Duke upsets Missouri in Super Regionals, advances to first Women’s College World Series

Duke’s D’Auna Jennings wrapped her arms around right fielder Claire Davidson, her toe just barely grazing home plate as she fell into her teammates’ arms in the top of the ninth inning. The sophomore center fielder had launched her second career home run over the right field fence — and the timing was perfect.

Jennings’ hit ignited a four-run outburst that broke a scoreless stalemate, and Duke held on in the bottom of the ninth to edge Missouri, 4-3, in Game 3 of the Columbia Super Regional to clinch the Blue Devils’ first Women’s College World Series appearance.

Duke (52-7) will play three-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in its opening game of the WCWS in Oklahoma City. But that daunting task is of little consequence after the No. 10 Blue Devils upset the No. 7 Tigers (48-18).

“This is our fourth year in postseason and this has been the ultimate goal: to get to the Women’s College World Series,” Blue Devils head coach Marissa Young said. “I think it says a lot about our consistency, of excellence in our program. We want to be seen as a powerhouse softball program, and I’m just really proud of the way that the girls continue every year to take us to the next level.”

Duke has made Super Regional appearances in the two previous seasons, but it was swept by UCLA and Stanford.

Jennings’ hit, just the fourth of the game, gave Duke a 1-0 lead in the winner-take-all Super Regional matchup against Missouri. Amiah Burgess, Ana Gold and Kelly Torres all recorded extra base hits, scoring an additional three runs.

The Blue Devils needed all of them.

Mizzou responded in the bottom of the inning with Abby Hay’s three-run homer to cut into the Duke lead, but the visitors held on for the victory. Jennings, appropriately, caught the fly ball for the final out.

“This is what postseason softball is all about; just a dog fight,” Young said. “Kudos to Mizzou. I mean, just so much fight all weekend and a great competitor in their program. Super proud of our girls for continuing to fight with their backs against the wall.”

Duke recorded a season-low two hits in a 3-1 loss on Saturday in the second game of the series, an uncharacteristic showing for one of the nation’s top offenses. It appeared those struggles would not be an issue in the third game on Sunday — the Blue Devils notched two singles in the first inning — but Missouri stopped that quickly.

The game was a pitchers’ duel until the final frame. Left-hander Cassidy Curd started in the circle for Duke after her success in the first two games. Curd entered the rubber match with a 0.72 ERA in the NCAA Tournament and 0.63 ERA against Missouri.

The decision proved to be effective. Curd threw a career-high 8 1/3 innings and allowed two runs. She didn’t allow a run in her first eight frames of work. Her pitching forced 12 fly balls, five groundouts and seven strikeouts.

Curd also retired 14 consecutive batters before giving up a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh. The sophomore used her rise ball, which tricked a number of Mizzou batters, to strike out Kara Daly and force extra innings.

“I think the mentality in this game is, ‘The game is not over till it’s over,’ and going in with unwavering confidence. I have unwavering confidence in my defense and my offense,” Curd said. “I know that with them on the field, we can do anything. We fell short yesterday, but I knew we were gonna bounce back today.”

Duke’s outfielders dominated on defense, especially in the outfield. Jennings highlighted the early performance with two top plays in the second inning, leaping for a flyout and diving glove first on a lineout.

“I want the ball every time,” Jennings said. “I’m never going to be caught off guard with the ball. I’m ready. Every pitch, I want the catch every time. I want to take a hit away from everybody.”

Gold found success at the hot corner in the fifth inning after fielding two hard hit balls and passing them to Gisele Tapia for the out.

Pitcher Laurin Krings earned her third start of the Super Regional for the Tigers. She threw eight innings, allowed four hits, recorded three strikeouts and retired 16 straight Duke batters. Krings proved effective in the defensive game, as well, fielding four ground balls in the contest.

Neither team allowed a base runner in 11 half innings, with Missouri keeping Duke off the base paths until Jennings’ home run in the ninth. Taylor Pannell and Marissa McCann made appearances in the ninth to end the Blue Devils efforts.

“She’s phenomenal. To shut down our offense for that long is incredible,” Curd said of Krings’ performance. “Hats off to her. I think that I told my team, I said, ‘We’ll stay here as long as you guys want to stay here. I’ll do my best to keep the run to a minimum.’”

Duke earned the upset after being left out of the top eight teams. The team felt like it deserved to host the Super Regional instead of traveling to Columbia, but the location ended up not mattering.

The program, in just its seventh year of existence, enters enters OKC with ACC regular season, ACC Tournament and NCAA Regional titles.

“Our mentality is that we’re going to compete,” Curd said. “Whoever we play, no matter where it is in Durham, in Missouri, in Oklahoma; I don’t care we’re gonna give it our all.

“I think it’s super important to go in with a neutral headspace. The ball doesn’t know who’s a 10 seed or a 1 seed. The ball doesn’t care. The game doesn’t care.”

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