EUGENE, Ore. -- Stepping onto Howe Field at Oregon for the opening game of the 2014 NCAA tournament had a familiar feel for Wisconsin. Playing from the winner’s bracket after a 1-0 win against Albany, however, will be uncharted territory.
Paced by a four-hit shutout from senior Cassandra Darrah and then lifted by a solo home run in the sixth inning from senior Mary Massei, the Badgers (35-18) recorded just the fourth NCAA tournament win in school history on Friday.
“We’re excited,” Badgers head coach Yvette Healy said. “A win is a win and we know that Wisconsin doesn’t have a ton of wins in the NCAA tournament, so when you can come out and win the first one, that’s a big deal.”
Last season, the Badgers traveled to Eugene for the NCAA tournament, but an opening-game loss to North Carolina had them fighting back from the consolation side. UW would go on to win a pair of games in the 2013 tournament, but this season UW will have momentum from the start.
“It’s definitely valuable to get a win in the opener,” Massei said. “It’s one step better than last year, so we had a goal of starting off on the right foot this year and we’re really excited.”
With the win, Darrah (21-13) tied the Badgers’ career record with her 87th victory after striking out six Great Danes. Albany starter Brittany MacFawn allowed just two hits in six innings but took the loss. MacFawn struck out three and walked three.
After five scoreless innings, Wisconsin broke through the pitchers’ duel with a solo homer to left with one out in the bottom of the sixth. Massei parked a first-pitch fastball over the left field-fence and right into the hands of Tony Mueller, the older brother of UW third baseman Michelle Mueller.
“The entire day, MacFawn was pitching me up and out and I think she threw that pitch a little lower,” Massei said after hitting her 10th homer of the season. “I was trying to stay relaxed in the box and she threw a waist-high outside pitch and I just drove it.”
Darrah, who didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning, escaped a big jam in the top of the fourth. After back-to-back errors on the UW infield, Albany had runners at the corners with no outs. Darrah induced a pop out to shortstop for the first out, then got a strikeout and a caught stealing on the same pitch to end the inning and preserve the shutout.
“Cass was lights out [Friday],” Healy said. “She’s a senior on the mound and she really threw like it. She was unshaken. There were a couple errors in one inning and I thought that was really a turning point. She used her experience to stay calm and stay in it.”
With the victory, Wisconsin advances to face top-seeded Oregon on Saturday after the Ducks dispatched Utah Valley in their opening game. Saturday’s first pitch is set for 2 p.m. ET.