The #21/#22 Virginia Tech softball team came into Los Angeles Thursday evening and stunned the #2 ranked UCLA Bruins 7-2 in the opening game of the NCAA Super Regional. The win leaves the Hokies just one win away from earning a spot in this year’s College World Series that begins next Thursday in Oklahoma City.
“We proved we belong here,” said Coach Pete D’Amour. “Tomorrow is business as usual – we haven’t accomplished anything yet. (But) Our team is really focused. They’re a confident bunch right now.”
The Hokies saddled UCLA ace and two-time National Player of the year Rachel Garcia (16-1) with her first loss of the year, reaching the Team USA Olympian for nine hits and six runs (four earned) in just four innings of work.
The Hokies scored two runs on three hits in their first at bat against the defending NCAA Champions to jump out to an early 2-0 lead and then left it up to Keely Rochard to take it from there. The Hokies scored in four of the seven innings Thursday night and now have plated 31 runs in their four postseason NCAA games.
“The past two weeks, we’ve just been trying to hunt our pitch and swing at strikes,” said Virginia Tech’s Kelsey Bennett. “We’re just seeing strikes and hitting strikes.” Bennett continued her torrid post-season pace, going two for four against UCLA. She is now hitting .733 (11-15) in the postseason NCAA play.
The top of the lineup also came up big for the Hokies Thursday night, with leadoff hitter Kelsey Brown and number two hitter Cameron Fagan going a combined 5 for 10, scoring two runs and driving in three more. “We just have to manufacture runs,” says D’Amour. “’Scrappy’” is a good word. Out top two hitters set the table…. They are hard outs.”
Here are the game highlights courtesy of the NCAA
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 28, 2021
“This is one of the best offenses I’ve been around and I’ve been around some good teams,” continued D’Amour. “(Tonight) didn’t shock me. But we had 14 Ks tonight and we need to cut that down tomorrow. We need to put the ball in play more tomorrow.”
Putting the ball in play was certainly one of the reasons for the Thursday win. UCLA committed an uncharacteristic five errors and Bruins’ Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez was quick to assign blame for the loss. “Defense was what lost the game tonight,” she said. “We put ourselves in too big of a hole tonight. But I know that’s not who we are.”
Rochard was her usual dominating self, striking out the first six Bruin batters she faced and ending up with 12 Ks for the night. She took a no-hitter into the fifth inning before UCLA was able to string together a couple hits and a walk for two runs. Rochard threw 87 pitches, including 61 strikes.
D’Amour was understandably pleased with his ace’s performance. “When one pitch is working, she’s pretty tough to beat” said D’Amour. “When two (pitches) are working, she’s really hard to beat. With three, she’s on her game. All three pitches were working tonight.”
Now the Hokies turn their attention to Friday night, needing only one more win to punch their ticket to the College World series.
It might be natural to expect the team to want to savor Thursday’s win, but Bennett was quick to dispel that notion. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re 0-0 in the series,” she said. “It’s the same approach as today… just be selective at the plate.”
D’Amour shared Bennett’s point of view. “I’m really confident in our players in getting over tonight’s game,” he said. “We don’t ever look ahead… We don’t get too high or too low. It’s business as usual. We’ll celebrate when the season is over.”
Rochard will almost certainly get the ball for the Hokies Friday night, and the two respective coaches have widely different expectations for that outcome. “Keely tends to get better as the weekend goes on, said D’Amour. “Day two or day three, she tends to throw pretty well.”
Not surprisingly, Inouye-Perez had a different point of view. “Anytime you face a pitcher for the first time, they have an advantage, said the Bruin coach. “We did get stronger through the game. We had better at bats. Our job tomorrow is to execute a game plan against a pitcher that we now know a little bit more about.”
Although this was this Virginia Tech’s team first trip to the Super Regionals, there were no apparent nerves from this group.
“It’s really easy to come in here and see all their tradition and all the names on the wall and all their records,” said D’Amour. “But the game itself doesn’t change. They know I’ve won a Super Regional here before, so they know it’s possible.”
Bennett echoed a similar philosophy. “We made it this far,” she said. “And there’s only 16 teams left – everybody’s pretty good at this point.”
Virginia Tech went directly from last weekend’s Arizona State regional to Los Angeles, and D’Amour was quick to credit staying on the west coast as a reason for his team’s performance. “Staying on the west coast was a big deal. Our bodies are acclimated to the time change. I thank our administration for letting us stay out here.”
Game time for Friday’s game is once again 9:30 Eastern and the game is scheduled to be shown on ESPN2.