Walk-off puts Michigan in fast lane

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nobody in softball knows quite so well as Carol Hutchins that a pleasant day in May can turn cruel in a matter of minutes. It did yet again on Friday for one of her Michigan teams, which was a single strike away from victory.

Only this time, there was room in the script for redemption.

With one swing, Ashley Lane put Oklahoma City within reach for a group of Wolverines who are unfamiliar with the place. Lane's walk-off home run gave her team a 4-3 win against Louisiana-Lafayette and a leg up in the best-of-three super regional.

Courtesy Jonathan Knight

Michigan's Ashley Lane hit a pop foul that was dropped, then rounded the bases two pitches later after her walk-off homer.

Nothing in the postseason has quite the pacing of a super regional. Two days, two teams and a season on the line. It is a sprint, and it offers nowhere to hide, no backdoors to advance. Michigan has been to eight of them (including this season) since the round was added to the NCAA tournament in 2005, making it one of only five schools to reach that many super regionals, along with Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington.

The other four schools made 22 World Series appearances between them in that span.

Michigan made two.

Five times it lost. Only one school ever won the first game of a super regional at home and lost twice the following day against an unseeded team. That was Michigan, at the hands of Virginia Tech and Angela Tincher in 2008.

So, no, even with a win that history says makes the Wolverines all but locks to advance, the plane tickets aren't booked yet.

"The thing is you can't get too high," Hutchins almost admonished after the win. "I said [to the players], 'Nothing's decided today.' Because you can get too high, and tomorrow we need to be ready to fight."

And yet her prohibition apparently didn't cover the inches of air between the coach's feet and the infield dirt after a member of her staff lifted her off the ground and twirled her around in the giddy moments following Lane's blast.

This one was big, precisely because it wasn't conclusive. This was a game Louisiana-Lafayette easily could have won, or if you like, a game Michigan easily could have lost. For a Michigan roster without a single player who has been to a World Series, a place every Wolverines senior class for more than two decades visited at least once, this was the kind of postseason game that could have gone either way. And the kind of game a team needs to go its way to get through a super regional.

After being shut out for six innings, the Ragin' Cajuns finally started to string together good swings against Michigan starter Sara Driesenga in the seventh, rallying to tie the game. A two-strike, two-out single from Nerissa Myers set the table for a home run from Brianna Cherry to knot it at 2, and Matte Haack drilled a long home run in the top of the eighth to give Louisiana-Lafayette a 3-2 lead.

Then for all its super regional misery through the years, Michigan caught a break in the bottom of the eighth. With a runner on first, Lane popped a ball up in foul territory behind first base. As Haack tried to make the catch over her shoulder, the ball came loose. Instead of an out, Lane had another chance. Two pitches later, she ended the game with the walk-off home run.

Michigan also appeared to have fortune on its side early in the game. Louisiana-Lafayette put runners on first and third with one out in the top of the first inning but ran into a double play when Michigan left fielder Sierra Lawrence caught a fly ball in foul territory and threw out Myers at the plate after the Ragin' Cajuns All-American tagged up at third base.

The home team then scored two runs against Jordan Wallace in the bottom of the inning, the first runs Louisiana-Lafayette's ace allowed in the tournament, aided greatly by a mix-up in the outfield that allowed Sierra Romero's routine fly ball to drop untouched for a double.

The game continued from there as a pitching duel between Wallace and Driesenga, scoring opportunities scarce on both sides until the last two innings.

Courtesy Jonathan Knight

Sara Driesenga gave up the tying and go-ahead home runs late, but Michigan was saved by Ashley Lane's game-winner.

Leading off the top of the sixth inning, Louisiana-Lafayette's Sarah Draheim reached when Lane, playing second base, dropped a pop fly as she tracked back onto the outfield grass. The error looked like it would prove costly when Haack followed with a drive to right field that was bound for the bleachers until Michigan's Nicole Sappingfield reached over the top of the wall and knocked the ball back into the field of play. A sure home run became a long single, and the Ragin' Cajuns again failed to score.

Of her thoughts as she turned and watched the ball arc toward a tie game, Lane said, "In my head I was like, 'Please, God, [Nicole] catch it, something happen where that ball stays in the park.' Because that was my runner on first. I definitely was praying that it would stay in, and she made a phenomenal play."

Lane is one of two seniors who start regularly for Michigan, one of the players who experienced super regional defeat at home against Tennessee in 2010 and again last season at Alabama. A Southern California native, she didn't know all that much about Michigan's softball history when it started to recruit her.

Driesenga is a Michigan native, like Jennie Ritter, the ace of the 2005 national championship team. Samantha Findlay, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in college softball history in the top of the 10th to beat UCLA in the 2005 championship series, was from Illinois. But Hutchins readily acknowledges the California pipeline has long been instrumental in allowing a cold-weather school to compete.

All Lane knew was that the feeling she got when she visited campus was what she wanted. That didn't make the first frigid winter any easier, nor the more miserable second one. It just made them worth it.

Getting to Oklahoma City is just the last piece of the puzzle.

"I wouldn't say it's a frustration," Lane said of coming close. "It's just a drive. It's a goal. That's what kind of fires us up is the fact that our class hasn't been to the College World Series yet. Like Hutch was saying, it's something that's very hard to get to, and we've worked very hard to get to. We've worked so hard this year."

It was a game of inches, as Louisiana-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief lamented after the fact. If Lane's foul popup had been caught, if Sappingfield hadn't rescued the would-be home run, if any of half a dozen 50/50 calls that went against the Ragin' Cajuns early in the game went the other way, they might be the ones a win away from the World Series. That's the essence of a super regional, quick with a potential for cruelty.

"It's very hard to get to Oklahoma, it's very hard," Hutchins said. "I think [super regionals are] a great addition. It's fantastic softball. It's made everybody in the country better. You have to play your best, and the team that plays the best gets to go."

Ann Arbor's history makes clear that may still be Louisiana-Lafayette, even if it will need Wallace to win two games in one day, as Tincher did five years ago. But it's Lane and the Wolverines who are a win away from adding to Michigan's legacy.

"This is such an amazing institution, and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it," Lane said. "Hutch, as a coach she's phenomenal. Our entire staff is phenomenal. Our girls, I never in my life thought I would be so close to them. They are literally my sisters. I love each and every one of them to death. I love this place.

"It's going to be very hard for me to leave."

It may not be time yet.

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