Balko tames 'The Cat'

OKLAHOMA CITY – Alicia Hollowell and the Arizona softball team stole some thunder away from the three-time national player of the year to propel the Wildcats to within three victories of their seventh national championship, manufacturing all the runs in a 2-0 victory over the Texas Longhorns in Women's College World Series play Friday evening.

"I was very pleased with the way our kids kept their composure and kept fighting. I told them today that we need to match Texas pitch for pitch, play by play and get a timely hit," Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. "That's exactly what we did today."

Hollowell took care of the match against three-time national USA Softball Player of the Year Cat Osterman, holding the Longhorns at bay from the circle, while Arizona's pressure game, the timely one hit from Callista Balko and some nifty strategy from Candrea put up the runs in the bottom of the sixth.

The victory puts the Wildcats (51-10) into a semifinal match-up with one of three teams -- Tennessee, Arizona State or Oregon State. Texas (55-8) suffers the unenviable fate of "flipping" into the other side of the bracket, and will have to defeat the winner of the UCLA-Alabama elimination-game match-up, before having to defeat Northwestern game twice.

Northwestern beat Tennessee, 2-0, in the night game following the UA-Texas contest. Tennessee climbs into Arizona's bracket.

The Wildcats need only one win to advance to the Championship Series, and would have to be beaten twice to be eliminated. The Vols will face the ASU-OSU winner Sunday in one of that day's four elimination games.

With Osterman working on a no-hitter with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, Caitlin Lowe was hit by a pitch, then stole second after Osterman retired Autumn Champion. Balko singled to left field, and Lowe was on the run, scoring on the play, although the official scoring was that UT leftfielder Shannon Thomas' misplay of the ball disallowed an RBI. The miscue did allow Fox get to third.

Having a pair of runners on the corners, Candrea went to the bench and had former UA soccer standout Kelly Nelson pinch run for Fox, and kept the hero of the hour, Balko, at first. With Texas apparently flustered and a standing-room ASA Hall of Fame Stadium crowd buzzing with the game's first run, Candrea called a double-steal.

Nelson, a first year collegiate softball player, received instructions from third base coach Larry Ray to break on the "release." Ray, as virtually any coach would, meant the catcher's release to throw Balko out at second. Nelson, however, partially broke on Osterman's delivery. Fortunately for Nelson and the Wildcats, Texas catcher Megan Willis gunned the ball to shortstop Desiree Williams without checking on Nelson, allowing Nelson to score and Balko to reach second safely on the late throw home by Williams.

The Wildcats were in position to win the game thanks to Hollowell's pitching. The USA National Player of the Year finalist -- along with Osterman and Friday night loser Monica Abbott of Tennessee -- shut down the Texas offense, allowing only four hits and no walks in seven innings, while striking out nine Longhorns.

With the win, Hollowell improved to 29-4 on the season, while Osterman dropped to 38-3. It was her first career victory over Texas, and the first time since Feb. 8, 2002, that Arizona has beat the Longhorns. Ironically, 2002 Honda Award winner Jennie Finch defeated then-freshman Osterman 3-0, in ASU's early-season tournament in Phoenix.

While a game-winning hit against Osterman is unlikely in any situation, Balko's was somewhat unexpected since she entered the at-bat with nine strikeouts in as many career at-bats against arguably the most dominating pitcher in the game.

Up Next: Arizona advances to face a yet-to-be-determined opponent on Sunday, June 4 at 10 a.m. (MST). The game, which will be televised live on ESPN, will determine one of the two finalists for this year's national champion. Due to the double-elimination format, if Arizona should lose that game, the Wildcats would face the same opponent at 4 p.m. (MST) that same day on ESPN2.

Game Notes:

-Arizona improves to 48-4 all-time at the WCWS when scoring one run or more during the game.

-The Wildcats improved to 51-1 in games that they have led at any point during the 2006 season.

-Callista Balko had struck out in all nine of her previous career at-bats against Cat Osterman, before the game-winning hit.

-Arizona improves to 48-22 all time at the WCWS.

-Alicia Hollowell passed Jennie Finch for the No. 4 spot on the season strikeout list, giving Hollowell the top four spots.

-Arizona stole a season-high four bases.

-Other than Arizona's half of the sixth inning, neither team had more than one runner on base all night.

Wildcat Authority Top Stories