OKLAHOMA CITY -- There must have been times in recent years when UCLA longed for the days of Lisa Fernandez's dominating the headlines most any time she stepped on the field during the Women's College World Series. Saturday presumably wasn't quite what it had in mind.
In a World Series increasingly defined by the minutia of the obstruction rule, No. 5 UCLA found one too many obstacles in its path and was eliminated with a 1-0 loss to No. 6 Washington. One too many obstacles and one too few assistant coaches in the dugout. Fernandez was instead sitting among fans in the stands after the greatest Bruin of them all was ejected earlier in the day and, after making contact with an umpire, drew an immediate two-game suspension.
It was an afternoon and evening that showed the intensity of college softball's cruelest day, when four teams close enough to a championship to literally stare at the trophy while shooting promotional videos upon arrival in Oklahoma City, instead left empty-handed.
"It wasn't really about the sway of emotion," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said when it was done. "We were ready to play another game, and I liked our mentality coming into this game [against Washington]. They were ready to compete. They were ready to win. They were very confident. They were going to play for Lisa. I think all of that adds to a great ability to succeed. And it just didn't happen in the ballgame today."
Yet it was also a day that saw events overshadow those who dealt best with the tension, from the pedigreed brilliance of Washington's Taran Alvelo and Ali Aguilar to the unexpected emotion of a pinch hitter's final at-bat. It was the inescapable consequence of softball's greatest player making headlines.
All of this began innocently enough. UCLA already was leading Texas A&M 3-1 in the sixth inning in the first of the day's four elimination games when Bruins outfielder Gabrielle Maurice doubled and subsequently advanced to third on an ill-advised attempted force by the Aggies. She was still there when, with an additional runner on first base, UCLA attempted a delayed double steal in which the runner going to second attempted to draw a throw and spend enough time in a rundown to allow a run to score. Maurice broke for home and arrived at the same time as a throw that pulled Texas A&M catcher Ashley Walters into her path.
Maurice was unable to avoid the tag as she dove to one side to avoid Walters and hit her head on the ground as she landed. Both players remained on the ground for some time as the Aggies completed an inning-ending double play. First Inouye-Perez and then Fernandez came out of the dugout to protest the lack of an obstruction call against Walters. Plate umpire Erin Peterson ejected Fernandez when the encounter grew heated, but the UCLA assistant coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist continued to argue aggressively and bumped Peterson before being escorted from the field.
"I have no regrets," Inouye-Perez said after the 8-2 win that temporarily prolonged the Bruins' season. "If you knew how much she had Gabby's back, I'm glad that it only got to be an ejection. But, clearly, Lisa, she has a great respect for the game. Lisa is an icon in our sport. Lisa is the epitome of role model. When it comes to understanding her responsibility, we don't necessarily condone, that's not who we are. Yet, once again, it's an opportunity to fight for our players."
UCLA faced the longest road possible from the losers bracket in large part because of an obstruction call against Bruins catcher Paige Halstead in a 2-1 loss to No. 13 LSU in each team's opening game. On a similar play and similar headfirst slide by LSU's Constance Quinn, Halstead was judged to have left the runner with no clear path to the base.
Because of the spotlight afforded it, the World Series is often where simmering rules issues come to a boil. That has been true in the recent past with regard to illegal pitches and bat technology. It is true this season with the rules for obstruction, when a defensive player impedes an offensive player.
The NCAA softball rules editor, Vickie Van Kleeck, said the UCLA cases were different, Saturday's call not an interpretation of the obstruction rule but one in which both players were entitled to the same space. Inouye-Perez said the point of contention for both she and Fernandez on Saturday, no matter the rule cited, was the suggestion that Maurice had a safe path as she sought to evade the tag.
"I'm, obviously, not very clear about how that call is being made," Inouye-Perez said. "The [obstruction] rule came into play to avoid the collision, to avoid that type of play. And because it's gotten heightened, the judgment is something that can go either way. ... My biggest thing is my concern for my player. She had to clearly alter her path, and the umpire said she didn't."
UCLA remains the biggest brand in softball, and Fernandez among its biggest names, so her ejection became the story of the day. Complete not only with hashtags on social media but matching T-shirts bearing a photo of Fernandez, acquired with impressive speed between games, that were worn by a block of UCLA fans behind the team's dugout in the game against Washington. On the back of many was the message "Free the GOAT," the acronym for "greatest of all time."
Easily lost in the uproar were one of the greatest players to come through the Washington program and a pitching performance about as good as the Huskies have seen. One of only two seniors on Washington's roster, and the only one to spend all four seasons in Seattle, Aguilar provided the game's only run on a deep, leadoff home run in the sixth inning. The Huskies had put the leadoff runner on base in each of the first four innings, Aguilar among them when she led off the game with a walk, only to either run themselves out of scoring chances or simply struggle to make additional inroads against UCLA pitcher Rachel Garcia.
So Aguilar removed the need to string together hits with a 273-foot blast, which, in addition to one a day earlier, gave her the two longest home runs in this World Series. Just for good measure, in a game in which her UCLA counterpart and Team USA teammate Delaney Spaulding showed off her glove at shortstop, Aguilar then made a nice backhand stop and throw for the first out in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Before her final at-bat, Aguilar said she went to Alvelo and told her she had her back.
"There's some kids that maybe think like a coach or want to coach, but they can't necessarily play or execute it on the field -- that was me," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "But you're just kind of in awe of [Aguilar's] ability to really execute a game plan and seek information out. And this year, I think, was big for her to be able to bring others along. She's taken advantage of that opportunity for her team, and she's found ways to lead her team in way more ways than just offensive execution or defensive influence."
The legacy is far less polished for Alvelo, but the sophomore was just as good on this night. Tarr called it as well as Alvelo has pitched. It was certainly an improvement on two shaky outings when the teams met two months earlier in a Pac-12 series. With the season on the line Saturday, she struck out seven and allowed just two hits in the shutout.
Washington, it's worth pointing out, had its own reason to lament its place in the losers bracket, the all-important opening run in a loss to Oklahoma a night earlier scored by the Sooners on another controversial play at the plate, in that case centering on whether a run left the base line.
At least the Huskies get to stay in the spotlight to play another day. That wasn't the case for Texas A&M after it produced what was both one of the tournament's best moments and one that too few will remember. Her team down 8-1 in the final inning, Texas A&M coach Jo Evans sent Celena Massey to the plate as a pinch hitter. A senior, Massey had just four previous at-bats this season and 13 the past two seasons combined. She hadn't hit a home run since her sophomore season. She hit one Saturday, in presumably her final at-bat in organized softball. The score aside, Texas A&M players and coaches piled out of the dugout with such exuberance that Evans apologized to the UCLA coaches, those who remained, after the game. She need not have. The moment and the reaction were perfect.
Saturday at the World Series is a test of spirit as much as softball ability. Six teams arrive knowing only two will play on another day. It is a day that frays nerves and tests tempers.
It is a day that reveals something about those who survive, but much more about those who persevere.
"I told them to sit up with their shoulders back and their chin up," Inouye-Perez said at the end of a long day. "We represent with class. Things didn't fully go our way, and that's life. It cost us some critical moments in this World Series that I think things could have bounced in a different direction. Because I think everybody knew that this team had a lot of fight in them. But we did have to separate quickly. It was a very emotional moment. It's something you never really want to be a part of. Yet what we learned is this team and this program, we support each other. That's something that is a very, very powerful message."
It is a good message, one repeated in a number of ways by a number of players and teams Saturday. Here's to hoping the methods of the most famous messenger doesn't overshadow it.