Commentary

Cougars pair pulls off big weekend

Originally Published: February 22, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The University of Houston spent seven innings in unsuccessful pursuit of a hit against LSU ace Rachele Fico on Sunday. Thanks to Amanda Crabtree, Fico's performance wasn't enough to keep the Cougars from finishing off one of the most successful regular-season weekends in program history.

[+] EnlargeAmanda Crabtree
Houston AthleticsAmanda Crabtree, a power pitcher, had 198 strikeouts last season.

Crabtree matched Fico zero for zero in runs on the scoreboard through seven innings of regulation, allowing just two hits along the way. After tiebreaker rules put a runner on second base to begin the top of the eighth against her, the Houston senior survived a sacrifice bunt and an infield single to escape with the shutout intact.

When Reina Gaber's two-out single in the bottom of the inning broke up Fico's no-hitter and drove home Ashleigh Jones to end the game, Crabtree and Cougars had their third win of the weekend against a ranked opponent, a first in the program's 11 seasons of softball, and an 8-1 record to start the season.

"That was the old kind of softball games you used to see when I played, back when it was those dominating pitching things," Houston coach Kyla Holas said. "So it was really intense; we were proud of them for finding a way to win. A lot of people would have let that zero, on the board for as long it was, mean that they couldn't win the ball game, and we were proud that they got that one timely hit. In the end, that was the only one that mattered."

As seasoned as Holas may be (her standout pitching career at what is now Lousiana-Lafayette came to a close the same year "Shawshank Redemption" and "Forrest Gump" were released), she's not exactly an old soul. But there's little doubt the pitching duel between Fico and Crabtree was an exception that used to be the rule in college softball. These days, it's getting more and more difficult to find even one pitcher who can will -- and more importantly, pitch -- a team to victory against juggernaut offenses.

Houston had one in Angel Shamblin, and it's been looking for another ever since she left after the 2008 season.

So imagine the luxury of having two. That might yet be the case.

Crabtree was stellar in the finale of the Houston Hilton Plaza Classic, in addition to throwing a no-hitter against Nicholls State on Saturday, but the team's first two wins against ranked teams came when Donna Bourgeois beat Oklahoma State on Friday and LSU on Saturday.

A senior transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette who arrived this semester, Bourgeois is the only player for Houston with Women's College World Series experience (gained when the Ragin' Cajuns beat Houston in a 2008 super regional). She stepped up and handled a heavy workload for Louisiana-Lafayette, particularly in throwing more than 235 innings in 2009, when injuries slowed and sidelined Ashley Brignac.

With a good drop ball, offspeed pitches and a competitive stubbornness more befitting some other resident of the animal kingdom than a big cat, she's only just getting settled in her new surroundings.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Donna Bourgeois
Houston Athletics Senior transfer Donna Bourgeois is the only Cougars player with Women's College World Series experience.
"I think you're still going to see some bigger things from her," Holas said. "I think in the past she's had some better numbers. I think that's us still figuring each other out, her niche and her learning to play in this conference and the opponents we play at such an early level."

But Houston's best shot in Conference USA and beyond in any NCAA tournament appearance would likely be with both primary pitchers playing significant roles. A tall, hard-throwing contrast to Bourgeois, Crabtree led Houston with 198 strikeouts in 152 innings last season. She's had her moments of brilliance, as power pitchers are prone to do, but she's also battled a high walk rate, sizable pitch counts and unfinished business. The complete effort against LSU, given the circumstances, might have been the best game of her career.

"I would say yes [it was Crabtree's best game] because of what we saw from her mentally," Holas said. "She's had numbers -- even last year when we played LSU at LSU, she pitched some great games against them and had a lot of strikeouts. But I would say just from a mental standpoint, working with her and seeing her this year, where she's at mentally, that was the best we've ever seen her, [innings] one through eight."

And if a team has pitchers who give it a chance to make its lone hit count, it has something to build around.

News and notes

• Three subsequent one-run losses put a bit of a damper on the weekend for Arkansas, but the SEC side scored perhaps the biggest upset of the young season with a 4-3 win against UCLA in the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic in Las Vegas. That broke a string of six consecutive wins against the SEC for the Bruins, dating back to the 2008 Women's College World Series. Arkansas second baseman Courtney Breault drove in three runs in the win.

• Alabama scored 61 runs in five games at home, including four against NCAA tournament teams Louisville and Syracuse, but it still found a way to work in some drama on its way to a weekend sweep in Tuscaloosa. Having spotted Louisville an 8-3 lead through five innings, the Crimson Tide rallied for a 9-8 win on the strength of two home runs from sophomore Keima Davis -- the first two home runs of her career.

• Make it 31 innings without an earned run and two SEC Pitcher of the Week awards to open the season for Florida senior Stephanie Brombacher, who picked up three wins in 17 innings from one start against Jacksonville and two against North Carolina. On tap is a potential showdown against UCLA on Friday in the Cathedral City Classic, pitching matchups willing.

• Missouri dropped two of the three games it played in the rain-plagued San Diego Classic. The Tigers opened the tournament with a 9-1 win against host San Diego State but lost 6-3 against Fresno State, resting Chelsea Thomas and Krsitin Nottelmann, and 1-0 against California in a game that took three days to complete because of weather.

• Oklahoma's Jessica Shults was one of the more productive freshman hitters in the nation last season, and it still took her until March 19 to hit her ninth home run. She didn't even wait for Presidents Day this time. She finished the week with five home runs and 14 RBIs in six games. With 29 total RBIs, she's also almost halfway to her team-high 62 RBIs of a season ago.

Spotlight on …

Nebraska: Maybe it's not the spread offense coming to Lincoln, but twins Taylor and Tatum Edwards are turning tradition on its head at Nebraska. The two California prep stars have combined for 11 home runs in Nebraska's first 11 games, seven by Taylor. Why is that a big deal? This is a program that three years ago hit 15 home runs. Total. On the season. Alright, that's not entirely fair to the Huskers, who were part of the power surge sweeping the sport with 41 home runs a season ago, but Ali Viola's single-season record of 22 home runs may already be on notice. Meanwhile, junior ace Ashley Hagemann is 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 46.1 innings for the Huskers, who cruised to five wins against Tennessee Tech (twice), North Texas, Centenary and Northwestern State over the weekend to improve to 10-1.

Northwestern: Northwestern sophomore Emily Allard knows a little something about traveling for work. Allard and the Wildcats endured an extra lengthy trip to San Diego, courtesy of headwinds that slowed and diverted air traffic around the country. It was the second of five consecutive weekends the team will commute from Chicago to tournaments in Arizona and California. So you have to think it meant a little something extra to her to have her dad, a truck driver with a challenging schedule, in the stands for the first time in her college career when Northwestern played UC Davis on Friday. All Allard did was set a school record with five hits in an 11-4 win.

South Carolina-Upstate: We're only two weeks into the season and a glance at the standings over at Ultimate College Softball reveals an already dwindling number of unbeaten teams. One of only eight teams with double-digit wins and no losses, South Carolina-Upstate is an intriguing presence in its fourth season in Division I. Upstate beat South Carolina in Columbia during the season's opening weekend and feasted last week with two wins each against Gardner-Webb, George Mason and Hampton. Senior Morgan Childers struck out 39 batters and allowed just three earned runs in 19 innings on the week and is 7-0 with a 0.90 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 39 innings this season. Childers and the Spartans will get a shot at bigger stages soon enough, playing Washington and Oregon State twice, along with a game at Georgia and conference duels with Lipscomb.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.