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Jay’s Memorable Moment #14 – Playin’ With the Big Girls

USL 4, Cal State Northridge 2

Arizona 2, USL 1, (10 innings)

USL 1, Connecticut 0

USL 1, Arizona 0

UCLA 1, USL 0

NCAA Womens’ College World Series

ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

May 27-31, 1993

The story of how Lady Cajuns softball got to be a national power is really an incredible one.

When the program started, the Cajuns played where the intramural fields are today, not far from the big “eauk” tree where many Cajun fans gather to tailgate near Bertrand Drive on football gameday.  Their uniforms were home made by Rosemary Girouard, mother of USL coach Yvette Girouard.

At the time, the coaching position was a part-time one.  Recruiting budget?  Seriously?  When Yvette went recruiting, she slept in her car.

Softball in the state of Louisiana was really non-existent.  Some teams were playing fast-pitch in high school, but the talent wasn’t Division I material.  There was no fast pitch program until high school and no select teams.  That meant if the Lady Cajuns were going to compete on the level the intense coach wanted, Girouard was going to be spending a lot of nights in that car.

But, she built it.  And, by the late ’80′s, with a pitcher named Stefni Whitton, who would become the first of many All-Americans, the program was NCAA regional worthy.  In fact, the program had enough respect to where the Cajuns got to host regionals.  But they fell short of the goal of being in the Women’s College World Series.  The fact the Cajuns were being selected was a tribute to the program when you consider that, back then, only twenty teams made it to postseason play.

A lot of things, including the game itself, went through change in 1993.  A new ball, yellow in color, was now being used.  The ball had a tighter COR and that meant more offense.  Prior to 1993, 1-0 games were the norm.  Because the ball didn’t carry, you could challenge hitters by pounding the strike zone and not worrying about the corners.  If a team got a runner at first with one out, they bunted; no questions asked.  Home runs? Nope.  In fact, the first home run at Lady Cajun Park wasn’t hit until the ball was changed in 1993.  (The first Cajun to hit one out of the park was Kyla Hall.)

Girouard knew change was coming to the game and she recruited accordingly.  She still made sure she had speed, especially at the top and bottom of the order.  She still used the short game, but in the middle of the lineup she added power.  And, in 1993, the Cajuns had another special year, despite the changes in the game.  She even had three players from Louisiana:  Second Baseman Tami Pearson (Baton Rouge), first baseman Alyson Habetz (Crowley) and outfielder Melody Mohar (Lafayette.)

That season the Cajuns hit .335 with 23 home runs and 114 stolen bases.  Their 51-5 record was among the best in the game.  At the end of the season, the Cajuns were ranked eighth and sent on the road for the first time to play in the postseason .  Ann Arbor, Michigan was the destination for the three team regional where #10 Michigan, #20 Bowling Green State and #8 Southwestern Louisiana would battle for a chance to play on softball’s biggest stage.  I made the trip to do the play by play.  Don Allen, my broadcast partner, stayed behind and did baseball.

The first day of the tournament was a round robin where all three teams played one another.  The Cajuns beat Bowling Green 7-3, and Michigan eliminated the Falcons 8-2.  That set up a defacto two out of three for the regional title.  In the final game of day one, the Cajuns got three in the third inning, two of them on a two run single by freshman All-American Lynn Britton and led 3-0.  But Michigan came back against Kyla Hall with five unanswered runs, thanks to four walks and four Cajuns errors.  But in the sixth it was Britton again with a two run single to highlight a three run sixth and Hall stranded three Michigan base runners in the seventh for her 26th win against just one loss.

Needing two wins on the final day, the Wolverines jumped out to a 1-0 lead which held up until the fifth.  But the Cajuns got two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning on a two run single by—guess who?  Lynn Britton did it again and the Cajuns had the 2-1 lead.  Michigan got a hit and two base error to put a runner at third with no one out in the seventh, but Hall got two grounders and a strikeout for her 27th win and the Cajuns were headed to Oklahoma City for the first time in school history.

Those nights in the car early in her career had finally paid off for Girouard.

Joining the seventh-seeded Cajuns in Oklahoma City were four powerhouses from the West Coast: #1 UCLA, #2 Cal State Northridge, #3 Arizona  and #6 Long Beach State.  #4 Oklahoma State would have a big crowd cheering for them.  Longtime Cajuns nemesis #5 Florida State and #8 Connecticut, a surprise regional winner,  rounded out the eight team field.

