The most successful season in Wichita State softball history came to an end on Sunday afternoon in Fayetteville, Ark., as the Shockers lost 6-4 to Arkansas in their first NCAA Tournament regional final appearance.
It was a heartbreaking loss after WSU rallied to take a 4-3 lead over the No. 13-ranked hosts on Asea Webber's two-run double in the third inning. The Shockers had hopes of forcing a second game with a chance to go to a best-of-three super regional.
But Arkansas' Hannah McEwen belted a two-run home run in the fourth inning and the Razorbacks tacked on another run in the sixth to secure the victory.
“I definitely think it’s been one to hopefully remember for a long time," WSU coach Kristi Bredbenner said.
The loss does not diminish what WSU accomplished this season.
The Shockers played the toughest schedule in program history, yet came away with a 32-23 record and top-35 RPI. They played for the conference championship on the final day of the regular season in their first year in the American Athletic Conference, the fourth-strongest conference in the country. And they beat Oklahoma State four times for a season sweep, including two wins in the NCAA Tournament after entering 1-6 all-time in such games.
On Sunday, WSU will look back at the fifth inning as a missed opportunity.
The Shockers had the bases loaded with one out, trailing 5-4. But Caitlin Bingham flew out to shallow center field and pinch hitter Ashton Esparza struck out looking.
"You got to give Wichita State a ton of credit because they fought and fought," Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel said. "We knew they would. That’s the type of team they are. Kristi Bredbenner teaches a bunch of fighters. They kept throwing punches."
WSU took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when Bailey Lange doubled, stole third, then scored on a RBI single by Laurie Derrico.
After throwing over 200 pitches on Saturday to help WSU stay alive, Lange tried to give it one last go in the circle for her fourth start in three days. Lange could only go the first inning, as Arkansas had four hits and scored three runs against her. Bingham threw the final six innings.
“This team to me is everything that I could dream of," Bingham said. "You know you grow up and you dream of this atmosphere and everything that happens and to have those eight ladies behind you on the field, it is really something special. I think the chemistry that we have all created this year is something that I think we can look forward to strive for in future years to create because our seniors did a great job of keeping us all together, especially on the field.”
WSU was effective against Arkansas starter Autumn Storms, scoring four runs in her two-plus innings. But the Razorbacks turned to ace Mary Haff to close out the game.
Haff held WSU to one hit in Arkansas' 5-0 win over WSU on Saturday and again silenced the Shockers' bats for the most part on Sunday. Haff threw 4 2/3 innings, allowing no earned runs and striking out seven of 15 batters.
The Shockers were led this season by the team's three seniors: Mackenzie Wright, who was the AAC Player of the Year, Morgan Palmer, and Paige Luellen.
"They became seniors this year and figured out how to lead," Bredbenner said. "They figured out what their goals were and how they were going to achieve those. One of those things was getting the entire team, all 19 players to play hard every single day and give it everything that they have because the one thing that the seniors reminded the girls of was that four years goes by super-fast and you don’t want to look back and after those years and think that you didn’t do everything you could do to be successful.
"That is the one thing that I will take from these seniors is that they left it all on the field, they played hard, they had their best season and really did a great job of leading this team. A lot to look forward to coming back but some pretty big holes from a leadership and talent perspective from this senior class.”