The Toledo softball team battled to the very end, but saw its dream season come to an end on a two-run walk-off home run in a 2-0 loss to Illinois May 18 at the NCAA Lexington Regional in Kentucky.
Sophomore Erin Hunt pitched a brilliant game, shutting down the Illini until Kiana Sherlund belted a 2-0 pitch just over the left-field wall with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.The loss ended the season and the Cinderella story for Toledo (29-28), which made its first appearance in the NCAA Championships since 1992 after winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament as a No. 7 seed last weekend.
With the win, Illinois advances to an elimination game vs. Virginia Tech May 18. The winner of that game will face No. 14 seed Kentucky Sunday, May 19.
“We just talked in the locker room about how proud we are of this team and how far they’ve come,” said Head Coach Joe Abraham. “Once again, this team showed they can play with anybody, including the top Power Five teams in the country. We were right there in the seventh inning, and Erin was dealing. Illinois had to earn everything, and while it stinks to lose, you can live with it. Erin is upset, but she was playing in Division II last year and now she’s shutting out Illinois and holding down Kentucky fairly well.”
For nearly the entire game, Hunt had Illinois off balance, striking out six and forcing the Illini hitters to swing at tough pitches. She worked out of jams in the third, fourth and sixth, but Illinois never really hit her hard until Sherlund’s line-drive homer.
“I’m living every little girl’s dream,” Hunt said. “I don’t take anything for granted. Every pitch, I’m happy to be here, lucky to be here. As Coach Joe said, I came from D-II and never thought I’d be on this stage. I looked at D-I schools, but no one ever bit. Coach Joe was actually the only coach who did, and without him I wouldn’t be playing college softball. I’m just taking it all in and enjoying the experience.”
Toledo had its best chances to score in the third and fourth innings when it put two runners on each time, but the Rockets were never able to get the hit they needed to get on the scoreboard.
Despite ending the season with a tough loss, Abraham said an experience like this will be one he and his team will remember for the rest of their lives.
“It’s already sunk in for me,” Abraham said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. As it sinks in for them, it’s going to be pretty cool thing to look back on in the upcoming months and years.”