The Cajuns didn’t play on the first day, as UCLA shut out UCONN and OSU knocked off Florida State.  The pro-OSU crowd set a session record of 4, 301 fans.  Lisa Fernandez threw a no-hitter and struck out 14 in the Bruins’ win.

On Friday, May 28th, the Cajuns were ready to play with the big girls.

Arizona and Long Beach State had the first game and the Wildcats won easily, 6-0.  As that game was being played, when fans looked up on a hill over the left field wall, they could see the Lady Cajuns taking batting practice.  As game one came to a close, the Cajuns began their walk down the hill toward the playing field.

Over 500 fans had made the trip from Lafayette and they gave their girls a standing ovation as they began their descent.

“Hearing the fans of the Lady Cajuns as we walked down the hill gave me tears and goosebumps all at the same time.  It will always be one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had as a coach,” Girouard would say to me, many years later while coaching at LSU.

Northridge (47-7-1) had a reputation of being a great hitting club with All-Americans Beth Calcante and Tamara Ivie their leaders.  The aptly named Amy Windmiller (19-5) was their starter.

If there was any question about the Cajuns’ nerves it was answered in the first inning when Habetz made an incredible, back to the plate, diving catch of a foul ball in the bottom of the first inning.  Windmiller and Hall settled into a pitchers duel that lasted until the Cajuns batted in the sixth.  In that innings, USL got four of their seven hits as Britton, Kathy Morton, Heather Neville and a passed ball got four runs for the Cajuns.  Hall did the rest, giving up two unearned runs in the seventh and closing with a four hitter as the Cajuns got a big upset.

On Saturday, UCONN eliminated Florida State in the day session and Northridge took out Long Beach. In third game of the day session, a crowd of over 5,000 set another attendance record as Oklahoma State stunned top ranked UCLA 1-0 in 13 innings, despite a 13 strikeout performance from Fernandez.

That set the stage for the night session as the Cajuns took on Arizona.

Two All-Americans, Arizona’s Susie Parra (25-2) and Kyla Hall (28-1) squared off and those who expected a pitchers’ duel got one.  Through the first four innings, each team managed just one hit.  But in the fifth, Hall, one of the few Cajuns pitchers in their history who also was a really good hitter, homered to left field with one out to give the Cajuns a 1-0 lead heading to the sixth.  Hall worked around a one out single in the sixth and the Cajuns went out in order setting the stage for the seventh.

Hall got Parra on a ground ball for the first out, but pinch-hitter Jenny Dalton singled.  A bunt single by Krista Gomez put runners at first and second.  Stacy Redondo grounded into a force at third base.  Just one out away from a win, Amy Chellevold hit a ground ball into the hole at shortstop.  The throw to second was late, and Gomez, having reached third on the play, never stopped running.  The throw to the plate was late.  Gomez had scored from second on an infield grounder and the score was tied.

It stayed tied until the tenth when back to back singles by Redondo and Chellevold started the inning.  The runners were bunted over and Leah O’Brien’s sacrifice fly scored Redondo to send the Cajuns to a heartbreaking 2-1 loss.  It was only the second loss of the season for Hall.

In the nightcap, UCLA staved off elimination as Fernandez threw her second no-hitter, leading the Bruins to a 2-0 win over Northridge, eliminating the Matadors.

On Sunday, the Cajuns faced elimination against Connecticut, led by second team All-American Pat Conlan (26-7).  Knowing the Cajuns would have to play a second game later that night with a victory, Girouard elected to start senior Missy Skow in the circle with Hall as the DP.  Skow had a fine season in her own right, coming into the game with a 19-3 record which included a win over Bowling Green in the regionals.  Despite a 101 degree fever, Skow was brilliant, allowing three baserunners the entire game, all on singles.   The game was scoreless until the fifth when Vanessa Avant drew a leadoff walk and was sacrificed to second.  Alyson Habetz then had a clutch two out double to right to score Avant with the game’s only run.  Girouard’s strategy had worked and the Cajuns survived, 1-0.

The second game of the session saw the two unbeaten teams collide and Arizona scored a run in the bottom of the ninth to beat Oklahoma State 1-0.  Parra threw a three hitter and struck out thirteen.

