The greatest NCAA softball game you (likely) never saw pushed Washington and UMass to the limit

Washington's Danielle Lawrie (15) pulled off one of the greatest feats of endurance in softball history, pitching more than eight hours in back-to-back games against Massachusetts in the 2009 NCAA softball regionals. Thom Kendall

Danielle Lawrie became a softball legend in the 2009 Women's College World Series. Whether watching from the stands in Oklahoma City or on television, a record number of fans saw the fearless pitching ace lead the University of Washington to its only national championship.

They saw the dominance that now ranks her among the sport's immortals.

What most fans didn't see was a long night in Massachusetts two weeks earlier that felt like it might last forever. They didn't see a weary Lawrie pull off one of the greatest feats of endurance in softball history.

One game became two on the final day of an NCAA regional in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sunday gave way to Monday. Lawrie pitched more than eight hours. She threw nearly 400 pitches.

Pushed to a winner-take-all finale by host UMass and its own pitching legend, the Huskies survived a 15-inning marathon on a cold spring night in New England. Lawrie threw every pitch in the finale. She threw every pitch in two games that day. She threw every pitch in the regional. She pitched the worst game of her season and perhaps the best game of her life.

"We thought we probably broke Danielle during that regional," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "We thought, physically, this person is broken."

That night in Amherst is not the most famous entry on Lawrie's résumé. She was the two-time college player of the year. She was a champion in National Pro Fastpitch. She was a Canadian Olympian in 2008 and, after coming out of retirement, intends to be again if the postponed Tokyo Games take place next summer. But the game on May 17, 2009, still stands out.

"That was, by far, the hardest game I've ever thrown in my life," Lawrie said. "Still by far."

And she was the winner. Imagine how it felt to be on the other side of such an epic game.

"I don't know if it's going to sound cocky or wrong of me to say, but I've said it throughout the years," UMass ace Brandice Balschmiter said. "If we got past that game, I really think we would have made a legitimate run at a national title. That's how special and how good that team was."

There will be no new legends written this spring, the Women's College World Series canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. But ESPN sought out some of the participants from 2009 to tell the story of that day in their own words.

Our cast in 2009: Lawrie and Jenn Salling were teammates with Washington and the Canadian Olympic team. Tarr was in her fifth season as Washington's coach. Whitney Mollica was UMass' All-America third baseman, and Balschmiter was UMass' All-America pitcher. Kristi Stefanoni, a UMass alum, and Jessica Merchant, a 2005 national champion at Michigan, were UMass assistant coaches.

Danielle Lawrie's guarantee

The story of what happened in Amherst began two years earlier. Then a sophomore, Lawrie had just pitched Washington to the 2007 World Series semifinals and been named the Seattle Sports Commission's Female Sports Star of the Year. Already planning to sit out the following season to train with the Canadian Olympic team, she had a message at the awards ceremony.

Tarr: She straight up told the city of Seattle, "Don't worry, I'm going to be gone this year at the Olympics, but when I come back we're going to win the national championship."

Lawrie: I remember saying it, and people were stoked about it. But when we were done, Coach Tarr and my dad, too, were like, "That's a lot to live up to and to say."

It was just like, "Dude, why can I not say that? That's the goal."

But for all of her confidence and early success, Lawrie didn't have a storybook Olympic year. That culminated with a semifinal in Beijing. Win and Canada was guaranteed its first softball medal. Lose and its tournament was over. Initially told she would start against Australia, Lawrie instead found out the morning of the game that she would not. Canada lost the game.

Minutes after the loss, Lawrie found Tarr in the friends-and-family section and reiterated her championship guarantee.

Tarr: We knew what she went through with kind of an underwhelming experience as one of the youngest players on the roster. She didn't play that much, she wasn't a very big factor. She probably needed a lot more growth and maturing to become what she could become.

Salling: I think Danielle had a fairly tough experience in 2008. I think there was a lot of motivation to prove some people wrong, that maybe showed her that they doubted her.

Lawrie: It's not that I wanted to prove the haters wrong, but I just had such, at times, a toxic Olympic experience, I think. More so me to blame than anyone. But I wanted to prove that I was good enough because I felt like I never got the opportunity when the moment was there because it was kind of taken away. That's OK and I'm 100% at peace with it, but when you're 21 years old, you don't know how to deal with those emotions.

For me, it was just like "F everybody, let's go. We're absolutely the best team."

Washington seized the No. 1 ranking by winning its first 18 games of the 2009 season, including an extra-inning pitching duel against No. 2 Florida. Lawrie weathered a brief injury scare that kept her out for a week. She would still ultimately start 50 of the team's 63 games and complete 46 of them. A handful of losses across the rugged Pac-12 schedule ultimately dropped Washington to the No. 3 seed in the tournament. The Huskies effectively chose to cede the finales of some conference series by resting Lawrie, a concession to what they hoped would be a long postseason run.

