Entering Sunday, the Oregon softball team was in familiar territory, needing to win games two and three against a Midwest foe to advance to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City for the second-straight season, having defeated Texas in Austin last season.
Thanks in large part to a stellar relief outing by freshman pitcher Cheridan Hawkins, the Ducks prevailed 4-3 in 11 innings to force game three against the Cornhuskers, but were unable make it two comebacks in as many games, falling to Nebraska 4-2 as their season ended at Howe Field.
"I'm very proud of the way the ladies fought back in a very tough game, that first game they threw everything at us and we bounced back. We had a lot of hits, scored some runs, had some great pitching with Cheridan coming in and holding on for the win," head coach Mike White said after the game.
Hawkins pitched seven shut out innings with 11 strikeouts to power the Ducks in game two and registered () more in the deciding game, pitching a total of 11 innings on the afternoon in relief of starter Jessica Moore, only giving up one run in both games combined.
Aside from a solo home run in the first inning of game two, Moore was largely a victim of her own defense. Nebraska's two runs in the fifth inning of game two were unearned, as well as the pair given up in the first inning of game three.
"I mean, they just came out swinging and hit a couple balls through the hole, hard ground balls, and things just fell their way," Moore said.
After catcher Jamie Lindvall's home run brought the Ducks within one of the Cornhuskers in the sixth inning, shortstop Courtney Ceo led off the seventh with a bunt that the catcher threw into right field, allowing Ceo to advance to third and eventually score the game-tying run on a ground-out by second baseman Kaylan Howard.
As Hawkins continued to hold Nebraska at bay in extras, the Ducks had chances to take the lead – including a line drive by Howard that hit off the top of the wall in right – but it wasn't until Samantha Pappas' RBI single in the 11th that Oregon took control of the game.
"Yeah, the whole game I knew we were going to come back." Pappas said.
In the deciding game, Nebraska struck first with two runs – both unearned – on an error by Howard at second, but the Ducks charged back with a pair of their own on an RBI single by Pappas in the bottom of the inning.
Nebraska got one more off of Moore in the third, and another in the sixth after Hawkins relieved Moore for the second time Sunday afternoon.
The Ducks never posed a serious threat to Nebraska freshman Emily Lockman after the first inning, as she pitched a complete game to send her team to Oklahoma City. Oregon had trouble hitting with runners in scoring position all weekend, and hit into five double plays against the Cornhusker defense.
"I just knew that if I kept playing my game and throwing my pitches that it would all fall into place," Lockman said.
Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle said after the game that she stuck with game two starter Tatum Edwards even as her pitch count rose in large part to keep Oregon from seeing Lockman's pitches before game three.
White said after the game that the Ducks had a hard time all weekend finding the right way to attack the Nebraska pitching staff.
"It seemed like no matter what we did with the lineup, we couldn't quite get the right mix this weekend," White said. I mean, the two lead off hitters had five hits, a fantastic job, gave us plenty of opportunities, but we just couldn't get the right people to drive them in."
Revelle, making her return to the Willamette Valley after playing softball at North Eugene High School before her collegiate career at Nebraska, beamed as she talked about her team's performance after their Super Regional victory.
"I've been coaching for 30 years, Revelle said. "I can honestly tell you I've never been more proud of a group of young women, and I'm not just talking about today, I'm talking since day one."
The loss Sunday also marked the end of the road for Oregon seniors Pappas, Moore, Howard, and Allie Burger. For Pappas, it was impossible to put into words the emotions that come with the end of a career.
"I can't even put it into words," Pappas said. It's happiness of how good our senior class did and how good our career was, and it sucks that it had to end right now. I feel like our program has so much more to come and it sucks that we have to stop right now."