Heading into the final regular-season series of the year, the Oregon State softball team was on the cusp of a lost season.
It had all started so well. The Beavers began the year 31-9 -- climbing to No. 22 in the nation -- but when they traveled to play Utah on May 12, it seemed like ancient history. Having lost 10 games in a row, the Women's College World Series wasn't worth a passing thought. The Beavers just wanted to win a single game.
For senior Mariah Mazon, one of the best players in program history, it's easy to laugh about now. The Beavers' run over the past two weeks in the NCAA tournament has granted a new perspective for that tough stretch of games.
"Those losses were all hard-fought losses -- seven of them were by one run," Mazon said Saturday after completing a super regional sweep of Stanford to punch a WCWS berth.
It seemed like they kept finding new ways to lose. They blew a 4-1 lead in the seventh inning against UCLA. They lost to Washington on a walk-off sac fly. They lost on a game-ending throwing error to Oregon. Tying and go-ahead runs came to the plate, never to cross home.
"We knew that from those games that we could come back and beat anybody. We just needed one more thing to get us on top," Mazon said. "So, I think [the losing streak] was more of a push for us -- knowing that we could stay in games with UCLA and Washington and Oregon."
And the Beavers ended up beating the Utes two out of three times that trip.
The reality is no conference in the country features the type of high-level parity seen in the Pac-12. Since conference play began in mid-March, the Beavers went through the gantlet and came out prepared to make a postseason run. Seven of the conference's nine softball-playing schools reached the NCAA tournament; five reached a super regional and three -- UCLA and Arizona, along with Oregon State -- are still alive. In an incredible display of the conference's depth, Arizona finished Pac-12play in last place.
"[It is] the best conference in the country," Stanford coach Jessica Allister said, "and there's nowhere to hide. There's not like a clump at the top and then you get to rest against everybody else."
That's why Allister isn't surprised to see the Beavers go on a run despite finishing in sixth place.
"Oregon State is playing some unbelievable softball down the stretch," Allister said. "I think they have a chance to do some things in Oklahoma City."
If they do, Mazon's fingerprints will be all over it. On a 22-player roster that features 14 freshmen, Mazon is the only senior. She came into the season as one of the conference's most accomplished players and knew that with such an inexperienced roster, her play -- both in the circle and at the plate -- would go a long way in dictating the Beavers' season. And she has more than delivered.
While splitting time in the circle with Sarah Haendiges, Mazon went 17-11 with a 1.60 ERA, striking out 220 batters in 184 innings pitched. At the plate, she is second on the team with a .366 average (behind the team's only other upperclassman, junior Frankie Hammoude; .386), second in homers (12) and first in both OPS (1.227) and slugging percentage (.786).
Against Stanford last weekend, she set the program's career strikeouts record during a 3-1 Game 1 win before producing the defining moment of the series in Game 2. After Stanford loaded the bases against Haendiges with one out in the top of the fifth, coach Laura Berg called for Mazon. She promptly struck out both hitters she saw to escape the jam and didn't allow a hit over the next two innings to preserve the 2-0 win.
"Mariah was incredible. She did exactly what we needed her to do in a tough situation," Berg said. "She is a super senior -- a fifth year senior -- and she's been in those critical positions before in the Pac-12.
"Mariah's done a phenomenal job of taking everybody under her wing. Especially Sarah."
After going 10-6 during the regular season, Haendiges is 3-0 in the postseason. Having two dependable pitches will make the Beavers a tough opponent in Oklahoma City, where they open against No. 14-seeded Florida on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) in Game 3 of the WCWS. If the Beavers win, they'll play the winner of Oklahoma State-Arizona on Saturday, while a loss will result in a game against the loser of that same matchup on Friday.
Oregon State's lone previous trip to the WCWS came in 2006, when it was eliminated in two games (the first loss to eventual champion Arizona, then Arizona State in the losers bracket).
In Berg, the Beavers are coached by one of the most accomplished softball players in history. As a player for Team USA, she won three Olympic gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004) and one silver (2008), and she delivered one of the great moments in U.S. softball history at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with one out and runners on first and second and the score tied, 1-1, she drove a ball deep to left field -- just out of the left fielder's grasp -- to give the U.S. a walk-off gold-medal victory.
As a player at Fresno State, she guided the Bulldogs to the 1998 NCAA title.
"Outside of the Olympics, there is nothing like playing [in] Oklahoma City," Berg said. "Nothing like it. These guys need to remember not to make it bigger than it is."
With leadership from Mazon and the inexperience on the rest of the roster, the pressure of the NCAA tournament has so far not been an issue.
"It's still 60 feet, turn left. It's still see ball, hit ball and play catch," Berg said. "We still have to do that no matter who it is that we play or where it is, what field we play on. It's a simple game and that's what we have to remember and stay true to."