There was one problem: Washington couldn't host a single postseason game. The NCAA had started to require lights in order for schools to host. At the time, Washington lacked the wherewithal to rent temporary lights that fit a facility shoehorned between Lake Washington and the school's massive football stadium.

Two pitching aces collide in Amherst

UMass coach Elaine Sortino, who would die of cancer in 2013, knew she had a special senior class. As freshmen, they had come within a game of the WCWS as freshmen. She lobbied hard for the lights and UMass rented them under the new edict.

Ranked No. 21, UMass was tabbed to host, but the draw brought one of the national title favorites to Amherst. Gathered at their coach's house for the selection show and well fed on one of the big Italian meals she often cooked for them, the players celebrated their name on the screen -- as Sortino and her two assistant coaches winced.

Stefanoni: We were not expecting anyone in the top five, that's for sure. The three of us just kind of looked at each other like, "OK, we've got some serious work to do."

Merchant: All I remember is we knew they were going to ship someone out. We just had to wait to find out who it was going to be. When we saw Washington, the girls were excited. They believed that [they] had a shot to beat anyone. I'm not sure it was so much excitement for me.

Balschmiter: I remember leading up to it I had that Christmas-morning anxious feeling. Then our regional came up, and it was a total gut punch. I was kind of shaking. I admit to being completely nervous and in that one moment I was thinking, "I don't know if I can do this." I had that moment of doubt. But coach pulled me aside and said, "This is good, this is what we've been preparing your entire career for. You can do this. You're ready."

That draw set up what might remain the greatest pitching matchup under a regional format that dates to 2005. Lawrie entered the postseason with a 32-6 record and the third-most wins in the country. It was also only one win better than UMass' Balschmiter at 31-4.

Lawrie's 0.78 ERA was second best in the nation. Balschmiter's 0.91 ERA was seventh best. Each already had more than 300 strikeouts on the season.

But at this point, regular-season games in the Pac-12 were broadcast sparingly, and even less so in the Atlantic 10. While Balschmiter stood an imposing 6-foot-1, few opponents could have identified her.

Tarr: We didn't know in advance that we were going to face Brandice Balschmiter, this amazing pitcher that literally touched 72 miles per hour and threw this heavy drop ball. I remember looking back at history, and the teams that had gone to UMass for regionals had all struggled offensively.

Stefanoni: You could [see in box scores] the teams we were beating and how many people she was striking out and whatnot. But we weren't on TV. And you really couldn't see what she had. Everybody just knew she threw 70 to 72 miles per hour for everything. If you could catch up with it, great, lucky you. But if not, she had you beat.

Merchant: With Brandice on the mound, you had a feeling that no matter who you played, you had a shot. She was a pure power pitcher. She threw it 70 miles an hour and she was tall, so it felt like she was right on top of you.

Mollica: You just knew when she got on the mound she was laser focused and she was going to win games. She would say to us even, "You just need to score one run and we're going to win."

Two teams on a collision course

As expected on the opening day of the regional, Washington and UMass made quick work of Sacred Heart and Cornell, respectively. That set up their first meeting the next day. The winner would move on Sunday's final, while the loser would have to work its way through the loser's bracket and then also beat the other finalist twice to advance to a super regional.

While Washington scored first on an error by Mollica, Balschmiter kept the Huskies at bay long enough for her teammates to tie the score 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth. But a second error by the usually sure-handed Mollica with the bases loaded in the seventh let the Huskies escape with a 3-1 win. The aces largely silenced two of the nation's most prolific lineups.

A sense of an opportunity squandered settled over the Minutewomen, no one feeling it more acutely than Mollica, a captain and a four-year starter. But as Mollica tried not to let her teammates see her emotions, the usually softer-spoken Balschmiter grabbed her.

Mollica: They knew I was so distraught. I was so distraught that I let the team down in that game. Brandice was like, "Whit, you're so many of the reasons why we're even in this position. We got your back, and we know you're going to bounce back."

Balschmiter: I felt this overwhelming need to go talk to her. Her and I were really close -- we still are close today. I just remember I needed to talk to her. I needed to be the one to say, "You know what, it's OK." I could tell that she was really beating herself up, and I didn't need her in that mindset. We needed her ready to compete and perform and we needed her to hit.

When UMass returned to the field that evening for an elimination game against Sacred Heart, Balschmiter threw the third perfect game of her career and Mollica had three hits in a romp.

Balschmiter: I do remember thinking, "Get out of my way. You are in my way." I just remember throwing great. It was one of the best games of my career. It was quick. It was efficient. I had bigger fish to fry.

