Updated: March 19, 2013, 12:46 PM ET

Virginia Tech team awakens memories of '08

By Graham Hays | espnW

HeinzDave Knachel Hokies freshman Kelly Heinz has been rebuilding her strength after a surgery cost her her senior season in high school. Still not 100 percent, her results have nonetheless been impressive.

Like an actor asked to recite the phrase that made him famous in a long-ago role, there was a hint of resignation in the voice of Virginia Tech coach Scot Thomas when a question was posed about that day five years ago.

Or perhaps it was just the fatigue of canceled flights and an unplanned night in Chicago at the end of a long road trip. Time waits for no man, but we all wait on the airlines from time to time.

It will probably pass uneventfully in most of the sports world, but March 26 marks the five-year anniversary of one of the most remarkable upsets in the history of sports. Seriously, a result that ranks alongside the Miracle on Ice, Buster Douglas dropping Mike Tyson to the canvas in Japan and anything else you care to submit for sheer improbability. That was the day an unranked college team beat the United States Olympic softball team 1-0 on what amounted to Team USA's home field in Oklahoma City. It was the first loss for the national team after 185 consecutive wins in pre-Olympic exhibition games.

And Virginia Tech's Angela Tincher didn't just beat Team USA. She threw a no-hitter, one walk shy of a perfect game.

The Hokies weren't unknown for long after that. They eventually made it to the Women's College World Series that season after Tincher, the lightly recruited local product who finished ranked among the NCAA's all-time strikeout leaders, beat fourth-seeded Michigan twice in one day in Ann Arbor in a super regional.

That season and that day in Oklahoma City, not to mention Tincher a pitcher, were experiences any program would dream of having, but they also make for a tough encore.

"I wouldn't say it's a like a ghost just hanging around," Thomas said. "It's not really like that. It's more like you've just got to be proud of your past and continue to use that as somewhat maybe of a benchmark to continue to try to get back to. But I guess there's some double-edged sword to it."

Dave Knachel Courtney Liddle leads a stacked Virginia Tech squad that returned nearly its entire lineup from a season ago.

For the first time since Tincher moved on after that memorable season, Virginia Tech returned to the NCAA tournament last spring and came within a win of a super regional. They returned almost the entire starting lineup this season, led by senior Courtney Liddle and sophomores Lauren Gaskill and Kelsey Mericka, hitters with the kind of slugging percentages and run production the 2008 team often lacked in support of its All-American ace.

With a reliable veteran pitcher in Jasmin Harrell, the current team also added an in-state pitching prospect in freshman Kelly Heinz, who didn't pitch her senior season in high school after undergoing surgery for an ulnar nerve condition.

A week ago, the Hokies beat UCLA 2-1 in Long Beach, Calif., as Heinz allowed just three hits in a complete game. It was the program's first win against a top-10 team since, you guessed it, the 2008 season. This past weekend at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif., they picked up wins against Arizona and Michigan on the same day. Heinz again went the distance with a four-hitter against the Wildcats and picked up a save against the Wolverines.

"She's not back exactly where she was, but she's close," Thomas said of a pitcher he noted could hit 68 and 69 miles per hour regularly before surgery. "I think she's going to get better. I do think it's pretty exciting, if she's here now, where can she be in the future? Right now, I'll take what I'm getting right now. But I think the possibility of her getting a little better -- it's possible. We'll kind of see how that goes."

It wasn't a perfect weekend for a team that was routed by Arizona State and lost to Fullerton, but after the successful stint in California, Thomas brought up that 2008 team with his current players. He told them that a few weeks before the game against Team USA that made softball history, that team went west and lost to Arizona and UCLA. He told them they had done something even that team never did.

"You've got to talk about it, obviously," Thomas said. "But then again, we're making our own name for ourselves at this point. These girls are doing a great job of that."

The Michigan team Virginia Tech beat in a rematch of the super regional five years ago had a good weekend of its own in Fullerton, that result notwithstanding. The 3-2 setback against the Hokies turned out to be the only loss for the Wolverines, a schedule highlighted by wins against Arizona, Arizona State and Washington in the span of little more than 24 hours.

In the 6-1 win against the Huskies, freshman shortstop Sierra Romero hit a pair of home runs. In a 5-4 comeback win against the Sun Devils, just that team's second loss this season, Romero reached base and scored. And in a 9-1 win against the Wildcats, she hit a solo home run and drew a bases-loaded walk. Sensing a theme yet? Like Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain a season ago, Romero is making an impact that bears little correlation to her experience. With the pitching situation in good hands -- sophomore Haylie Wagner is working her way back to full health, while classmate Sara Driesenga enjoys a breakout season under the tutelage of pitching coach Jennifer Brundage -- Romero (1.161 OPS) has solidified a lineup that had its hands full trying to replace All-American Amanda Chidester.

"Sierra Romero is one of those special kids who has a lot of talent, but she has a lot of confidence," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "She believes in herself -- and she's had some bad games this year. She's had a lot more errors than we would have liked her to have, than we think she should have, but she just looks at you and says 'Yeah, I know I'm better than that.' And she believes it.

"Having that self-confidence is what makes the good players great. And she's one of them; she's one of the great ones."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.


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