‘It’s such a dream come true’: Utah seeking its first Women’s College World Series in nearly 30 years

Utah players in the dugout celebrate as the University of Utah softball team plays Ole Miss in NCAA softball regional championship at Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. Utah won 4-1.
Utah players in the dugout celebrate as the University of Utah softball team plays Ole Miss in NCAA softball regional championship at Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. Utah won 4-1. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A trip to the Women’s College World Series is at stake this weekend as No. 15-seeded Utah hosts San Diego State in a best-of-three series in the NCAA Super Regionals at Dumke Stadium.

The Utes, the Pac-12 tournament champions, battle San Diego State, the Mountain West Conference tournament champs, in the first game Friday (8 p.m., MDT, ESPNU).

Utah is seeking its first WCWS berth since 1994 while the Aztecs are chasing their first-ever WCWS appearance.

“The fact that we get to host Supers is something that I don’t think anyone expected,” said Utah’s All-Pac-12 first-team performer Ellessa Bonstrom. “It’s so cool that we’re in this position and two games away from being at the World Series. It’s such a dream come true for me and so many other girls.”

A big crowd is expected this weekend at Dumke Stadium, just like the regionals last weekend, when the Utes defeated Southern Illinois and Mississippi twice.

“It’s an incredible atmosphere. It’s preparing us for the next step at the College World Series. It’s going to get hard. Just knowing that this many believe in us and have our backs is unbelievable,” said infielder Ailya Belarde. “It is an awesome feeling. So many firsts that we’ve accomplished this year. It’s been so fun to see our fan base grow a lot and see each other grow so much from the fall until now.”

What kind of atmosphere is Utah expecting Friday?

“Electric. From the past weekend, it was unbelievable. Something I’d never been a part of,” Bonstrom said. “To be in this kind of atmosphere is so important for us because we’ve never been in that situation and that’s exactly how it’s going to be in Oklahoma City for the World Series. It’s nice that we get a little taste of the crowd and how much impact it has on us.”

SDSU won the Los Angeles Regional last week. The Aztecs allowed just three runs in their three regional games, including back-to-back shutouts.

In SDSU’s 7-0 opening win over Liberty, Allie Light, Dee Dee Hernandez and Sarah Lehman combined to surrender four hits and four walks. Those pitchers helped the Aztecs record a 2.61 ERA in 2023, which is No. 1 in the Mountain West.

“SDSU uses a rotation of very different pitchers in each game that they play,” said Utah coach Amy Hogue. “I’d expect pitching to change once, maybe twice, even if we haven’t scored a bunch of runs. It’s kind of how they do things.”

The Aztecs boast the MW’s top batting average — .309 — with four players hitting better than .350. They’ve scored at least five runs in all six of their postseason games.

“They’re a really scrappy team,” Belarde said. “It’s not going to be easy but we’re ready for the fight.”

Utah is batting over .390 and averaging more than seven runs per game in the postseason. Karlie Davison has hit four home runs, driven in nine runs and has a 1.000 postseason slugging percentage. In the postseason, Sophie Jacquez is hitting .567 and Haley Denning is hitting .500 while Abby Dayton and Julia Jimenez are both batting .400.

Pitcher Mariah Lopez, meanwhile, has won her last seven starts, including five of the Utes’ six postseason victories. In those wins, Lopez had put together a 1.58 ERA and has thrown six complete games. With 21 victories, Lopez has become Utah’s first 20-game winner since Generra Nielson in 2012.

“Mariah’s been taking the lead, for sure. And she’s just getting stronger. She always had the talent but her confidence is growing,” Hogue said. “She’s always had the confidence in her teammates and now she’s starting to gain some confidence in herself. We’re seeing double-digit strikeout numbers, which is just phenomenal. She feels great and she’ll get the ball a lot.”

One thing that could impact both teams this weekend is the weather, as isolated thunderstorms are in the forecast.

Hogue has done her best to get her team ready.

“The weather’s going to do what the weather’s going to do. There’s enough windows that we’ll be able to play the games. But there might be some on-and-off with these afternoon thunderstorms,” she said. “It worked out well because we got to practice in one of the windstorms this week already.

“It was useful to have the wind blowing and have (assistant coach DJ (Gasso) hit some really high ones and have our outfield have to deal with that. If it’s just wind, we’ve got to be prepared to deal with the elements. That helped us. We’re prepared for that.”

Utah understands what’s on the line — a chance to reach next week’s WCWS for the first time in almost 30 years. For SDSU, it’s an opportunity to get there for the first time ever.

“It’s for the World Series,” Hogue said, “so everyone’s going to give it everything.”