*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – In a sport like softball, just one swing of the bat can change the entire course of a game. The University of Chicago softball team saw that play out first hand during their doubleheader against Hope College on April 16, 2019. Despite falling behind 4-0 in the opening game, the Maroons stormed back to win 6-5 thanks in large part to a grand-slam home run by rookie Katie O'Donnell.
The mid-April clash on a late Tuesday afternoon saw UChicago travel up to Holland, Mich. to play Hope College. In her 21 years leading the Maroons, Head Coach Ruth Kmak has frequently scheduled her teams to take on the Flying Dutch. The two teams have matched up on a nearly annual basis from 2004 onwards.
"We always appreciate competing against Hope as they have consistently been a quality program over the years," Kmak said. "Last season, we entered the game a significant underdog at 9-13 to Hope's 17-7. We approached that doubleheader, and particularly entered that first game, thinking in terms of an all-out team effort – treat it like a must-win because it was, in a sense, for us. We really believed in changing the course of our season with the young group we had."
The 2019 Maroon roster featured plenty of new faces. Eight first-years joined the group that also included five sophomores, three juniors and four seniors. The youth movement saw significant playing time throughout the year, with all field players appearing in at least 18 games while the pitchers combined for 18 starts among their 35 appearances in the circle. Kmak wanted to test the newcomers right away to see how quickly they could adapt to and progress within the collegiate game.
"We love and value our roster depth and versatility," said the veteran head coach. "We had a very talented group of first-years last season and continued to give them opportunities to shine and chances to grow as the year progressed. After a somewhat slow start for some of them, they really ended up finally coming into their own as the season was headed down the home stretch."
The hosts held the upper hand early on, going up 4-0 after three innings. Hope's starting pitcher proceeded to retire 10-straight batters as the top of the fifth inning rolled around. Despite the deficit, Kmak still felt good about her team's approach.
"After the first couple innings, we were consistently making very solid contact each at-bat, but they were a line drive or fly out to someone," she said. "And Hope's defense, especially up the middle at shortstop and center field, was defending us very well. We needed an inning where one of those hits fell in and we actually put pressure on the pitcher and defense."
The fifth inning proved to be the rallying point. Lainey Hughes smacked a leadoff single to center field, but a fielder's choice on the next batter forced her out on a nice play by the shortstop. Emma Nelson then knocked a single to left field, and Samantha Lauro followed up by beating out a grounder to the pitcher. Just like that, the bases were loaded with one out.
Savannah Pinedo stepped up to the plate and hit a hard comebacker to the pitcher. But a throwing error on the play allowed the first run to come across and keep the pressure on. Then it was O'Donnell's time to shine.
Over the course of her debut season, O'Donnell excelled as one of the team's most consistent threats. From her catcher's position, she hit for a .397 batting average on the year while posting two home runs, 13 RBI and six stolen bases.
Now with three runners waiting on the base paths, O'Donnell's potent bat came through in the clutch as she bashed a grand slam over the left field fence. The deficit was erased as UChicago snatched a 5-4 lead.
"Katie is an outstanding hitter," said Kmak. "She is a bit deceptive in that opposing teams see her size and may underestimate her power production ability. It is a joy to watch Katie hit. When she is disciplined and is patient for a good pitch to hit, great things happen. The grand slam was an amazing and uplifting moment for her, our first-years and our entire team."
The hit parade continued on into the sixth inning. Three-straight singles once again set the table for Pinedo, who provided an important insurance run with a RBI single to left.
The Flying Dutch kept things interesting, however. Hope put two runners on and eventually scored one on a wild pitch. With the tying run on third base, UChicago pitcher Olivia Dunne struck out the final batter looking to pick up the save and complete a 6-5 victory over Hope.
Both teams tallied nine hits in the game, with Lauro and Nelson providing two each. Megan Stoppelman earned the win with two innings of scoreless middle relief.
For Kmak, the game marked a significant milestone for her team's development and confidence going forward.
"This was a great game where so many contributed, we used three pitchers, and some hitting off the bench as well," Kmak said. "We felt exhilarated about a total team victory, while we remained eager and hopeful for success as the season progressed."