- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The seedings in the Women's College World Series suggested Thursday evening's game between No. 4 Northwestern and No. 5 Alabama would be a close affair.
They didn't say anything about lengthy, controversial and at times slightly bizarre.
When it ended just minutes before midnight ET -- 3 hours and 39 minutes after it started -- Northwestern found itself in possession of a 6-5 win in 10 innings and a spot in the winner's bracket on Friday night.
The Wildcats survived a host of controversial calls and their own early inability to convert with runners in scoring position, leaving the bases loaded in two of the first three innings. They survived in part because their two best hitters, Garland Cooper and Tammy Williams, kept piling up hits, but also because every role player on the field seemed to come through at some point during the night (not that there was any shortage of opportunities).
Cooper struck the blow that seemed to send the game spiraling into a free-for-all that had fans on the edge of their seats, launching a three-run home run over the left-field wall with two outs in the bottom of the fouth, giving Northwestern a 4-2 lead. But even then, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year didn't necessarily think the Wildcats had things under control.
"I think we knew the whole time that it was going to be a battle, so I don't think for a second anyone thought that that was the end of Alabama," Cooper said. "We've played so many games where it has been back and forth, and this was just another example."
Admittedly, it's harder to find an ugly victory than an ugly baby when you're talking to the winners, but that ability to roll with the punches stood in stark contrast to Alabama coach Patrick Murphy's assessment of the game.
"It was, you know, 'go ahead, get behind, go ahead, get behind.' And you can't play yo-yo softball at the World Series. You've got to make a statement and keep the lead, and we didn't do that tonight," Murphy said.
Instead, Northwestern freshman Erin Dyer made the biggest statement of the night, with Alabama one strike away from victory.
It was a game best summed up by Dyer -- who drove in eight runs against Wisconsin on March 31 and just 20 runs in the other 57 games in which she played -- drawing the first intentional walk of her career to load the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, two innings after she drove Chrissy Owens' two-strike, two-out pitch over the wall in center to tie the game at 5-5.
"I think I was just trying to look for a good pitch," said Dyer, as Northwestern fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that she didn't wait one more offering for that good pitch.
But Dyer wasn't alone in making a surprise contribution, as four other Northwestern players -- including three seniors from coach Kate Drohan's first recruiting class at Northwestern -- used the extra frames to leave an especially memorable legacy with a WCWS win.
Senior pitcher Courtnay Foster entered the game with one out in the top of the sixth after Wildcats starter Eileen Canney continued to struggle with pitch location. Foster's initial moments were turbulent, to say the least. Entering with a runner on second and a 4-3 lead, Foster allowed two singles (including an extremely controversial play in which a ball appeared to hit Brittany Rogers, only to have the umpire rule that it had hit the handle of her bat and rolled into play), a walk and hit a batter. By the time she got out of the inning, Alabama had seized a 5-4 lead.
"I had my adrenaline going a little quick that first inning that I was in," Foster said.
But Foster, who needs one more appearance in Oklahoma City to avoid a career low in appearances for a season, showed plenty of poise in settling down and blanking the Crimson Tide for the next four innings, recording 11 of the 12 outs by strikeout (she also struck out two in the hectic sixth inning).
As good as Foster was in the final innings, she gave a good bit of credit to her senior battery mate.
"Everybody else was giving so much energy on the field, especially Jamie Dotson," Foster said. "She did such a great job, and I trust her so much."
And on the one out that Alabama put in play off Foster, she got a spectacular assist from another senior, Sheila McCorkle. With one out in the top of the ninth, Alabama slugger Staci Ramsey lined a shot to center, only to end up with nothing more to show for it than an "F-8" on the scorecard when McCorkle launched herself headfirst for a diving catch.
But after leaving the bases loaded for the third time in the game in the bottom of the ninth, following the first intentional walk of Dyer's career, Northwestern still needed one more unlikely hero to put Alabama away.
Leading off the bottom of the 10th inning, third baseman Darcy Sengewald stepped to the plate. A standout with the glove and a team leader, Sengewald was nonetheless 0-4 on the night and hitting .191 on the season. Twice before, in the bottom of the sixth and the bottom of the eighth, Sengewald had led off an inning and been unable to set the table for the top of the order. But she avoided the temptation to do too much and drew a four-pitch walk.
"It's very difficult, but I just had the same ideas going up to bat as my other four at-bats," Sengewald said. "Just be patient, be patient, and if you get a good pitch, go after it. Just wait for a good one, because that last inning was way bigger than myself. It was for everyone on this team and everyone here cheering us on."
After Katie Logan sacrificed her to second, Sengewald took off toward home when Williams lined her third hit of the night up the middle on the sixth pitch of her at-bat. And neither Sengewald nor Drohan had any intention of playing it safe.
"I knew Kate [Drohan] was going to send me, so I was trying to make the tightest turn possible and I was getting ready to go home," said Sengewald.
Drohan concurred, adding, "I needed to be aggressive; I wanted to put the pressure on them."
The move paid off when the ball was bobbled in center field and Sengewald scored unchallenged to end the marathon game.
There was little pretty about the overall picture of Northwestern's win, and the Wildcats will need a more effective Canney and more timely hitting with runners in scoring position to stay in the winner's bracket on Friday.
But those are concerns for the morning. On Thursday night, the point was that a team playing in its first Women's College World Series game since 1986 did exactly enough to win the game in front of it.
"The thing that struck me tonight was how composed our team was, in our first appearance here," Drohan said. "They played their game on the big stage, and I'm very, very pleased with how we battled tonight."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.