The Huskies in the Big East Softball Tournament: So close and so far

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After a regular season that was filled with both ups and downs, the UConn Huskies softball team was one of four teams participating in the 2021 Big East Softball Tournament from the newly renovated Burrill Family Field in Storrs, CT.

The Huskies (20-18, 12-9 Big East) were the No. 3 seed in a bracket that also featured the top seeded DePaul Blue Demons (22-9, 13-1 Big East), second seeded Villanova Wildcats (32-12, 15-2 Big East) and fourth place Butler Bulldogs (16-19-1, 6-11-1 Big East), who were filling for Creighton as they could not participate due to COVID issues.

The Big East softball tournament was a double-elimination format where teams are eliminated after two losses. This is how the tournament went down for the Huskies.

UConn 4, Villanova 3 (May 13)

In the first game, Butler shocked everyone by smacking DePaul 8-1. This contest surprised many but was much closer than some would think.

The Wildcats had their chance in the bottom of the first, but with two on and one out, Marybeth Olson struck out Meghan Kern and Ryan Henry to prevent any runs from coming across.

It was the Huskies that would strike first. In the top of the third, Reese Guevarra casually lined a softball towards Kern, who snagged the ball and started running off the field thinking she had the third out. Only problem, the umpires had determined that the ball hit the ground and Guevarra reached safely on a single.

UConn took advantage of that defensive confusion by plating three runs on singles by Big East Freshman of the Year Jana Sanden and Sami Barnett, who plated two on her single. Up 3-0, the Huskies had a lot of momentum on their side.

As one would expect, the Wildcats did not go away quietly. In the bottom of the fourth, Villanova tied the game on a bases loaded walk to Big East Player/Pitcher of the Year Paige and a two-run single by Angela Giampolo allowing Dani Dabroski and Sydney Hayes to score. 

UConn had their chances in the fifth and sixth innings, but it was Devon Casazza who would provide the winning run in the top of the seventh. With a 3-1 count and Barnett on first base, Casazza whacked a softball into right center field to give the Huskies a 4-3 lead. All they had to do now was prevent Villanova from walking it off.

They would proceed to do so as Sanden fielded a softball over to Briana Marcelino for the final out of the game as Meghan O’Neil, who started this contest, entered in relief to shut the door for a 4-3 victory.

While the Wildcats would have to play less than an hour later against DePaul to keep their hopes alive, the Huskies were able to rest before they squared off with Butler the next day.

UConn 4, Butler 1 (May 14)

The two underdogs squared off on Friday afternoon to determine who would advance to the final round undefeated in tournament play.

Butler scored first in the top of the second as a sacrifice foul out by Zoe Herdman allowed Mackenzie Griman to score with the bases loaded and give the Bulldogs the early 1-0 lead.

It would not take the Huskies long to respond as Casazza took a 2-2 pitch one half inning later out of the ballpark to tie the game at one. Casazza’s ninth home run brings back memories of UConn’s opening series at Burrill Family Field when she tied the contest on a solo shot in the second game of the doubleheader.

In the third inning, the Huskies would do something that the Bulldogs could not, which was take the lead. The Bulldogs had runners on second and third with one out, but failed to score either of them, so the Huskies put a runner on third in Marcelino, who proceeded to score when Sanden popped a single into center field to give the Huskies a 2-1 lead.

In the top of the fourth, the Bulldogs had another prime opportunity as they had the bases loaded and no one out, but two flyouts and a strikeout later and the game remained 2-1.

In the bottom of the fifth, Marcelino got things started with a loud double and then scored when Guevarra singled down the middle to extend the Husky lead to 3-1. Marcelino would be involved in another scoring play an inning later when she reached on an error that allowed Hollis Wivell to score an insurance run for a 4-1 Husky lead.

In the top of the seventh, Kinney got Christina Candotti to strike out swinging and send the Huskies on their way to the conference finals, where they had the opportunity to take home the coveted Big East championship. The 4-1 win also gave Kinney her eleventh win of the season.

Butler would proceed to face the Villanova Wildcats less than an hour later and were eliminated following a 14-5 loss that saw the lead teeter back and forth before the Wildcats blew the game wide open. The rematch was set, who would come out on top?

Villanova 5, UConn 1 (May 15)

After Villanova rallied against the Butler Bulldogs in Friday’s elimination game, they had the opportunity to win their first ever Big East title, all they had to do was win two straight games. Standing in their way was the Huskies, who only needed to win one.

The Huskies got to business early as a single that turned into three bases for Barnett allowed Marcelino to fly into home plate and give the Huskies an early 1-0 advantage. 

In the bottom of the first, the Wildcats loaded the bases without recording a hit and could have scored some runs here. With two outs, Julia DaCosta lined a pitch towards left centerfield, but Sanden dove to catch the ball and keep the game in favor of the Huskies.

In the bottom of the third inning, Wivell made an incredible dive in right field to rob Kern of an extra-base hit. Feeling denied, the Wildcats responded immediately with an Alison Jones home run to tie the game at one.

Over consecutive half innings, Villanova and UConn had great opportunities to give each other the lead; but in the bottom of the sixth, the Wildcats got that lead and cracked the game wide open. A walk to DaCosta, a double by Chloe Smith and a walk to Dabroski loaded the bases with one out. Immediately following a Rauch groundout, Giampolo put the stamp in this game with a grand slam to left center that gave the Wildcats the lead.

That grand slam was enough, and the Wildcats held on to win 5-1, giving Rauch her 20th win of the season in the process. It would come down to that coveted game seven to determine who would be crowned the Big East champion.

Villanova 6, UConn 1 (May 15)

Game Seven, the two greatest words in all of sports. Although this was not a seven-game series, this was still a winner-take-all showdown that could either see the Wildcats win their first title or the Huskies keep the title in Storrs.

After losing the first contest, the Huskies wanted to take home the second and got started right away. A double by Guevarra allowed Marcelino to score and gave the Huskies a 1-0 lead that they could potentially build off of.

In the top of the third inning, the Huskies almost got themselves another 1-2-3 inning, but an error by O’Neil allowed Dabroski to reach and she scored when Rauch delivered a double to left field that tied the game at one.

The Huskies had a great opportunity in their half of the third to get the lead right back, but with the bases loaded and one out, Casazza and Makenzie Mason flew out to end any opportunity the Huskies had to score in that frame.

Realizing they did not give up a run, the Wildcats responded right away in the top of the fourth with as DaCosta doubled and then scored from third base on a single from Smith to give the Wildcats their second lead of the day 2-1.

Already up 2-1, the Wildcats added an extra run in the top of the sixth on an RBI single from Smith that brought in Erin Gray, who was pinch running for Ryan Henry. With a 3-1 lead, the Wildcats could smell their first ever Big East title.

Just to make sure they would not lose in this specific game, Rauch her 300+ pitches thrown and 10+ walks while at the plate, delivered the final blow with a 3-run home run to center field that extended the lead from 3-1 to 6-1. 

Despite a double from Marcelino in the bottom of the seventh, the offense went quiet and a strike out to Sanden ended the Big East tournament as the Villanova Wildcats won their first ever Big East title. They won the automatic bid and will take on Ole Miss in the first round.

Unfortunately, Villanova was the only Big East program selected for the 2021 NCAA Softball tournament. The Huskies finish 22-20 overall with a 12-9 record in Big East play, finishing third in the conference. 

So that concludes the 2021 UConn softball season, a great season overall. The future is incredibly bright for this resurgent program as they will gain more pieces next season to remain in contention with power teams in the conference.

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