Oklahoma City — Michigan's softball team has been gearing for this the entire season, and on the shoulders of senior pitcher Haylie Wagner, who has pitched beautifully in relief the last two games, the Wolverines are headed to the championship round of the Women's College World Series.
The third-ranked Wolverines came back from an early two-run deficit to defeat LSU, 6-3, Sunday afternoon and clinch a spot opposite Florida to play for the national championship, a best-of-three series that begins Monday night at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Florida was stretched to nine innings before beating Auburn, 3-2, in the early game Sunday.
"I told them before the game, it doesn't matter who's talented, it doesn't matter who's ranked, it only matters who has heart and who has soul, and we've had it all year, and we showed it again (against LSU)," said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, who led the Wolverines to a national title in 2005. "We just do what we do, whether we're ahead or behind, we just play in our moment."
The teams have met twice this season. Florida beat Michigan, 2-1, in the season opener Feb. 7 and again, 7-4, in early March.
Michigan has won 28 straight and is 59-6 heading into Monday's first championship-round game. The Wolverines have been vocal about their goal of winning a national title.
"We came here to win it, and we have a very, very, very tough opponent," Hutchins said. "I really believe if you set a goal, you have to own it. If you don't say it out loud, you don't own it. It's not whether or not we win the championship, it's whether we go for it."
With the game tied 3-3 in the sixth, Michigan scored three runs. Sierra Lawrence knocked in two runs when she doubled down the left-field line, although replays made it appear the ball could have been ruled foul.
"We definitely didn't get any breaks in the sixth inning, whether the ball was fair or foul," LSU coach Beth Torina said. "The ball seemed to fall right for them. I don't think one play changes the season or changes anything.
"I definitely don't think we got any breaks right there. We also didn't create any breaks for ourselves, and we didn't do a very good job scoring off of Haylie Wagner when she came into the game. She throws really good speed. She's left-handed, and she throws a curveball that was able to get in on our righties and broke pretty hard away from our lefties. She threw with great velocity today, and she was just tough."
With Sierra Romero at first and Lawrence at third, Romero intentionally got into a rundown between first and second to spring Lawrence, who broke for the plate. LSU shortstop Bianka Bell, who had been chasing Romero, turned to fire home but lost her foooting, and Lawrence scored the third run of the sixth inning.
For the second straight game, sophomore starting pitcher Megan Betsa struggled early. She hit two batters in the game and LSU had a 3-1 lead in the fourth when Wagner came in. Wagner had relieved Betsa in the previous game against UCLA and pitched beautifully in a 10-4 victory.
Wagner, who has been motivated all season to pitch in the World Series after missing out in Michigan's last appearance two years ago because of an injury, was focused and potent. She had five strikeouts in 3.1 innings.
"She's come in and she's energized us," Hutchins said of Wagner. "She wants the ball, she's attacking the hitters, and she's giving us the confidence we need on the mound, and that's what the pitcher's job is to do, to set the tone that we can win this game. She's been just outstanding. Her leadership on the mound has been fantastic. We have such a great one-two punch, and she's come in and that left jab has been fantastic."
As for Betsa, Hutchins said the sophomore has pitched distracted. Betsa is a 31-game winner for the Wolverines this season.
"I told Megan she needs to not focus on the opponent, she needs to stay focused on us, because we're the only people on the field who matter," Hutchins said. "She just needs to throw her pitches, and I think she might be a little focused on the opponents, as we were facing some pretty darn good opponents."
Wolverines will face Florida in best-of-three series beginning Monday.
The Wolverines have succeeded because of balance this season and the luxury of a strong hitting lineup from top to bottom.
"Michigan is an extremely deep lineup one through nine," Torina said. "There isn't a moment you get to catch your breath with that lineup."
Much of the Wolverines' production against the Tigers came from the bottom of the lineup. Lindsay Montemarano was 2-for-2 and scored a run, Terra Blanco was 2-for-2 with a run and an RBI, and Abby Ramirez, batting ninth, was 2-for-3.
After the game, Montemarano said the reality of advancing to the championship series hadn't hit her yet. But she reminded everyone what the Wolverines' goal has been.
"We came here not to just compete," she said. "All year we had a goal, and our goal wasn't just to make it to Oklahoma City, but it was to win the championship."
For Wagner, the game plan is simple, although she knows it will be challenging to execute.
"It's going to be a really, really tough game, and we have to go out there and attack," Wagner said. "Florida is a great hitting team, a great defensive team, and they have everything (going) for them, and we have to come out and attack and play with heart and soul because we're just as good."
Women's College World Series
Florida 7, Tennessee 2
LSU 6, Auburn 1
Michigan 5, Alabama 0
UCLA 7, Oregon 1
Florida 4, LSU 0
Michigan 10, UCLA 4
Auburn 4, Tennessee 2
Alabama 2, Oregon 1
LSU 5, Alabama 3
Auburn 11, UCLA 10
Florida 3, Auburn 2
Michigan 6, LSU 3
Monday: Michigan vs. Florida, 8 p.m. ESPN2
Tuesday: Michigan vs. Florida, 8 p.m. ESPN
Wednesday: Michigan vs. Florida, 8 p.m., if necessary ESPN