Three hundred sixty-four days ago, then junior left-hander Haylie Wagner was in Tallahassee. She was the go-to pitcher for the Michigan softball team. It was the Super Regionals, and she was in the circle staring down the barrel of gun.
One runner was on in the bottom of the seventh as Florida State’s second-best slugger, Courtney Senas, stepped into the batter’s box. And with Wagner’s 1-1 delivery, the Wolverines’ season came to an end, as Senas homered to left field.
Wagner couldn’t punch her team’s ticket to Oklahoma City then, but on Friday, things were different.
“(This win) means a ton to me,” Wagner said. “This is my last time at Alumni Field and I wouldn’t want to go out any other way. We’re ready for Oklahoma City. We’re ready to fight and attack out there.”
When sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa — Michigan’s pillar of pitching — was crumbling quickly in the first, allowing three runs on two homers in just two-thirds of an inning, Wagner was sent to the circle.
She struck out the first batter that she faced to end the inning and persevered through the game with a steely determination.
Though the veteran hurler wasn’t striking players out at will, and didn’t even keep the Bulldogs off the board, she still did her job in leading the charge to Oklahoma City.
In the bottom of the second and third innings, Wagner allowed just two hits, forcing two groundouts and a pop up while adding two strikeouts to her total. She got some help from senior catcher Lauren Sweet, who caught centerfielder Niaja Griffin stealing.
And when pitching well just wasn’t enough, and there was a stalemate at three runs, Wagner rose to the occasion with her bat as well.
In the top of the fourth Wagner stepped to the plate with one out. She took one pitch from right-hander Chelsea Wilkinson, before roping the next delivery into the trees beyond the left field wall. The solo homer put the Wolverines up 4-3 and gave them their first lead of the game.
“On the home run all three of my coaches said the exact same thing,” Wagner said. “Just to see the back of the ball, hit the back of the ball. I went up there and used my timing swing. I just saw the ball and hit it, and there it went. It’s a great feeling.”
Wagner kept rolling after her offensive contribution, putting the Bulldogs down in order in both the fourth and fifth inning. She received some run support in the top of the fifth, as Michigan tacked on another two runs.
But in the bottom of the sixth, Wagner’s worst nightmare was becoming a reality. She allowed two hits and runners were on second and third with no outs. It was her game to lose once again.
Then Griffin grounded out to second base, scoring third baseman Anna Swafford. Now it was 6-4 with a runner on third once again.
Shortstop Paige Wilson stepped to the plate and hit a slow roller back to Wagner. It was a footrace between the left-hander and the Bulldog dashing for home. It was about to be 6-5, but Wagner was quick enough and tossed the ball to Sweet for a play at the plate to record the second out.
From that point, Wagner ensured history wouldn’t repeat itself. After allowing one more single, the seasoned veteran used three pitches to strike out the final batter of the inning and eliminate the Georgia threat.
The nightmare turned into a dream, as the crowd rose to their feet in thunderous applause. Yet Wagner’s job wasn’t over — the top of the Bulldogs’ order was looming for her in the bottom of the seventh.
She allowed a single to begin the frame. Then she forced a ground out.
Then it was 2014 all over again. One runner on, with Georgia slugger Alex Hugo at the plate. But this time, Hugo swung and missed on strike three, there were two outs.
Then things looked bleak once more. First baseman Tina Iosefa sent Wagner’s next pitch to another planet. Michigan clung to a one-run lead and lightning was about to strike twice on the Wolverines.
That’s when Michigan coach Carol Hutchins decided to replace Wagner with Betsa, who recorded the final out.
“It took every one of us (to win),” Betsa said. “(Haylie) came in in the first inning when I didn’t have my best stuff. I was right there cheering her on. I knew that Haylie was going to get the job done. She pitched lights-out for the whole game.”
Wagner is a senior now, and was in Ann Arbor for the Super Regionals this time. She was watching from the dugout as Michigan’s new ace was handed the ball to start the game.
But her name was still called, and though she was far from perfect, she was the one who labored through six innings with the burden of another Super Regional disappointment bearing down on her shoulders, before passing the torch to Betsa.
This time, there was no walk-off home run. This time, there was no premature ending to the season.
This time, things were different.