Neither Washington nor UMass had a second pitcher, so no one was going to be fresh if the regional reached a winner-take-all finale on Sunday. To erase Saturday's disappointment, all the Minutewomen had to do was win the first game Sunday. Do that and they back on equal footing.

Lawrie: I remember waking up Sunday with this pit in my stomach, just a slight discomfort. It happened three times in my career, that's it. It just that doubt of, "Man, this girl is legit, she could beat us on any given day." So not only is there more pressure on me because I have to hold them to no runs, but when you're playing someone that is that good -- and Brandice Balschmiter was -- it just adds another level of intimidation.

The longest day

Washington and UMass played 29 innings during the regional. Neither team was able to score more than two runs in an inning until Sunday's opening game -- the game UMass had to win to force the decisive finale. After Lawrie struck out the first two batters with the game scoreless in the third inning, a double and a walk started a two-out rally for the Minutewomen. Mollica completed it with a three-run home run.

Tarr: They killed us, in our minds. They beat Danielle, they crushed her.

In the same position against Arizona in the WCWS semifinals two years earlier, Lawrie and Washington lost the first game and then fell apart in the elimination game.

Lawrie: When we lost Game 1 against Arizona, it was an instant no-brainer for me that we were going to lose. Arizona was that team. They always beat us. We lost Game 1, and I had this instant doubt like, "OK, I'm not good enough."

But that wasn't what she was thinking between games in Amherst, sitting on the bus and not laughing when one of the coaches tried to lighten the mood by telling her they were starting someone else in the finale. It had been easy two years earlier to guarantee a championship. The hard part came with the ups and downs of the Olympic experience and with the responsibility of pitching almost every inning for the Huskies throughout the season.

Lawrie: I was not intimidated facing UMass again with a 30-minute window, because at the end of the day, I worked harder than you. Our team has worked harder than you. I don't know if that's true, but that's my attitude.

By rule, the teams flipped positions for the finale. Washington became the visitors despite being the seeded team, and Massachusetts batted in the bottom of innings. That meant that beginning in the seventh inning, every pitch Lawrie threw carried the potential to end her season on a walk-off home run. And that is what nearly happened.

Amanda Fleischman was an athletic, versatile player for the Huskies. Her playing time dwindled after Salling became eligible as a transfer in April, but she remained a valuable defensive sub.

Trying to decide the right moment to play the card as both teams struggled to break the 1-1 stalemate, Tarr put Fleischman in right field in the bottom of the seventh inning. She proceeded to catch a routine fly ball that sent the game into extra innings. Then with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning and UMass still looking for its first hit since the fourth inning, cleanup hitter Sarah Reeves squared up a Lawrie pitch and drove it deep toward the right field fence.

Lawrie: As soon as it went up in the air, I was like, "That's out. F---. Bad."

Stefanoni: My god, I get chills just thinking about it. I remember it going up in the air, and I was like, "Holy crap, I think we just won this game." When she hit that ball, I was like, "This is it." And it should have been. It should have been over the wall. It should have been over.

Mollica: Sometimes at night, balls can travel a certain way and it can look farther than it really is. So I wasn't sure. Then I was like, "Oh my God, it's gone."

Lawrie: I remember the low fence, [Fleischman] making a run for it. My stomach dropped out of me because I was like, "We're done, what a god damn waste." I was so mad in that moment.

Salling: Fleisch took a good first step and then all of a sudden she really had to pick up. And once I saw her really going for it, I was like, "Oh my gosh, this ball might leave the yard." I can picture her putting her hand up to the wall, perfect outfield fundamentals to catch a ball over the fence, leaning on it, reaching up over her head. It was such a nice catch.

Mollica: All of sudden her glove just went out and she caught it. I thought we were cursed.

Balschmiter: Where they changed the outfielder from someone who was short to someone who was tall? That one? Yeah, we all remember that one.

Inches away from her championship guarantee and Olympic redemption vanishing, Lawrie struck out the next two batters. Then she struck out the side in the top of the ninth and struck out the leadoff batter in the 10th.

Having already pitched the equivalent of two full games that evening, she recorded 12 of the final 23 outs by strikeout -- and 10 of those strikeouts were swinging. All after Fleischman's catch.

Lawrie: I think it relit this fire in me, like, "F you, let's go." I cannot leave it up to chance.

It says something about the magnitude of Fleischman's catch that so many of those involved now remember it occurring several innings later than it actually did. It feels so important that the mind convinced them it had to come near the end. In reality, the two teams remained deadlocked for the equivalent of another entire game after the catch -- a very cold game. Although the temperature was a modest 53 degrees at first pitch, nightfall quickly dropped the wind chill into the 30s.

Stefanoni: Jess and I looked at our equipment manager like, "You have to go get our jackets." It was absolutely frigid out there. We had these huge victory jackets that had all this fluff, and he went up there and brought all 20 or 21 jackets down. It was so cold you could see your breath.

