- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Anjelica Selden and Samantha Findlay have covered a lot of ground since one pitch brought them together three years ago in Oklahoma City. The next two weeks will reveal whether those long and winding roads will intersect one more time.
Selden will have thrown thousands of pitches to hundreds of batters by the time she makes a final exit from the pitcher's circle, just as Findlay will have strained to see the spin on thousands of pitches released by hundreds of pitchers when she exits the batter's box for the final time. But even as both seniors play through the twilight of their college careers in the NCAA tournament, they're forever linked by one pitch that signaled the dawn of a new era.
It was Findlay's three-run home run against Selden in the top of the 10th inning of the third game of the championship series of the 2005 Women's College World Series that propelled Michigan past UCLA. The win marked not only Michigan's first national championship in softball but also the first championship for any school east of the Mississippi River or any cold-weather school.
In the first year of the best-of-three championship series format, in front of what at the time was the largest television audience ever to see a college softball game and against the school with more softball championships than any other, Findlay's blast offered indisputable proof of the game's upward mobility and geographic diversity.
And for the power-hitting freshman from suburban Chicago, it was the culmination of a week in Oklahoma City that made her a permanent fixture in sports highlight reels.
Jessica Merchant, now an assistant coach at Massachusetts, was Michigan's star senior shortstop in 2005 and a witness to the seven-day grin etched on Findlay's face that week.
"The thing about Sam is, Sam went out there on the biggest stage and had the best time of her life," Merchant recalled. "Sam had more fun that week in Oklahoma City -- I don't know this for sure, but I would bet she had more fun that week than she's had any week, before or after. And you know what? Right now I think Sam is having a lot of fun playing softball where she is right now, at the end of her senior career. But I really, truly believe that she went out there and just had more fun than anybody else."
Before, as a younger player, you kind of look at the bigger picture of the game rather than just focusing on one specific goal each pitch. I guess my focus is more narrowed on the simple things.
Findlay hardly fell flat on her face after the championship. She posted nearly identical numbers the next two seasons, with a 1.026 OPS as a sophomore and a 1.032 OPS as a junior. She was a third-team all-conference pick in 2006 and a second-team all-conference pick in 2007, and played a key role in leading Michigan to within a game of the World Series both seasons. But compared to both the individual and collective success of her first season, when she did most of the damage behind a 1.225 OPS long before the title-clinching home run, the magic was missing.
"I really feel that she has put an enormous amount of pressure on herself," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "And pressure is a perception, of course. When we won the championship here, it was larger than I could have ever imagined, as far as the community embracing us and the softball world embracing us -- celebrating us and celebrating her. And she's a young kid. I give her credit -- she's worked so hard; she's a great player in that regard. But she definitely wasn't always within herself."
Thousands of miles to the west, the person on the other end of that pitch in Oklahoma City was fighting her own battle against impossible expectations. If Findlay was the nation's slugging star as a freshman, Selden was her equal in the circle. Replacing two-time championship ace Keira Goerl, Selden set a school record with 485 strikeouts in her first season. Opponents hit just .163 against her that season. She started 42 games and finished 42 games, allowing a total of 51 earned runs in 325 innings for a 1.10 ERA.
Far from succumbing to a sophomore slump, she was in some ways even better in her second season, winning more games with a lower ERA. It was Selden who got the best of Cat Osterman in the latter's final college game, beating Texas with a three-hit shutout in the World Series. But once again, she ultimately was undone by home runs in Oklahoma City, this time off the bats of Northwestern stars Garland Cooper and Tammy Williams.
After that, and after longtime UCLA coach Sue Enquist's retirement, Selden struggled through her junior season. She posted a 2.82 ERA and had essentially yielded the role of ace to freshman Megan Langenfeld by the time UCLA bowed out of the NCAA tournament at the unthinkably early regional stage.
With Langenfeld back and highly touted freshman Donna Kerr on the scene, it wasn't clear what role Selden would play as a senior. But after working all summer with former UCLA great Gina Holmstrom, going through grueling physical workouts designed to push her mentally as much as physically, Selden took control almost from the first pitch of her final season.
"I tried to ignore the idea of certain games being bigger than others, and now my focus is more on the little parts of the game that people don't pay attention to as often," Selden said. "I guess, for me, I like to take the games pitch by pitch. Before, as a younger player, you kind of look at the bigger picture of the game rather than just focusing on one specific goal each pitch. I guess my focus is more narrowed on the simple things."
The result is a steady senior hand in the circle for a team loaded with talented freshmen and sophomores (including Kerr and Langenfeld, who give the Bruins perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the tournament, should they choose to call on it). Great in the circle from the moment she arrived, she's grown to appreciate the process on her way to 24 wins and a career-best 0.79 ERA.
"The game itself is fun, and it's always going to be fun," Selden said. "But it's the challenges and the struggling and helping my teammates out and all those things that are part of the game that have become even more enjoyable."
So it is for Findlay, who enters the NCAA tournament hitting .400 with a career-best 1.310 OPS for a team that is seeded fourth -- meaning a potential home super regional after trips to Tennessee and Baylor the past two seasons. And while her old teammate was right about that week in Oklahoma City, it may soon have company.
"I have not had more fun," Findlay conceded of 2005. "But this team is a great team, and I'm just trying to keep the team together like [Merchant] did when we were freshmen."
During a late-season doubleheader against Northwestern with first place in the conference on the line, Findlay struggled all day to solve Wildcats ace Lauren Delaney. At times, Hutchins said, she even saw glimpses of the player who had tried to do too much as a sophomore and junior. But with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh and her team trailing by a run, Findlay looped a two-run single into left field for the win on Senior Day. Both the smile and the spotlight had returned.
"I've been so happy for her, because she loves the game," Hutchins said of Findlay. "And you should love it while you get to play it. Don't look back and say, 'Gee, I wish I would have loved it more.'"
I've been so happy for her, because she loves the game. And you should love it while you get to play it. Don't look back and say, 'Gee, I wish I would have loved it more.'
--Michigan coach Carol Hutchins on Findlay
That includes the lows as well as the highs.
You might think only one of the two participants in the pitch that changed at least the perception of softball would look back fondly on that moment, but Selden begs to differ. After all, while history almost certainly will lose this part of the story, it was the Wolverines who entered that tournament as the top overall seed and de facto favorite.
"Just from my freshman year, I remember the team that was there and my teammates," Selden explained. "Our season wasn't as successful, as far as wins and losses, as we probably would have liked it to be. But just remembering our team and how we were able to come together, and the camaraderie and the unity of our team -- I'll always remember that team, because it was just a fun team to play with.
"Those were the girls that I learned how to be a good teammate from and a good leader from. I was able to learn what the UCLA tradition was about from those girls."
Selden and Findlay came to Oklahoma City three years ago as unformed characters easily molded to fit the events that transpired. That one pitch lives on, the moment paused for eternity in the history of the sport, just as it is captured in a picture decorating the concourse of Michigan's new stadium in Ann Arbor.
But life didn't pause for either player after the home run, and even if history fails to record what followed, Selden and Findlay are both finally out of the grip of expectation and in control of their own stories.
"I feel like some years went by faster than others, but overall I think it went by at a perfect pace," Selden said. "I don't think it went by too fast or too slow. It was a gradual learning experience for me as a player and as a person. Each year I learned something new about myself and about my team and about just life in general. I was able to learn a lot of life lessons."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.