- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the kingdom of the championship hopefuls, the one-legged senior is queen.
Played on the heels of another comeback for a Hawaii team earning the affection of a mainland that often forgets about it, Thursday afternoon's game between No. 5 UCLA and No. 4 Florida never really had a chance. By the end of UCLA's 16-3 win, Hall of Fame Stadium felt like the scene of a party past its prime, the energy long since peaked as fans cast not-so-surreptitious glances at watches and headed for the exit.
Between illegal pitches galore and a third strike called on a batter for dallying too long outside the batter's box, the game became a grind even before UCLA piled up its runs.
In other words, it was a perfect stage for UCLA senior Megan Langenfeld, the pitcher-slugger who has turned grinding it out into an art form in her final season.
"If you cut her open, I always say that I wish we could take some of that and dip it into everyone because she loves to compete," Bruins coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said.
Langenfeld isn't what Hollywood casting directors would look for in finding the lead for a postseason hero. She's not a power pitcher piling up strikeouts, instead mixing up movement and hitting her spots like a Brit playing darts in a pub. She's not physically imposing and keeps her emotions to herself in the circle. Her style is strictly old-school, eschewing any trendy, glittering headband for a functional visor.
She just finds a way to steal every scene she's in.
It's moments like the second inning of Thursday's game, when it was Florida threatening to break open a 3-3 tie. With a runner on second and no outs, Langenfeld replaced starter Aleah Macon. Eleven pitches later, she was out of the inning without any additional scoreboard damage.
"The ability she has to put a pitch where she wants to is unbelievable," catcher and fellow senior Kaila Shull said. "Even when she is off, it's not by a whole lot."
And she doesn't need much time to find her zone. In a sport where aces start, Langenfeld makes a mark by finishing. She's started 17 games the last two seasons and made 33 relief appearances.
"It's something that I think I do pretty well," Langenfeld said. "I enjoy being put into the pressure situations, kind of the game on the line -- I enjoy that. It makes my heart pound, raises my heart rate, but it's something that I enjoy doing."
In the top of the third, Langenfeld delivered the double that scored GiOnna DiSalvatore and put the Bruins on top to stay. All told, she picked up hits in all four at-bats against the Gators, driving in four runs with a home run, double and two singles. She also earned the win in the circle with five shutout innings and just four hits allowed.
UCLA has a lot of assets at its disposal, but as Langenfeld goes, so go the Bruins.
"We all jump on that train," Shull said. "We say there's a lot of things that are contagious, and that competitive attitude is definitely one of them that we all jump on. We know that she's not afraid to throw to anyone. She's going to go right at them. We feed off that, knowing that she's going right at them. And there's no fear, ever."
That she's going at all is not insignificant. UCLA was the last team to practice before one of the four-team news conferences Wednesday in Oklahoma City. As the scheduled start time came and went, seven people sat on the dais -- one coach and one player from the three other teams and Inouye-Perez sitting by herself on one end.
Finally, Langenfeld hustled in, the bags of ice wrapped around her left leg offering a metronome-like accounting of her progress. She has missed 11 games this season, including the opening game of regionals, with a myriad of injuries. The most recent was a hamstring injury that necessitated the ice bags, although Langenfeld said they were wholly precautionary at this point. She also said she's at full steam, only to follow with a slightly more realistic perspective on precisely what that means.
"It's been a little bit harder this year," Langenfeld said. "But you've got to love the challenge to kind of be going in and out of the season. I can do everything; I can do everything at about 100 percent. Or at least close enough to it."
After UCLA won the opening game of the 2005 best-of-three championship series against Michigan, it had played nine World Series games before Thursday's game. The program with more NCAA national championships, 10, than any other in the sport scored a total of 14 runs in those nine games and won just three of them. And that's when the Bruins got to Oklahoma City. They lost a regional at home in 2007 (won by Hawaii). They lost a super regional at home against Missouri last season.
UCLA still has plenty of work to do, beginning with Friday's winner's bracket game against Hawaii. Any doubters of the Rainbow Wahine's bona fides at this point simply haven't been watching. But Oklahoma City used to be UCLA's home away from home. And behind a quintessential grinding gem from Langenfeld Thursday, the Bruins looked like a team ready to follow its senior down the long road back to glory.
"Personally, it would be a dream come true," Langenfeld said. "I know it's been a long journey for me and the rest of the seniors, coming from our freshman year, which we would like to forget at times, to making it back our sophomore year but having an early exit and then last year. Finally, our goal has been accomplished so far -- we wanted to make it back here, but we want to win some games. We want to win it."
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Behind a quintessential grinding gem from Megan Langenfeld, UCLA looked like a team ready to follow its senior down the long road back to glory.