May 30, 2010

By Christopher Walsh
Special to NCAA.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In terms of softball stunners, this one will be tough to top.

Down to its last out in the NCAA super regional and facing a pitcher who had struck out 16 batters, Hawaii pulled out a shocking 5-4 victory over Alabama on Sunday when junior Jenna Rodriguez hit a two-run walk-off home run that wrapped around the left-field foul pole.

With that, the trip that has already lasted 20 days and more than 8,000 miles will continue as the Rainbow Wahine make their first appearance at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.

"The most exciting day, other than the birth of my two children, in my life," said Hawaii coach Bob Coolen after the emotional victory celebration, which included parading a state flag around the Alabama Softball Complex.

"You aspire as a coach to make it to the World Series. This team really showed resilience and fortitude out there, not giving up."

Adding to the drama was top-seeded Alabama coming back to take a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning on junior shortstop Whitney Larsen's three-run home run, which had the sellout crowd of 3,130 in a frenzy.

With junior Kelsi Dunne throwing five scoreless innings after giving up a three-run home run to Rodriguez in the first, the Crimson Tide had all the momentum.

That is, until the bottom of the seventh, when Hawaii, designated the home team by a coin flip, had the top of the order due up. Freshman Kelly Majam, who tops the nation with 30 home runs, drew a leadoff walk.

"Once Kelly got on, it was a no-brainer," said Coolen, whose team has hit an NCAA-record 154 home runs. "We're not going for the one run, we're going for the two. That's the kind of team we have, and I've never backed off from that. I think we've bunted during the last three weeks once. We've stolen two bases.

"Hitting the home runs, hitting the gaps and putting the ball in play is our team."

But even then things still weren't looking promising. Freshman shortstop Jessica Iwata, who hit a grand slam in Saturday's 8-7 victory, fell into an 0-2 hole and struck out on a high riser. Junior third baseman Melissa Gonzalez took strike three on an inside pitch.

That brought up Rodriguez, whom Alabama coach Patrick Murphy briefly considered walking. But he liked Dunne's chances to close the game with the home crowd behind her.

"My dad's always told me you want to be the person up there with two outs," said Rodriguez, who hit the first pitch high down the line above the foul pole. "I was thriving on it.

"I knew it had a chance of going foul. I stayed there and watched it. I had to see if it was really going foul or not, and it stayed fair. It was a great, awesome experience.

"When I hit home runs, I don't have anything going through my head.

It's just like blank. It hit me after I touched first base, and that's when I started getting all giddy and excited, letting my expressions show."

The exact opposite was on display from Alabama, which struggled to grasp that its 52-12 season was over.

"I didn't know if it was going to go foul or not," said Dunne, who described the pitch only as "something inside."

"They have great hitters, obviously. They lead the nation in home runs. Every single one of them fought out there, and they made me work hard. That's what good teams do. They're dangerous. Congratulations to them and good luck."

Playing in her last collegiate game as Alabama's lone starting senior, Charlotte Morgan went 2-for-2 with a solo home run off Australian freshman Kaia Parnaby. Hawaii staff ace Stephanie Ricketts relieved to earn the victory (29-8).

"I think we definitely overachieved," Murphy said. "We won 28 in a row and had seven new people in different positions, a whole new lineup."

So the road trip goes on for Hawaii (49-14), which will open the World Series against ninth-seeded Missouri on Thursday thanks to the shot heard all the way back home.

"I ran out and jumped around," Parnaby said. "Wow, amazing. I don't have too many words." Coolen's first reaction?

"It was like, 'We're going to Oklahoma City. We made it.' "