25 years later, a 56-inning overnight epic still plays on today
To this day, Bruce Rasmussen recalls the irritated wife who greeted him at home the morning after one of the strangest events in college sports history, certainly the longest and oddest to unfold on a softball diamond.
"She wanted to know where the hell I had been," Rasmussen chuckled.
Creighton's athletic director for the past two decades, he was, in 1991, coach of the school's women's basketball team. And like many in the athletic department that spring a quarter of a century ago, he was drafted to help during the Western Athletic Conference softball tournament in Omaha, Nebraska. So after lending his hand to the grounds crew, he told his wife the truth: He had been at the field.
"That didn't seem to be very realistic to her," he recalled. "I know she thought I was manufacturing a story."
Elsewhere in Omaha that morning, Creighton senior pitcher Kelly Prokupek, then Kelly Brookhart, dropped into bed and finally slept after a one-woman filibuster against an opponent she couldn't beat: time.
Starting on May 11, 1991, Creighton and Utah played what remains the longest game in NCAA softball history. It spanned 31 innings, lasted almost seven hours and required more than 700 pitches to complete. Not until after midnight did Creighton's 1-0 win stave off season-ending elimination.
The game lasted longer than any NCAA softball or baseball game before or since. It was only two innings shorter than the 1981 game between the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings, widely considered the longest game in professional baseball history.
Incredibly, after a 20-minute break, Creighton and Utah turned around and played the third-longest game in NCAA history, 25 more innings.
The teams played until Utah's 4-3 win clinched the championship. They played until the same sun that set on them Saturday rose to usher in Sunday.
Prokupek was in the circle when it started and in it when it ended. She pitched 51 1/3 of 56 innings. She never allowed an earned run.
Two of the three longest games in NCAA history, back to back. The first game started at 6 p.m. on May 11 and ended at 12:25 a.m. on May 12. Prokupek threw 390 pitches, according to a story on the 20th anniversary. Four Utah players had 14 official at-bats. The second game started at 12:45 a.m. on May 12 and ended at 6:10 a.m.
Is it any wonder Jill Rasmussen was skeptical of her husband's story?
The amount of times you had to fail, to have it not happen for your team, was just too much for me.Amy Hogue
Close your eyes and imagine the sounds of a ballpark. Maybe you hear the smack of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt, the chatter of infielders. Perhaps you hear the electric hum of lights illuminating the night or the buzz of cicadas announcing the afternoon heat.
The sound you don't hear is the dawn chorus, the name given to the birds that replace night's silence as first light approaches.
"We pretty much lost track of time," said Mary Higgins, then Creighton's coach. "We just kept going one inning and then another inning and then another inning. And then I remember stopping in our tracks, going, 'Wait a minute, those are birds chirping. The sun is going to come up. We played the entire night.'"
These days members of the Big East and Pac-12, respectively, Creighton and Utah both played softball in the WAC in 1991. The top seed in the conference tournament, Utah won its first two games and eased into the championship round scheduled for that Saturday evening.
Creighton, by contrast, lost its opener and had to win three consecutive elimination games, which it did by identical 1-0 scores, to join Utah in the final. The last of the preliminary wins came Saturday afternoon against New Mexico. Prokupek pitched it, too.
That set the stage for what followed, the urgency to complete the proceedings because the NCAA bracket was set to be released the following day.
The teams broke the record for the longest softball game after 28 innings in the first game. Three innings later, it ended in fittingly bizarre fashion. A Creighton runner advanced to third base with one out in the top of the 31st after Utah's shortstop, stationed near third base, stepped across the foul line during an intentional walk (by rule, defenders must take positions within fair territory). A subsequent sacrifice fly brought home the runner and Prokupek retired Utah in order in the bottom of the inning.
Now Utah's coach but at the time a freshman infielder who made the final out of the first game, Amy Hogue, then Amy Timmel, recalled that players rallied during the break between games by comforting themselves with the knowledge that the winner-take-all finale would feel like a sprint at just seven innings.
Then Prokupek, also Creighton's best hitter, tied the finale with a two-run double in the bottom of the sixth inning. On they played. Again.
Feet bruised from standing in cleats. A Creighton player injured a shoulder running into the fence, something Higgins attributed to fatigue. And yet the physical toll was milder than the mental one. Hogue recalled a moment well into the endless night when All-American center fielder Charmelle Green, who went 7-for-12 with two walks in the first game, stood almost aimlessly as the pitch was delivered. Her glove wasn't even on her hand.
"I recall losing my mind at points in time," said Green, now the senior women's administrator at Penn State. "And having [head coach Jo] Evans say 'Charmelle, get with it, you can do this.' ...
"I'm around athletics daily, and I've seen great wins and devastating losses. But nothing that measures up to the experience of playing 56 straight innings of softball."
No one was immune. After she grounded out to end an inning, Hogue walked toward first base coach Mary Kay Amicone, lowered her helmet to the coach's chest and said she couldn't do it anymore. Amicone offered the standard encouraging words and waited for Hogue to move on and get ready for the next inning. The player just stood there, head bowed and silent.
She trudged back to second base only when a teammate brought out her glove.
