That was one of the funnest games I’ve ever been a part of. It was a big win for us and it took everyone I had on my roster. I’m proud of this group. —Utah coach Amy Hogue
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah pinch hitter Hailey Hilburn made the most of her opportunity in a rivalry game at home in NCAA softball regional play.
With two runners on and one out in a tie game against BYU and star pitcher McKenna Bull, Hilburn’s pinch single to center field lifted the Utes to a walk-off victory in the winners bracket of the NCAA regional Friday afternoon at Dumke Family Stadium.
Later that night, the Cougars staved off elimination by crushing Fordham 12-1, setting up a rematch in the regional championship game Saturday (2 p.m. MDT). It will mark the third meeting this season between the two schools. BYU won the regular-season game in Provo, 4-3.
BYU led 2-1 going into the final inning against Utah before Bridget Castro led off the frame with a single, followed by an RBI double by Heather Bowen to tie the game.
Hilburn promptly saw a pitch she liked, and the ball dropped in the outfield to score pinch runner Aubrey Peterson, touching off a celebration in front of a crowd of 1,325.
“My role on the team is a pinch hitter. So I know I could be called on at any moment,” Hilburn said. “When I got the call I was like, ‘All right. Great. I got this.’ But I was only focused on the task ahead, and that was to get it on the green. That’s the only job I had.”
At first, it appeared BYU outfielder Brooke Vander Heide might be able to make a play on the ball, but she couldn’t get her glove on it.
“I’m not going to lie,” Hilburn said. “I thought it was hanging for a little longer than I wanted to, but then when I saw it started to come down, it came straight down.”
“That was one of the funnest games I’ve ever been a part of,” said Utah coach Amy Hogue. “It was a big win for us and it took everyone I had on my roster. I’m proud of this group.”
“That’s a tough loss. I thought we outplayed them,” said BYU coach Gordon Eakin. “They deserve credit for coming back in the seventh inning.”
As far as Eakin is concerned, his team squandered chances to take control of the game early on. The Cougars left 11 runners stranded on base, and that proved costly.
“The biggest tale of the game is we left 11 runners on base and they left only three runners on base. I don’t think the game was lost for us in the seventh inning,” he said. “I think the game for us was lost throughout by leaving 11 runners on base. Utah just rose to the occasion in the seventh inning the way they’ve done many times this year and got the job done.”
Hogue said BYU’s 11 runners left on base “felt like 38.”
In both the third and fifth innings, BYU (45-12) had the bases loaded with only one out but failed to score.
In the third with the bases full, Ashley Thompson lined a double play to end the inning.
“That ball she hit was an extremely hard-hit ball. It’s a game of inches. If that’s a foot to the left or a foot to the right or a foot higher, we’ve got a triple and three runs,” Eakin said. “It’s not unusual for us to load the bases, but we usually come up with another key hit or two. We just didn’t get that done today.”
Utah starting pitcher Miranda Viramontes gave up two runs in 4.2 innings, and Katie Donovan came in for the final 2.1 innings and didn’t give up a hit or a run.
It was a sweet victory for the Utes (35-14), who had lost five of six games entering this weekend’s regional.
How was Utah able to prevent BYU from scoring in bunches?
“Sometimes it was our defense. Sometimes it was a little luck. But that’s what our game is about,” Hilburn said. “Sometimes there’s luck on our end, sometimes there’s luck on their end. Our pitchers really grounded out. We needed them to work and hit spots. It fell our way today. It hasn’t done that for the last two weeks. I’m proud of the resiliency this group showed.”