news this week. On Monday morning, she was awakened early by a call from a Dallas radio station. Sports Illustrated called. So did a couple of Florida TV stations and a Fresno radio station. This week the Utes and Evans have been on ESPN, CNN and the CBS Morning News."You hope to get good publicity just for how well you play," says Evans, "but if you can get it another way, you'll take that, too."
In this case, it took a bit of the bizarre to get the Utes on the 10 o'clock news. Saturday evening, Utah and Creighton met in Omaha to decide the Western Athletic Conference softball championship.
Twelve hours and eight minutes later, they finished.
In one of the strangest sporting events in years, the Utes and Blue Jays played a 31-inning game in which they managed to score all of one run. Creighton's victory forced a second game, so they did it again. This time they played 25 innings and scored seven runs. Utah won this time 4-3. By then, the sun was rising, birds were chirping, people were driving off to church.
In one long night, they had played an NCAA-record 56-inning doubleheader.
They might still be playing if WAC commissioner Margie McDonald, after consulting with both coaches, hadn't invoked the international tiebreaker rule - which had been revoked five years earlier by the NCAA. The rule places a runner on second base at the start of an inning. Thus, Christina Freeman scored from second on an error in the 25th inning. The game ended on a diving catch by Amy Cowley in left field.
Typically, only about 50 fans witnessed this historic affair - and one reporter. Gradually word leaked out the next day that in a single night two teams had played the equivalent of eight games (normal games are seven innings).
How could such a thing happen? One 31-inning game is strange enough, but what are the odds of a 25-inning game occurring immediately afterward? The Utes had played in just one extra-inning game all season (10 innings). Was it poor hitting? There were 78 hits in 407 at-bats, but the ball wasn't carrying well. The air was humid and thick. Paper quickly became damp and wilted. As the night wore on, the ball became wetter and heavier - "It even sounded different when it hit the bat," said one observer.
In the 17th inning of the first game, Ute star Charmelle Green slammed the ball deep into the outfield. It looked like a sure home run, and her teammates poured onto the field, assuming the game was finished. Green herself was trotting around the bases with her arms raised in celebration. Oops, the ball fell short of the fence. Green was stuck with a mere double, and her teammates returned to the dugout.
In all, the Utes stranded 65 runners, Creighton 44. Creighton loaded the bases in four of the last six innings of the second game and didn't score a single run. In 56 innings, the teams managed a total of eight runs, and half of them were unearned. In the first game, it took the full 31 innings to score one run. In the second game, it was 3-all after six innings. They had to play another 19 innings to score again.
"I just kept thinking, `There's no way this can go on,"' says Evans. "We're bound to score a run.' I went through so many different emotions. At times I got the giggles and couldn't stop laughing. Other times I wanted to scream. At one point every player was about in tears. Then in the second game, I just couldn't believe it could happen again. It was ridiculous."
The players, resorting to superstition, suggested changing jerseys or turning their visors backwards. Evans had trouble keeping track of the time and repeatedly checked her watch. "I looked at my watch once and saw 3 o'clock," she says, "and I thought, `That can't be right,' so I turned it the other way."
There were other problems. A cable TV station ran out of tape and couldn't record the second game. The scoreboard - only 10 innnings long - had to be cleared repeatedly and started again.
On they played. Green, who had seven hits, made a diving shoestring catch at 5:30 a.m. Catcher Deb DeMeglio caught all 56 innings. Janet Womack pitched all 31 innings of the first game only to lose on an unearned run. Melissa Halkinrude pitched the second game.
But for sheer endurance, top honors went to Creighton's Kelly Brookhart. Earlier in the day she pitched seven innings to shut out New Mexico. Then she pitched 31 shutout innings in the first game against Utah. Then she pitched 201/3 innings of relief in the second Utah game and allowed just one unearned run.
"After a while my arm just went numb, and I really didn't feel it at all," she explained.
When the last game was finally finished, the Utes' celebration was brief. They hustled back to the hotel for more important matters - such as sleep. The longest night in softball history was history.