"The amount of times you had to fail, to have it not happen for your team, was just too much for me," Hogue said.
We just kept going one inning and then another inning and then another inning. And then I remember stopping in our tracks, going 'Wait a minute, those are birds chirping. The sun is going to come up. We played the entire night.'Mary Higgins
There were moments of absurdity, too, the kind of punchiness born of sleeplessness. Two uniforms on hand in case of a second game, Utah players changed while the first game was still in progress in hopes it would alter their luck. Rasmussen said the grounds crew amassed mini-fortunes in a between-innings game based on whether the ball stayed in the pitching circle when rolled there after the third out. Having exhausted both inspirational banter and useful advice, Higgins recalled replacing the familiar "Go Jays" chant in team huddles with words like "Mayonnaise" or "Peanut butter."
Something, anything to keep minds from wandering deeper into a mental wilderness.
"We had totally run out of words to say," Higgins said. "It was like 'Just hit the God-dang ball, will ya?'"
Amidst all of that, Prokupek kept pitching. She recalled her arm cramped up on the first two warm-up pitches she threw before she entered the second game in the fifth inning. Then it loosened up, as if, in her words, it remembered what it was supposed to do.
"She's the story," Hogue said.
Prokupek didn't overpower batters, didn't breeze through innings. It wasn't the aptly named Debbie Doom striking out 20 batters for UCLA in a 13-inning postseason game. Never a strikeout pitcher, Prokupek fanned just 15 batters in more than 50 innings that night. It was a pitching duel, against Utah's Janet Womack in the first game and Melissa Halkinrude in the second, but not one in which hitters were helpless accessories. Utah stranded 64 runners.
Prokupek remembered Green at one stage getting hits off every kind of pitch she threw. Her repertoire exhausted, she looked at her pitching coach and shrugged, bested.
But that feeling was mutual.
"I recall sometimes being intimidated and trying not to show it because she was so good, she hit her spots so well," Green said. "Kelly Brookhart was one of the most fierce competitors, the most tenacious and fierce competitors I've ever seen."
After 20 innings of shutout relief, nearing 60 innings since she arrived at the park, Prokupek watched Utah score an unearned run on an error in the top of the 25th (a league official unilaterally instituted a common tiebreaker late in the second game, a runner placed on second base to begin each half inning). As fate would have it, she came to the plate with two outs and a runner on base in the bottom of the inning. It felt like solid contact when she swung. She watched the ball sail directly to the left fielder. That memory is more clear than almost any other from that night.
"That was my job," Prokupek said. "I was the No. 3 hitter. I'm supposed to get the hits, I'm supposed to hit in the runs. That's what I'm supposed to do.
"Instead I got the last out."
Going through the postgame handshake line with more hugs than handshakes, an opponent told Prokupek she couldn't remember ever getting out so many times. It struck the pitcher as funny, but she found she couldn't laugh through the tears.
"The game was just played in its purest sense," said Evans, now the coach at Texas A&M. "That's something that will always be a fond memory of mine, one that stands out more given the climate of our sport now.
"In this day and age, in the games that we compete in with all the gamesmanship and all the shenanigans and one-upping and coaches trying to gain an advantage or an edge -- all the stuff that goes on in our game now -- none of that happened for 12 hours and 56 innings."
One person's celebration is another person's farewell. Utah went on to upset Texas A&M in an NCAA tournament regional the following week and reached the Women's College World Series. Evans wonders if something the people in College Station, Texas, saw during that regional might be the reason they offered her the job she now holds as one of the sport's winningest coaches. Creighton went home.
"Some [losses] have been really painful and just stuck with you forever," said Higgins, now president of Marian High School in Omaha. "This is not a painful loss. It was not painful. I think both teams had so much respect for each other. I just remember players going through the line and just hugging each other. It could have been us, it could have been them. ...
"I get choked up. We went the distance. We couldn't do any more."
When it was over, Prokupek drove one of the vans full of players back to campus from the city park, just one sign of how different an era it was from the current one of national television audiences and crowds of thousands in gleaming stadiums. When she finally got home, she slept into the afternoon. Then she woke up and drove to see her boyfriend a few hours away in Iowa. Life continued.
That morning wasn't the final time she ever threw a pitch. She played in some women's amateur leagues in the years that followed and only recently stepped away from co-ed slow pitch (she won her final game). But that morning was the last time she threw a pitch that mattered so much.
She works now in a child development center, still in the Omaha area, having worked with kids most of her adult life. She and her husband have a son and two daughters. The teenage girls played or play softball, but they aren't addicted to it the same way their mom was. They don't fully understand why it is so important to their mom to watch as much softball as she can when the Women's College World Series offers its feast of games each year.
She used to argue with Higgins about why she couldn't pitch both ends of a doubleheader. One game never felt like enough. She just wanted to play.
No one gets do that forever, but damned if she didn't try.
"I fully enjoyed the whole experience," Prokupek said of a night so long it turned into morning. "It was like a dream for me, to be able to play that many innings. It was just fun to be able to keep playing and keep playing and keep playing. It wasn't even bad softball -- it was really good softball.
"I hated the last out. But the rest of it, I loved."