HARRISONBURG, Va. — The NCAA tournament’s Harrisonburg super regional featured two softball programs in different stages of development.
The difference might not be much bigger than the final scores were as LSU won two games Saturday by scores of 2-0 and 3-2, a day after James Madison won by a 3-2 score. Nonetheless, it was enough of a difference to make a difference when both teams had their seasons on the line.
James Madison’s historic season captivated the Harrisonburg community so much that it necessitated the installation of temporary seating to allow a stadium with a permanent capacity of 625 to accommodate more than 2,000 fans on both days.
A Dukes program that hosted a regional for the first time last season was playing in a super regional for the first time. The next step — a trip to the Women’s College World Series — was within reach after a dramatic win Friday.
JMU’s dominant pitching and hitting tandem of Megan Good and Jailyn Ford and coach Mickey Dean’s team of “grinders” were “everything they’re billed to be,” LSU coach Beth Torina said.
“(Dean) is building a special thing here,” Torina said afterward.
Torina and LSU have had something special going for a while. The fifth-year coach is taking a Tigers team to Oklahoma City for the third time and for the second consecutive season.
There were a bunch of Tigers who were heroines, producers of what Torina called “wow moments.”
Several belonged to sophomore right-hander Allie Walljasper, who did a pretty fair Carley Hoover impersonation Saturday. Before Walljasper’s five-hit shutout that evened the super regional, Hoover had had a win or save in 13 consecutive LSU postseason victories.
Walljasper shut out a team that hadn’t been held scoreless all season, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprising statistic when you consider the shutout was just the Dukes’ fifth loss of the season.
“If you had told me before the first game that you were going to give LSU two runs and we had seven innings to score three, I’d have taken it,” Dean said.
But Walljasper didn’t allow the Dukes to score one, let alone three, which reinforced Torina’s determination that Walljasper provided the best matchup against JMU. So after freshman Sydney Smith got the Tigers into the fifth inning of the finale with a 3-1 lead, Torina turned again to Walljasper.
An error allowed the one runner Walljasper inherited to score, but somewhere down the stretch Torina determined “it was her game.”
Walljasper gave up a leadoff single in the seventh, and the next batter hit a line drive that seemed destined for right-center field until second baseman Constance Quinn made a diving catch.
“What a game-saving moment,” Torina said.
Still, the Dukes got runners to second and third base with two outs.
Torina said she has probably issued fewer than 10 intentional walks in her coaching career, but Good earned two in consecutive plate appearances after hitting three homers in a span of eight at-bats.
Taking the bat out of Good’s hands was too attractive an option to pass up, even though it meant pitching to Ford, the Dukes’ senior cleanup hitter. Torina admitted that the odds were probably against her when she gave Ford a second two-out, bases-loaded opportunity after Ford had popped out in the fifth inning.
But with a WCWS berth at stake, facing Ford rather than Good was by far the best bad option she had.
“I couldn’t let Good beat us again,” Torina said.
With a potential career-extending run on third base and a trip to the WCWS standing on second, Ford swung over a 2-2 drop ball from Walljasper. Afterward, Dean and a red-eyed Ford reflected on the JMU program’s development during her career and that of her fellow seniors.
“They’ve taken a program that no one knew anything about four or five years ago and gave it a national face,” Dean said.
“Hopefully it’s a good learning lesson for the underclassmen, to be able to take the feeling of this and use it as motivation for next season and the seasons to come,” Ford said. “Hopefully we can have an impact like that on the program, to encourage them to reach higher and get to the World Series.”
No one in the softball community will be surprised if the Dukes find themselves in Oklahoma City in the near future. As for LSU, it’s getting to the point where the Tigers are almost expected to be there.
“Our five seniors have made going to Oklahoma City something that is a standard for this program,” Torina said. “It’s something that LSU deserves. It’s something that they’ve built. It’s a culture that they’ve created.”
It’s a culture JMU is creating, but Saturday afternoon at jam-packed Veterans Memorial Park, the Dukes ran into the wrong program at the wrong time.
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.