Wahine walk off with Series berth Sparkling day on diamonds for UH
• Photo gallery: Hawaii vs. Alabama softball final
By Christopher Walsh
Special to The Advertiser
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When she hit the biggest home run in University of Hawai'i softball history, Jenna Rodriguez didn't react.
Like everyone else at the Alabama Sports Complex, her eyes were on the neon ball sailing above the foul pole down the third-base line, well beyond the wall. Even when the umpire signaled it was fair, there was still a pause, as if no one could believe that after being down to its final out the Rainbow Wahine had just beaten top-seeded Alabama, 5-4, yesterday to advance to the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series for the first time.
"I knew it had a chance of going foul," Rodriguez said of her two-run blast. "I stayed there and watched it. I had to see if it was really going foul or not, and it stayed fair. It was a great, awesome experience.
"When I hit home runs, for me, I don't have anything going through my head," added Rodriguez, whose three-run shot in the first put Hawai'i up 3-0. "It's just like blank. It hit (me) after I touched first base, and that's when I started getting all giddy and excited, letting my expressions show."
Consequently, a road trip that had already gone 20 days and more than 6,000 miles will continue. After traveling nearly another 1,000 miles to Oklahoma City, 16th-seeded Hawai'i (49-14) will open the national championship tournament against ninth-seeded Missouri, Thursday at 6 a.m. Hawai'i time.
"The most exciting day, other than the birth of my two children, in my life," Hawai'i coach Bob Coolen said after an emotional victory celebration that included a state flag and numerous photo opportunities in front of the scoreboard. "You aspire as a coach to make it to the World Series. This team really showed resilience and fortitude out there, not giving up."
Adding to the drama was the Crimson Tide rallying to take a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning on junior shortstop Whitney Larsen's three-run home run, which sent the sellout crowd of 3,130 into a frenzy. Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne, who would finish with 16 strikeouts, had thrown five scoreless innings after the first and the Crimson Tide appeared to have momentum on its side.
That is until the bottom of the seventh, when Hawai'i, designated the home team by a coin flip, had the top of the order due up. Freshman Kelly Majam, who tops the nation with 30 home runs, drew a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch.
"Once Kelly got on, it was a no-brainer," said Coolen, who chose not to advance Majam with a bunt knowing his team had already hit an NCAA season-record in home runs that now totals 154. "We're not going for the one run, it's going for the two. That's the kind of team we have and I've never backed off from that. I think we've bunted during the last three weeks once. We've stolen two bases.
"Hitting the home runs, hitting the gaps and putting the ball in play is our team."
But the strategy didn't look promising when freshman shortstop Jessica Iwata, who hit a grand slam in Saturday's 8-7 victory to force Game 3, fell into an 0-2 hole and struck out on a high riser. Junior third baseman Melissa Gonzalez, who went to high school in California with Tide standout and two-time SEC Player of the Year Charlotte Morgan, took strike three on an inside pitch.
That brought up Rodriguez, whom Alabama coach Patrick Murphy briefly considered walking because she was 2 for 3, but liked Dunne's chances to close out the game with the home crowd behind her.
"My dad's always told me you want to be the person up there with two outs. I was thriving on it," said Rodriguez, who hit the first pitch high over the left-field wall, resulting in the subsequent pandemonium.
"I ran out and jumped around," said freshman pitcher Kaia Parnaby, who didn't know she was starting until the morning. "Wow, amazing. I don't have too many words."
Neither did Alabama, which struggled to grasp that its 52-12 season was over, and how it was over just one day after the program-record 28-game winning streak was snapped.
"I didn't know if it was going to go foul or not," said Dunne, who only described the pitch as "something inside.
"They have great hitters, obviously, they lead the nation in home runs," added Dunne, whose record fell to 30-6. "Every single one of them fought out there and they made me work hard. That's what good teams do. They're dangerous. Congratulations to them and good luck."
Hawai'i jumped on Dunne in the first inning, with Majam singling to right, Gonzalez walking and Rodriguez homering to left.
"Getting the 3-0 lead put the pressure on them and Kaia felt comfortable with that," Coolen said. "I saw a totally different person on the mound.
"She didn't lose personality on the mound like yesterday. She kept herself focused today."
Parnaby allowed just three hits through five innings, with her only mistake coming against Morgan, who hit a solo homer to right in the fourth, cutting Alabama's deficit to 3-1.
The Tide began to turn in the sixth when Larsen's three-run homer to left-center on 1-2 pitch from Parnaby put Alabama ahead 4-3. After Parnaby got the dangerous Amanda Locke — who hit two homers in Saturday's 8-0 victory — to pop to short, Jazlyn Lunceford ripped a double down the right-field line.
That's when Coolen summoned staff ace Stephanie Ricketts, who retired pinch-hitter Alex Blewitt on a sharp liner to third.
Ricketts (29-8) set the Tide down in order in the top of the seventh, setting the stage for the shot heard all the way back home.
"It was like, 'We're going to Oklahoma City,' " Coolen said of his first reaction. " 'We made it.' "