Game 1 classic deserves an encore
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Arizona and UCLA, protagonists in the most storied rivalry in college softball, had not played each other for a championship since the NCAA abandoned the traditional one-game, winner-take-all final in the Women's College World Series in 2005 in favor of the current best-of-three final series.
Monday night, two old foes played like they never got the memo.
"You know when you're going into a game against UCLA it's going to be a prize fight and the last one standing is the one that wins," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. "And you know, it's fun. To me, that's why we play the game."
And that was the from the guy on the losing side of what can only be described as a classic.
It wasn't quite a pitcher's duel. It wasn't quite a slugfest. It wasn't quite a flawless game. It was quite enthralling, 3½ hours of drama that included five home runs, five lead changes and four ties. UCLA's Megan Langenfeld drove a ball deep into the night in the bottom of the eighth to end it, delivering her team a fall-from-ahead, come-from-behind 6-5 win. As the Bruins celebrated at home plate, the Wildcats sagged in disbelief and the crowd collectively exhaled.
"I've been a part of this sport for a long time, and tonight was one of the greatest nights, if not the greatest night of softball that I've been a part of," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said of a career that includes six national championships as a player and assistant coach with the Bruins. "This team is special. They have a conviction about them, and they've been on a mission.
"Tonight is an example of what we focused on from Day 1: competitive excellence, being able to throw punches and not play to the scoreboard."
UCLA's win marked just the ninth time in the history of the Women's College World Series that a team won a game in the championship round when its starting pitcher finished with fewer strikeouts than her counterpart in the circle. Arizona freshman Kenzie Fowler struck out 12 Bruins, tied for the third-most all time in a championship-round game, while Langenfeld struck out five Wildcats before a combination of cracked fingers on her pitching hands and Arizona's bats forced her out in the seventh.
But that equation broke down in the face of another variable, namely that Langenfeld became the first player, let alone the first pitcher, to hit two home runs in a championship-round game.
The beauty of UCLA's senior is in her ability to do everything and her desire to do even more than that. Inouye-Perez's goal all along has been to have her team peak at this time of year. As a result, there were stretches during the season when Langenfeld hit but didn't pitch and stretches when she didn't play at all. But Langenfeld -- whose bulldog mentality on the field can surface in a stubborn streak off the field, according to Kaila Shull, her catcher and closest friend on the team -- isn't built for resting. So, against orders, Langenfeld would sneak away and do something, anything to stay active, even it meant hitting off a tee.
And Shull would trudge along after her to try to limit the damage.
"She's going to hit whether I"m there or not," Shull said. "So it always makes me feel better if I'm there."
That's what led Langenfeld to try to treat her cracked fingers with super glue before Monday's game, only to have it crack before the first pitch. And it's what kept her head in the game when she shifted to first base and Aleah Macon took Langenfeld's place in the circle after Arizona tied the game at 4-4 in the seventh. And in extra innings, when Arizona elected not to walk her with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Langenfeld looked for the same pitch she struck out on two innings earlier and drove it out.
A day earlier, her coach all but prophesied what was to come in talking about UCLA's ability to deal with adversity, which was largely absent from its postseason until Monday.
"They understand the game," Inouye-Perez said. "You may fail in the first at-bat, but your ability to come back -- the game will come back around to see if you are still hanging on to [the failure] or if you're ready for the next opportunity.
"It's a game of failure and we know this."
If that sounds familiar coming from a UCLA coach, it should. Consider one of John Wooden's famous quotes: "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."
The Bruins have been open all weekend about how much they feel like they are playing for, and perhaps with, Wooden's spirit. The seniors on this team visited his house as freshmen and most of the Bruins met him at least once or twice.
"His teachings and his philosophies have been a theme of our season this year," Monica Harrison said. "So it's really fitting that he's kind of at the center of what we're doing right now."
Even Candrea wondered before the final series if he might be facing both the softball Bruins and Wooden's spirit this week.
For its part, Arizona could hardly be called despondent after the loss. Senior shortstop K'Lee Arredondo drew a laugh from teammate Stacie Chambers in the postgame press conference when she tried to rasp out an answer in a voice that sounded like it disappeared long before she added to the drama with a game-tying home run in the top of the seventh.
Arredondo has been here before, starting for the 2007 Wildcats team that lost the first game of the final series to Tennessee only to rally for two consecutive wins and the national championship. She knows, as does Inouye-Perez after watching Michigan rally to win two in a row against UCLA in 2005, that there is more to come.
"Pretty typical Arizona-UCLA game," Candrea said.
It's only right there should be at least one more. This one deserves an encore.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.