Now, back then, there was no bracket play.  This was a pure, eight-team double elimination tournament.

That meant UCLA would take on OSU in an elimination game and the Cajuns would face elimination in the nightcap against unbeaten Arizona.

Fernandez shut out OSU 5-0 to eliminate the Cowgirls.  Now it was time for the rematch between the Cajuns and Wildcats.

It was a night when both Hall and Parra were at the top of their respective games.  Both pitchers dominated the first four innings and it looked as though someone would have to make a mistake for the other team to score.

Arizona blinked.

In the bottom of the fifth, Heather Neville reached on an error by second baseman Krista Gomez.  Cajuns’ catcher Tiffany Whittall singled Neville to third.  Then, with two outs, Vanessa Avant singled to left scoring Neville with the unearned run and the Cajuns led 1-0 after five innings.

Just like the night before.

In the seventh, Parra grounded out to start the inning.

Just like the night before.

Then, two straight hits.

Just like the night before.

Then, a fielder’s choice results in an out at third.

Just like the night before.

Now, there were runners at first and second with two out.

Just like the night before.

And, Amy Chellevold, Arizona’s leadoff hitter came up.

Just like the night before.

Yogi was right.  This was deja vu, all over again.

With the count 1-1, Chellevold lifted a foul ball down the left field line.  Britton, the All-American freshman, didn’t make the play.  She sheepishly walked the ball back and brought it to Hall.

“My bad,” she said.

Hall glared at her.

“Catch the damn ball,” she said.

Two pitches later, Chellevold hit another pop up to third.

Britton caught the damn ball and the Cajuns had the 1-0 win, leaving three teams still alive in the 1993 Women’s College World Series.  Arizona, by virtue of being the last unbeaten team, would get the bye to the championship game.  The Cajuns would get Lisa Fernandez and top-ranked UCLA.

Welcome to Championship Monday.

Now, I gotta tell you, Don  and I were having a ball.  Don had done something close to this kind of tournament, when the Cajuns’ baseball team reached a regional final in Baton Rouge in 1991.  But he admitted this particular event was so much bigger.  And, we were pretty excited to head to the stadium on Monday with a chance to win a national championship.

Doing radio for the WCWS wasn’t normal back then.  In fact, I don’t remember any other team having radio at the tournament except us.  We were set up outside, just below the main press box.  It was an excellent vantage point, right behind home plate.

But when we got there on Monday morning, our area was roped off.

Don was not happy.

He looked up into the press box, got a man’s attention and threw up his hands as if to say “What the hell is going on.”

The man looked at Don.  We could read his lips.

“Television.”

Don looked at the man.

“Bullbleep.”

Turned out the man could read lips as well.  It didn’t take him long to come outside and introduce himself as the NCAA official (I think it was the tournament chairman.)  He questioned whether we’d like to stay and do the game on the radio or if we’d just like to leave.

Don apologized.  We didn’t want to leave.

I have to tell you, watching Lisa Fernandez pitch was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  Hall was terrific.  Parra was really, really good.

Fernandez was on another planet.

She mixed power, nearly 70 miles per hour with a devastating changeup that looked like it was going to be high and inside and then just dropped over the plate, leaving you to look at it or swing over it.  In the first inning, Avant singled to left with one out.  She moved to second on a ground ball and stole third.  But Hall struck out to end the inning.

In the third, Jenny Thomas walked with one out, but was caught stealing.

The Cajuns wouldn’t get another base runner.

Hall matched Fernandez pitch for pitch until the bottom of the fifth when Janae Deffenbaugh hit a fly ball to right that just cleared the wall.  It was one of only three hits Hall gave up all day.  But it was enough.

The glass slipper had finally cracked.

In the championship game, Arizona scored an unearned run on an error, a sacrifice, and a two-out single.  It was the only hit they would get off Fernandez.  But it would be enough, as Parra’s two hit shutout gave Arizona the championship, 1-0.

Up until 1993, everyone knew the Lady Cajuns of USL were probably, along with Florida State, the two best teams east of the state of Texas.  But the question always was, could this underfunded program that had very few players from its home state, ever compete nationally?

In 1993, we found out the answer was yes.

And, twenty years later, it still is.

(NCAA Box Scores and info from UL Sports Information contributed to this story.)

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