They took different journeys to get here, but the Auburn Tigers, Colorado State Rams, and Harvard Crimson are all looking for the same thing: to take down each other and the host Arizona Wildcats so they can move on to the Super Regionals.
On Thursday, they all got their first chance to get on the grass and practice at the newly-renovated Rita Hillenbrand Stadium.
They also got to share their stories in their own words. How did they get here and what are they expecting?
Auburn Tigers look to the next player up
Auburn rolled into Tucson on a bit of an upswing, having won two games in the SEC Tournament before being taken out by the Florida Gators, the eventual champions. That was a huge step forward for a team that has been struggling with injuries to key players.
Not only did the Tigers lose ace Makayla Martin back on Mar. 17, they also lost their second-best hitter, Taylon Snow, in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. The loss of a .324 hitter is difficult to absorb, especially this late in the season.
Those injuries had repercussions. They went 10-14 in conference play after losing Martin during their first weekend of SEC play. They fell to Florida in the tournament semifinals without Snow.
It wasn’t all disappointment, though. Despite going under .500 in the SEC, they still made it to the postseason. They also remain unfazed by the setbacks, and they want more.
“It’s just the next person up,” said senior Casey McCrackin. “We feel like every person in the lineup, who’s not in the lineup, is prepared. You trust everyone on this team. It’s not really having to fight through that. You just have to know that the next person has to step up.”
Colorado State Rams are #25Strong
Colorado State hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003. They have never been to the Women’s College World Series. What they have done is fight for their program and opportunities for female athletes at their school.
On June 1, 1992, Colorado State eliminated softball. The group of young women who wore the uniform didn’t just go away. They fought back in a Title IX lawsuit, they won, and softball was reinstated in 1994.
The battle didn’t stop there, though. Last season, the Rams staged a sit-in on behalf of women’s athletics. They felt that women’s teams, including softball, were being given inferior facilities.
This season marked the silver anniversary of the return of the game to their campus, and the young women on this team have celebrated the victory of the alumnae all season. The #25Strong hashtag was used on social media, and the alumnae came back to speak to the team during the season.
“It means a lot being it’s our 25th year of reinstatement,” said senior catcher Amber Nelson. “So, I think that’s really special. We got to hear from the players who were on the teams earlier in September about the court case that they went through. So, just having that fight that they had really meant a lot this year, and I think that’s something that we carried through this whole season.”
The impact that the history has had on her players was not lost on CSU coach Jen Fisher.
“You know, it’s interesting because you hear from a lot of my peers that say like, ‘oh, that this generation doesn’t really appreciate things. They don’t know where they came from,’” she said. “And I just think that’s totally opposite with this group. They’re enjoying every minute, they’re taking a lot of pride and sort of carrying the torch forward for this Colorado State program. And they’ve shown that ever since we had alumni games, which is my first year, they’ve been really respectful. And this is just another example. They really enjoyed hearing those stories and hearing what those women went through and what they fought for.”
The Rams vs. the Tigers will be the first postseason game at “new Rita”
While most Arizona fans probably won’t show up until later in the evening, the first postseason game at the Wildcats’ newly-renovated stadium will get under way at 6 p.m.
Both Colorado State and Auburn were excited to know that they would be the first teams to play postseason ball at the impressive new facility.
“Wow, that’s cool. I didn’t know that. Okay.” CSU pitcher Bridgette Hutton laughed and shrugged. “It’s a great facility. I think we played here two years ago. Last year? Something like that. But, anyways, coming back and seeing it rebuilt... I didn’t know we were the first team playing. I think it’s really exciting.”
When Harvard and Arizona face off on Friday night, two of the players in opposing dugouts will know each other. Taylor McQuillin and Harvard infielder Rhianna Rich (along with former Wildcat Katiyana Mauga) were teammates on the 2013 OC Batbusters.
Just don’t expect it to give either McQuillin or Rich any major insights into their opponent’s play.
“We played together for a year only,” Rich said. “But I really enjoyed playing with her. And it’s been probably about six years since we’ve seen each other, so I’m really excited to see her and face her again, have friendly competition.”
When asked how they responded to the outside expectation that their stay in the postseason would be short and overwhelming, Harvard catcher Elizabeth Shively talked about their team’s motto for the season.
“One of our themes this year has really been grit,” Shively said. “And I think our team really embodies working as hard as we possibly can toward every challenge we’ve been faced with, and this is no different. We understand what we’re up against, and we understand the kind of team we’ll be facing. However, I think we have prepared to the best of our ability, and we intend to represent the Ivy League well.”
Trust and chemistry are key
The Wildcats have talked about their improved chemistry this season. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and McQuillin referred to the bond in the Arizona dugout this season once again on Thursday. That intangible came up in all of the press conferences.
From CSU first baseman Ashley Ruiz talking about the cohesiveness of the Rams’ squad to McCrackin explaining the “next player up” reaction to injuries, all of the teams spoke of the trust they have in their teammates being a key to getting through the season.
That trust will carry them into tomorrow’s games. What will it take to emerge victorious on Sunday?