Merchant: I remember it being freezing and a lot of people leaving to go sit in their cars.

Lawrie doesn't remember the cold. The fire burning inside of her for more than a year offered plenty of warmth. Enough, in fact, to scorch anyone who offered more encouragement than run support.

Lawrie: At one point I went into the dugout and I said to [assistant coach] Lance Glasoe, "You need to talk to everyone right now and get them away from me." Why are you telling me to keep going? We're in the 13th inning and we played seven innings before. I'm in it. Score me a run and we'll win it.

Salling: You just let her do her. You've got to let a pitcher be in her space mentally. She was on a mission. There really was no glimpse of tiredness, and you could feel that behind her, for sure.

Lawrie: That's the beauty of pitching, because I feel like at times it opens up this other beast when you're in the circle and emotions are flying and you can be this whole other person.

Regional weekend in the NCAA tournament requires anywhere from 96 to 112 games at 16 sites across the country. Just about all of that had finished by the time Washington and UMass began to play Sunday's final game, which had been scheduled in the evening to make full use of the lights. As the innings accumulated, what once seemed unimaginable -- that one of the best teams and best pitchers in the country could be eliminated so soon -- became entirely plausible.

Tarr: You definitely go there: "This is not the end of our season. There is no way this is the end. There is no way we're leaving our season in Amherst, Massachusetts." But then you couldn't see how you were going to get out of it because Brandice Balschmiter was literally shutting your whole offense down and you have no solution to it.

The solution finally came in the top of the 15th inning. Washington loaded the bases with three consecutive singles. Balschmiter struck out the next batter for the second out of the inning. Then Salling hit a grounder in the direction of Mollica, who played the entire final day with a broken finger on her glove hand after catching it sliding into a base the previous day.

Fielding the ball pulled her slightly into the hole between third base and shortstop. Unsure about a player at second base, Mollica held her throw a fraction too long and couldn't get the speedy Salling at first. Pinch runner Dani Stuart crossed home with the go-ahead run. Helping her own cause, Lawrie drove in two runs with a single and two more scored after that. By the time she went back to the circle for her 22nd inning, Washington led 6-1.

Staying at a hotel about half an hour away in Springfield, the Huskies were still in uniform when they loaded up the bus after the win and searched for food in the wee hours of Sunday night. They finally found an all-night diner.

Lawrie: Whenever we got the chance to eat and someone else was paying, I was all-in. And not to mention the day that we had, I was like, "Get me a milkshake."

Salling: Everyone was just completely exhausted, like eye black that had been on for 15 innings smeared on people's faces. And it was just like, "Holy crap, guys, we just did that."

Lawrie: I remember that moment, going out to eat and us hanging out as a team, as clearly as I remember winning the national championship. It was so special, such a raw emotional time.

The aftermath

That was only the start of Washington's postseason journey. Knowing the team would not be able to host a super regional, Tarr and her senior leaders decided before the regional to stay on the road as long as there were games to play. So from Amherst the Huskies went to Atlanta for a super regional against Georgia Tech, then on to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series.

Lawrie would again face a test, roughed up by Georgia in a semifinal to force a winner-take-all finale -- the same scenario that unfolded in Amherst. But there would be no second marathon. The Huskies won the rematch comfortably and swept Florida for the title.

Tarr: We knew from the UMass turnaround that we were going to have enough time to recover. Danielle was going to be a different pitcher, and there was no way we weren't going to win that game to get to the championship series. We used that as a reference for sure.

Stefanoni: She's probably one of the most mentally tough individuals we have in softball -- in the world -- considering what she was about to do with Team Canada before the Olympics were postponed. I thought she was one of the greatest competitors that we ever faced. Danielle was the full package. There was going to be nothing that stood in her way.

Lawrie went 42-8 with a 0.97 ERA and 521 strikeouts in 352 2/3 innings that season, the kind of dominance and workload that looks out of place a decade later amid increasing offensive numbers and deeper pitching staffs.

Balschmiter: There were things any athlete would still want to go back and change, moments they would want to redo. But to be a part of that -- that game was great. It was special. If that game was televised it would be replayed every year. It didn't get the attention it deserved. It had no business being a regional game. I think it should have been a World Series game, but that's out of my control. I wouldn't have traded being part of that for anything.

Mollica: I don't always remember the stats, but you remember the moments. That is definitely a moment in my career to look back on. That was one of the most fabulous games that you could ever be a part of with people that you love and against people you have so much respect for.

Lawrie: I've barely cried in my career. That game I cried harder than when we won the national championship. That was my test. No. 1, the team, we did it. But for me individually, I cried and couldn't move my arm for probably four days, but it was such a good feeling. One of the best of my life, for sure.