UCLA falls short of threepeat

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Jessica Merchant nudged Grace Leutele out of the way, grabbed the popup for the final out and sprinted across the field to tackle the hero of Michigan's first NCAA softball title.

Freshman Samantha Findlay hit a three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Wolverines a 4-1 win over UCLA on Wednesday night. In thanks, she was leveled by Merchant.

"I was just so happy," Merchant said.

Michigan's rally started when Tiffany Haas reached on shortstop Jodie Legaspi's one-out fielding error and moved to second on Alessandra Giampaolo's infield single before Anjelica Selden struck out Merchant.

Findlay, who also hit a tying RBI single in the sixth, hammered a pitch from Selden (29-13) over the left field fence. She raised her right fist in the air after rounding first and leaped onto home plate among a mob of happy teammates.

"She did a great job picking me up," Merchant said. "I told her, 'Pick me up. Come on, Sam.' She was huge."

Jennie Ritter (38-4) walked five and struck out four in a five-hitter for Michigan, which became the first team from east of the Mississippi River to win the national championship. Oklahoma (2000) had previously been the easternmost team to win it all. Michigan is also the northernmost team to win the title.

"We didn't care where we were from," Merchant said. "We didn't care if we were from the East Coast."

Ritter, a USA Softball collegiate player of the year finalist, pitched around a leadoff double in the ninth inning by Dedmon to give the Wolverines a chance for the win.

After pinch-runner Jaisa Creps moved to third on a sacrifice, Ritter got Ashley Herrera to pop out and Tara Henry to ground out.

"She likes to make it interesting," Findlay said.

Michigan (65-7), which scheduled its first 33 games on the road because of cold weather in Ann Arbor, overcame the handicap to claim the title that has been dominated by West Coast teams since its inception in 1982.

UCLA (40-20) has won 10 titles and had another one vacated by the NCAA for rules infractions; Arizona won six; and Fresno State, California and Cal State-Fullerton also won titles. Only Texas A&M, which won two titles in the first six years, and Oklahoma had broken the stranglehold before.

Michigan lost its season opener to Baylor but then won 32 straight -- all on the road -- to climb to the top spot in both major softball polls. The Wolverines, one of only five teams in NCAA history to hit 100 home runs in a season, combined a potent offense with Ritter's dominant pitching. Ritter threw three no-hitters and started the season 22-0.

With the most storied softball program in the opposite dugout, the top-seeded Wolverines were still something of an underdog heading into the championship series.

"We were ranked No. 1 all year, but I think we we're the underdog when we're playing UCLA in the championship game," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "They know how to win."

The Bruins outscored Michigan 7-0 over the first 11 innings of the championship series before the Wolverines rallied for a 5-2 win in Game 2.

The Bruins also struck first in the decisive game.

Lisa Dodd, the Bruins' eighth-place hitter, hit an 0-1 pitch from Ritter over the left field wall with one out in the second inning to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.

The Wolverines rallied to tie it in the sixth after loading the bases against Selden with nobody out. Haas singled, Giampaolo drew a four-pitch walk and Merchant singled to bring Findlay, Michigan's top run-producer, to the plate.

Findlay scored Haas on a sharp grounder to right, but Selden got out of the jam without any further damage. UCLA third baseman Andrea Duran snagged a line drive from Nicole Motycka and tagged Giampaolo a few steps off the base. Selden then struck out Leutele looking to end the inning.

After winning her first title, Hutchins said she had the utmost respect for coach UCLA Sue Enquist and the Bruins' storied success.

"I am certain that I will be dead before I do this 10 times," Hutchins said.