How ‘backwards softball’ helped the Utes clinch an NCAA tournament spot

The Utah softball team reacts to their selection to the 2024 NCAA tournament.
The Utah softball team reacts to their selection to the 2024 NCAA tournament. | Eli Rehmer

It’ll be a rematch between Utah and South Carolina to open the NCAA softball tournament.

The Utes found out their fate at a watch party in North Salt Lake Sunday evening, cheering when their name flashed across the ESPN telecast.

Ahead of the watch party, Utah was relaxed, all but officially in the field of 64 teams after closing April strong with a 13-4 record, sweeping then-No.9 Washington then securing wins over No. 22 Oregon and No. 8 Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament before losing 2-1 to UCLA in the championship game.

The Utes arrived back in Salt Lake City at 3 a.m. Sunday from Stanford, California, where the Pac-12 tournament was held, and knew they’d see their name in the bracket later that day.

“I think they felt comfortable to know that they were going to be in, which was nice, but it was a calm sense in that room and we played a little pickleball before we got started, but I can tell they’re tired and they need some rest,” Utah coach Amy Hogue said.

Make no mistake, the tiredness from travel and confidence they’d be in the tournament heading into the selection show made the moment no less exciting for the Utes.

“It’s so great just seeing your name. That’s all you want,” Hogue said. “I mean this team, I told them one day when we were in this very house and watching this very selection show (last year) that if we don’t get excited just to see our name, then we’re really doing the whole thing wrong.

“Seeing your name is all that matters. Doesn’t matter where we go.”

The Utes will face the Gamecocks in the regional round on Friday at 10 a.m. MDT in Durham, North Carolina, home of the Duke Blue Devils, with the game airing on ESPNU.

It’s the second time the two teams will have met this season, with South Carolina defeating Utah 9-1 back in February at the Puerto Vallarta Challenge in Mexico.

Both teams have evolved since that meeting — especially Utah. The Utes had some players out due to injury when the two teams faced off and hadn’t hit their stride yet.

“The first time we played them, we didn’t have the best game and we also were kind of struggling to find our identity as a team at the time and we’re nowhere near the same team that we were at the beginning of season that we are now, so I think we’re really excited to get a chance to show them who the Utes are,” pitcher Mariah Lopez said.

The Gamecocks will be seeing a completely different Utah team than the one they faced three months ago, a team that’s solidified their lineup and is playing their best softball of the season heading into the tournament.

“I think that early in the year we maybe took it for granted that it was going to happen again for us of how well we did last year and then we had to grind a little bit through some of the injuries, and I think that the excitement level is there and the upward trend is there and again, I think we’re playing hot right now,” Hogue said.

“I wouldn’t want to play us.”

Utah’s run to the Pac-12 championship game started after it won both games against then-No. 9 Washington (the third game was canceled due to weather) to close out the regular season, and the momentum carried into the last Pac-12 tournament.

Right before the series against the Huskies, the Utes had just lost two of three at Oregon State and needed to loosen up before the most pivotal series on the schedule.

Softball is as much of a mental game as it is a physical one, and one of the key things Hogue is proud of in her program is the commitment to staying loose, having fun, playing with joy and taking care of mental health, so before that important Washington series, the Utes tried something a little out of left field.

Pregame, they played softball with a wiffle ball bat and a sponge ball — with a twist. Everything was backwards.

If you were right-handed, you hit left-handed; if you threw left-handed, you would throw right-handed. When a player gets a hit, they run the bases backwards.

Playing “backwards softball” takes some of the pressure of the upcoming game off of the players — especially for those high-stakes tournament games — and loosens them up. It’s been working well for the Utes, who haven’t been fazed by the bright lights in the month of May.

“It just takes all the pressure off of everything in softball,” said Haley Denning, who is in her sixth year at Utah. “You can get really in your head when you start playing, and so it just kind of reminds us that this is fun.

“This is a game. It’s not the end all, be all of life, and so it’s just kind of a reminder and it lets us joke around and have fun with each other.”

Hogue takes pride in the fact that her team is not only playing well at the right time, but playing with joy. It’s safe to say that Utah will be as relaxed and ready as it can be in Durham on Friday.

“This team’s talented, and there’s a lot of talented teams, but our game is stressful and you see a lot of anxiety-ridden athletes and you won’t see that on our dugout,” Hogue said.

“You won’t see that on the field with the Utah uniform. They are playful and playing with joy and playing for each other and when they make a mistake, they’re picking each other up and they’re being picked up.”

Utah (34-20) is led by pitchers Mariah Lopez (2.29 ERA, 22-11) and Sarah Ladd (3.53 ERA, 9-7), while Abby Dayton (.438, 27 RBI), Denning (.411, 17 RBI), Kaylah Nelsen (.384, 41 RBI) and Julia Jimenez (.214, 40 RBI, 5 HR) power the offense.

South Carolina (34-22, 8-16 SEC) has a trio of starting pitchers with sub-2.6 ERAs, including Alana Vawter, who has pitched 172 innings with a 2.03 ERA.

Carlie Henderson (.355), Riley Blampied (.290, 33 RBI, six home runs) and Aniyah Black (.293, 32 RBI, five home runs) lead the charge for the Gamecocks’ offense.

It’s the second straight appearance for the Utes in the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Utes went to the College World Series for the first time since 1994 after defeating San Diego State in the super regional.

“It’s all the way across the country and every single journey with them is fun because they like it when the lights are bright and the lights are shining bright right now,” Hogue said.

“I have that nice box seat over there in the third base coaching box to watch them do their thing. They’ve trained really hard and they deserve the opportunity to go after it at a really big stage.”