In an intriguing matchup between the winningest pitcher in college softball this year and the team with the fourth-best slugging percentage nationally, the Huskies' clutch hitting ultimately prevailed.
Washington (38-13) engineered a thrilling comeback in the sixth inning to beat Minnesota, 5-2, Saturday afternoon in the double-elimination NCAA regional at Husky Softball Stadium, and advance to the championship game at noon Sunday.
The Huskies will again face Minnesota after the Gophers bounced back and defeated North Dakota State, 7-5, in an elimination game Saturday night. Earlier Saturday, North Dakota State knocked off Weber State, 5-2, in an elimination game.
The Huskies, who remained undefeated in regional play, only need to win once on Sunday to advance to the Super Regionals next weekend. The Gophers would have to beat Washington twice in order to advance. If a second game is necessary, it would start 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game.
Sydney Dwyer's run-scoring single in the top of the sixth gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead, with the Gophers' ace pitcher, Sara Groenewegen, still going.
Up to that point, Groenewegen was living up to all her lofty stats. She entered the game with a 1.85 ERA and leading the country with a 31-5 record. She was one victory away from tying Minnesota's season wins record.
The right-handed junior averaged 10.2 strikeouts per seven innings, and she'd already struck out five Husky batters by the time she took the mound again in the bottom of the sixth.
True to form, the cool, methodical Groenewegen went right back to work, striking out the Huskies' first two batters before Dani Braun finally managed a hit.
Groenewegen surprisingly wavered. She walked Trysten Melhart, then hit Ali Aguilar in the right shoulder to load the bases as UW second baseman Taylor Van Zee stepped to the plate.
"I knew my teammates were rooting for me. They kept saying little things that were pumping me up and just helping me through the moment," Van Zee said. "I think back through the preparation we put in every day, and I was just at peace and ready to do something."
With a 2-2 count, Van Zee smashed the ball deep into right field for a double, giving Braun, Melhart and Aguilar plenty of time to round the bases and score.
"It felt good off the bat, and I was just excited to see all my teammates scoring," said Van Zee, who led UW with three hits and three RBI. "I was ready and I was really excited and it was fun."
Washington's next batter, Kimberlee Souza took advantage of the momentum shift, and her single was bobbled by Minnesota left fielder Kayla Wenner, sending Van Zee home to score what would be the final run of the game.
Madi Schreyer, the sophomore right-handed pitcher who picked up the win against Weber State on Friday night, started against Minnesota (43-13) on Saturday, and lasted 51/3 innings, giving up three hits, striking out two and walking three batters before she was pulled for senior lefty Hailey Bator (Wenatchee Valley).
Groenewegen pitched six innings, struck out seven and gave up five earned runs in her sixth defeat of the year. Interestingly, two of those six have come at the hands of the Huskies, who beat Groenewegen and Minnesota 7-2 at a tournament in Las Vegas on Feb. 14.
"They're a really good team," Aguilar said. "We came at them with everything we had. Pitching-wise, it went (Groenewegen's) way, but we were due toward the end of the game and obviously we came through.
"It was a real team effort, and that's all we can ask for."