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Abrupt ending to NCAA run for Wichita State softball brings tears, appreciation for legacy

Tears turned to laughter, then back to tears.

Players on arguably the most talented Wichita State softball team in program history tried to come to grips with their season ending in abrupt fashion in a 9-8 walk-off loss to Nebraska in the ninth inning of an elimination game at the NCAA tournament’s Stillwater Regional late Saturday evening.

First, the tears flowed because this was supposed to be the Shockers’ time — the year WSU had the talent and, more importantly, the draw to make the program’s first deep run in the postseason. But the longer WSU’s players lingered on the field in Stillwater, they couldn’t help but smile remembering the championships, the three top-10 wins, the 44 total victories and the memories that bonded this group together over the last four months.

And then the devastating gut punch: the realization that the careers of Sydney McKinney, Lauren Mills and Zoe Jones were finished. There wasn’t a dry eye by the time the three seniors were done making their rounds.

“Our kids competed, they fought, they never gave up. They really exemplified the spirit of what our softball team is about and that’s grit, energy and fight,” WSU head coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “This was an awesome season. One for the books.

“Unfortunately, all things come to an end with the three seniors that we’ve got who have all been a tremendous part of the growth of our program and set a really great example of what it takes to compete at the highest level. It’s always sad, never fun to see it end.”

There won’t ever be another Shocker like McKinney, unquestionably the best player to ever wear a WSU uniform. She ends her illustrious career as a two-time All-American (a third is likely on the way), a two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and the program’s all-time career and single-season leader in batting average (.451), on-base percentage (.501), hits (378) and runs scored (250). Her 378 career hits etched her name in the NCAA record books as No. 5 all-time, while her 34-game hitting streak from earlier this season ranked as the sixth-longest in NCAA history.

In the end, it was almost fitting that McKinney’s last game as a Shocker saw her go 4-for-4 at the plate with a walk.

“I’ve been coaching softball since Syd was born and in those 22 years, I haven’t had a player, in my opinion, work as hard as Syd, compete as hard as Syd, but also really understand who (they) are and what’s best for them,” Bredbenner said. “It’s so hard now to be an athlete with all of the pressures that are put on you on social media and in the press. You’re constantly being watched and scrutinized and she found a great way to release that and she worked hard to be the best version of herself.”

In the previous four regional appearances under Bredbenner, WSU’s season was ended in a loss either to a national seed or in a game where it was thoroughly out-played by their opponent.

And while Nebraska rose to the occasion in the game’s biggest moments, WSU left Saturday with the unmistakable feeling that it had allowed a win to escape its grasp.

Given the stakes (McKinney’s last ride) and given the draw (WSU was 4-0 against Oklahoma State and Nebraska during the regular season), it was devastating for the Shockers to not be able to close out a win with a 3-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning, then a 2-run lead in the ninth inning.

With the uphill challenge of needing two wins against Oklahoma State on Sunday looming, Bredbenner was determined to give starter Lauren Howell every chance to close out the game against Nebraska and save the use of WSU’s other arms.

Through six innings, Howell had been good enough to secure the win for WSU. But fatigue set in and things quickly spiraled in the seventh.

Howell was one out away from securing a 6-3 win, but then gave up a 2-run home run to No. 9 hitter Caitlynn Neal, her first long ball since March 12. Followed by a four-pitch walk and a single, Nebraska completed its 2-out rally with a RBI single through the right side from Mya Felder.

With the game tied and now the winning runner 60 feet away, Bredbenner finally made the change to freshman Alex Aguilar, who had pitched four innings earlier in the day in WSU’s 6-0 loss to Oklahoma State. After a walk to load the bases, Aguilar was able to escape the jam with a ground-out to first base.

“If you look back on it, there’s a lot of things I probably would have done differently in that game,” Bredbenner said. “But I can’t change them now. We gave it what we had. I’m extremely proud of the program and where we’re at and I’m proud of where these three seniors are leaving it.”

After escaping another bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning, WSU swung momentum back its way in the top of the ninth. McKinney led off with a single, then Lauren Lucas roped the go-ahead RBI down the left-field line. Jones singled again, then Mills, who hit two solo home runs (her first since March 25), notched her third RBI of the game with another well-placed hit down the left-field line for an 8-6 lead. But WSU stranded runners on second and third base with one out.

It was an ominous start to the bottom of the ninth inning, as Felder cranked a home run to center field to begin the rally for Nebraska. After a single and a walk, Ava Bredwell drove in the game-tying run with a double. A batter later, Katelyn Caneda chopped a ground ball to second base and the throw home wasn’t in time to give Nebraska a walk-off win — and its first win over the Shockers in four tries this season.

“I don’t feel like a team lost this game,” Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle said. “Just a team scored one more run at the end. You have to have total respect for your competition when nobody gives in like that.”

Afterward, McKinney was still trying to process that she had just put on the Shocker uniform for the final time.

She had been sent to the post-game press conference to try to summarize the impossible. The feelings were still too raw, too new to be able to properly put her legacy in perspective.

But the words she was able to muster before the tears came again were ones spoken from the heart.

“Wichita State is just home,” McKinney said, smiling through tears. “Just proud to represent and proud to stay.”