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‘It doesn’t take a miracle to win a softball game’: Winless Terps shocked nation’s top team

Maryland softball Coach Julie Wright earlier this season. (Courtesy of Maryland athletics)

One team was winless, 0-8, and coming off an embarrassing loss. The other team was undefeated, 8-0, and ranked No. 1 in the country. So you are forgiven if you didn’t watch every pitch of the Maryland-Florida softball game over the weekend. The result was a formality.

Except the 0-8 Terps took down the 8-0 and top-ranked Gators in a stunning upset that sent shocked Vegas bookmakers running for the hills. Assuming there are lines on February NCAA softball games.

What the heck happened in Saturday’s 4-2 Maryland win? Good question, because it was all kind of hard to process. Please consider 10 points:

1.) Earlier on Saturday, as part of the Aquafina Invitational, the Terps played Florida A&M, which was itself winless at the time. But the Rattlers easily handled their Big Ten opponents in a 5-1 win.

2.) At that point, the Terps had been outscored this season by a composite score of 67-18. Now, for their final game of the weekend, they were staring at No. 1 Florida, which had outscored its opponents 56-7. This was the Browns visiting the Patriots, the Lakers visiting the Warriors, the ice cream cone visiting the sun.

Do you understand what this looked like on paper? Florida hadn’t given up four runs in any game to that point of its season, while the Terps had scored at least four runs all of once. The Gators were starting Delanie Gourley, a first-team all-American last season who was already 4-0 with a tidy 0.00 ERA in 2017. And Maryland had less than 30 minutes to recoup after its humbling loss to FAMU before running into this SEC buzz saw.

3.) So Maryland Coach Julie Wright brought her team out to right field for a chat. She had been angry earlier during the weekend event, after two blowout losses Friday. Her team seemed to expect an outfield explosion. But Wright didn’t think this was the right time for anger. Instead, she spoke calmly.

“It’s as bad as it’s going to get,” she told the Terps. “Right here, right now, you have a choice. You can either go let it all hang out against Florida, and just play our brand of softball, and don’t try to do anything more than that, and what will be will be. Or you can continue on this funk that you’re in, and go nowhere.”

Their response?

You could see the wheels turning,” Wright said. “There was no real verbal response. Just listening.”

4.) Suitably inspired, Maryland charged onto the field against Florida . . . and promptly fell behind 2-0 in a messy first inning that included two walks, two singles and a throwing error. So now the Terps were down 2-0 after one inning against the top-ranked team and its pitcher who never gives up any runs.

What do you do at that point? Maybe you pack it in and start thinking about the long trip back to College Park. Or maybe not.

“Every time you go into a game, you think you have a chance. That is part of the culture we’re teaching here,” Wright said. “I’m not saying that’s part of what we do on a consistent basis yet, but that is something that we teach: that you put your pants on the same way they do. You don’t look at the other team. The competition is with yourself.”

5.) At that point, inexplicably, the Terps started winning that competition, possibly for the first time this season. They went ahead with three well-earned runs in the fourth inning: on a single, a sacrifice bunt, a double, a single, a sacrifice  fly and two more singles. Now they were beating the No. 1 team in the country. They added another run on three singles in the fifth, and now they had a two-run lead. Pitcher Hannah Dewey kept the Gators quiet, and everything seemed just swell. Until . . .

6.) The Gators loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the sixth. Wright called for Madison Martin in relief, and Martin came to the mound, and then it started raining. And so the game was delayed for 89 minutes.

7.) So here was Maryland, winless on the season, beating the best team in the country, facing a late-inning jam, and forced to sit around and think about it for an hour and a half.

The solution? A dance party in the batting cages. I mean, what else are you gonna do at a time like that?

“I told them go relax. Have some fun,” Wright said. “Here’s the thing: If you’re an athlete and you’re in idle time and you’re so focused on what you’re about to try to go do, you’re screwed. You know that. Your mind, it just can’t comprehend all that for so long a period of time. And so we said go relax, stay loose.”

8.) The dance party seemed to do the trick. After the delay, Martin warmed up — for the second time in that game, and for the third time on the day, since she had pitched in the earlier loss. A strikeout and a groundout ended the sixth. The Gators put two runners on with one out in the seventh, but two grounders ended the game. The 0-8 team had beaten the 8-0 team. As Red Smith might have put it, only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again, etc., etc.

9.) Which meant a few things. It was Maryland’s first win of the season. It was Maryland’s first win over a ranked opponent in five years. And it made just about every other coach at Maryland take notice.

10.) And so now what? The on-field celebration was rather muted; “act like you’ve been there before,” their coach told the Terps, even if they hadn’t. Wright didn’t want this to be regarded as something miraculous or exceptional; just as a good softball win. She said she never cracked a smile until the game was over, although the Terps did celebrate her birthday with an ice cream cake that night at the hotel. (Her birthday was actually Sunday, but they took a few liberties.) And will this change the season? Why not?

“It will be a launching pad,” Wright said. “We will make sure of it.”

“Here’s the thing,” the coach said. “We’ve been in this funk, this awful funk. And we have never been very far away from just playing decent softball. I’ve not felt like we’re miles and miles away; I feel like we’re inches. And I asked them after the game, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Tell me what you did that was so spectacular?’ And they stared back at me. They didn’t have an answer. And I said you don’t have an answer because all you did was play Maryland softball. We didn’t do anything so amazing. We just did our jobs, and look what happened. . . .

And my hope is, and what I feel will happen is, they will see that and understand now that it doesn’t take a miracle to win a softball game. It just takes doing your job.”