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20 Years Later: Creighton Softball Helps Make NCAA History

Creighton prepares this week to defend its Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship. The Bluejays are a young team, but CU has historically been a tough out in the conference tournament. If the Jays could find a way to win the title as the #6 seed, as Bradley did in 2009, they’d make some history.

But the Creighton softball program is not new to making history. This week marks the 20-year anniversary of the Bluejays’ battle against Utah in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) tournament championship for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The battle became epic, as the teams played two of the three longest softball games in NCAA history — spanning 56 innings during more than 12 hours.

To commemorate this anniversary, White & Blue Review did some digging into to the history of the game and had a chance to talk with many of the key people involved in the records. This retrospect will take you back through the games, some stories surrounding the records, and what people are doing today.

Historical Significance

Softball is normally a seven inning game. Creighton and Utah played 31 innings in the first game and turned back around and played a 25-inning game. Here are the three longest softball games in NCAA history:

  • May 11, 1991 — Creighton 1, Utah 0 (31 innings)
  • April 21, 1984 — Central Michigan 2, Kent State 1 (28 innings)
  • May 12, 1991 — Utah 4, Creighton 3 (25 innings)

During the 1992 season, there were four games that went 20-plus innings.

  • Kansas/Oklahoma State (24 innings)
  • Cal State Fullerton/Fresno State (21 innings)
  • UL-Lafayette/Northwestern State (21 innings)
  • Connecticut/Hofstra (20 innings)

After 1992, the NCAA introduced a ball with a denser core and changed the ball color to yellow. This same ball is used today. Since the NCAA started using this ball, the long games have been rare. The games that went games since then have been at most 20 innings:

  • Hofstra/Delaware in 2000 (20 innings)
  • Arkansas/Alabama in 1999 (19 innings)
  • Bucknell/Colgate in 1997 (19 innings)

Changes to the bats players use in collegiate softball also factor in to changes in the game’s offense. “Probably the biggest change in college softball has been the change in the bats since we stopped playing,” former Creighton player Lorrie McGill noted. “With the composite bats, that ball just pops off the bat. There are so many more home runs. I don’t think you are going to see as many 0-0 games. You aren’t going to see 31 innings again.”

The NCAA also instituted the International Tiebreaker Rule which may have limited the length in some games, but we will get to that later.

Before the Games Started

Creighton played in the WAC until 1993. The Bluejays were in the midst of the WAC conference tournament and were working their way through the loser’s bracket after an opening loss to Colorado State. Creighton won three in a row to face Utah in the championship game, which included a noon game against New Mexico just hours before the marathon games with Utah. A win against Utah in game one would force a second game right after. An NCAA Tournament bid was on the line.

“We knew we had to beat them twice,” Creighton head softball coach Mary Higgins recalled. “And that put us at 6:00 p.m. against Utah.”

Game 1 vs. Utah (6:00 p.m., May 11, 1991)

Creighton and Utah hooked up in the WAC championship game. The Utes had been there since 4:00 p.m. warming up and getting ready.

“We had two strong pitchers, two great senior captains, and four freshmen in the infield,” remarked Jo Evans, who was the Utah head softball coach. “As I recall we showed up at the field at 4:00 p.m. for warm-ups for a 6:00 p.m. game. We were fired up and excited about the possibility of being conference champions.”

Cox Communications actually broadcast the game that day. Cox would put on the occasional Creighton baseball game, but never did softball. “They covered it because Creighton was the host school and they had a couple of people working for them who were softball enthusiasts,” according to Vince Lodl, Creighton’s assistant sports information director at the time.

“They convinced the production manager to carry the championship game — basically sold them on the fact that they could do it inexpensively and that it would fit into a two-hour window.” Boy, were they in for a surprise.

Things were pretty uneventful in a 0-0 tie until the seventh inning, when Creighton nearly took the lead. The Jays had runners on second and third base with two outs. Dede Pendleton hit a hard smash in the hole between shortstop and third base, but Utah third baseman Wendy Stewart made a very nice play to send the game into the bottom of the seventh.

Creighton kept Utah at bay by limiting Utah catcher Deb DeMeglio to being intentionally walked the whole game. DeMeglio was a power hitter who could do some damage if given the opportunity. But it was the decision by Creighton that they would just walk. DeMeglio set, at the time, an NCAA record with five intentional bases on balls during the contest.

Evans noted, “At first it was frustrating that the hitters behind her couldn’t hit her in, but it became almost comical by the end. We kept thinking at some point someone would run into a pitch or hit a flare or something, but it never happened.”

Utah Pitcher Injured

It appeared Utah’s pitcher, Janet Womack, suffered an injury during the ninth inning. She pulled a quad muscle (in her plant leg) and was noticeably limping around. The injury became more apparent as the game wore on and the two teams went into extra innings.

13th and 15th Innings

By the bottom of 13th inning, the Utes were an eyelash away from winning it. With a runner on second and two outs, Bluejay center fielder Tiffany Strnad made a diving catch in the left-center field gap to keep Creighton’s hopes alive.

In the 15th inning, the Utes also nearly won it as Utah’s All-American Charmelle Green rocketed a pitch off the right field wall, narrowly missing a home run. It was the first extra-base hit of the game. In fact, there were only three extra-base hits the entire game. However, Creighton was able to hold the runner from scoring, and the teams moved to the 16th inning.

Throughout the game, Utah left an NCAA-record 34 runners on base. Fortunately, Creighton pitcher Kelly Brookhart (Prokupek) was able to pitch the Bluejays out of the jams.

The Lull

From the 16th inning through the 29th inning, both teams had mild threats at winning the game. The best chance belonged to Utah in the Utes’ half of the 23rd inning. After an intentional walk to Green loaded the bases with one out, Brookhart was able to induce a weak grounder off the bat of Laurel Simmons for a force out at home before getting the dangerous DeMeglio to fly out, in one of the few times they were forced to pitch to her.

One interesting thing to note during that stretch was that Utah tried to rally themselves by changing their uniforms for the top of the 26th inning. You could see the expression of the Creighton players when Utah came out with their new tops.

“We had packed an extra jersey in case we needed to change jerseys for the second game,” said Evans, “All our kids took off their jerseys, right there in the open dugout, all of our players in their sports bras, because it was the middle of the night and any fans left were our friends and family members, so they didn’t care if anyone saw them in their sports bras. We were getting superstitious and thought it might change our luck. It didn’t change our luck in that moment, but it was fun and definitely made a memory.”

“Heidi Ives and I were cracking up at each other,” Brookhart recalled. “Because the batter came up and I usually don’t look up until I got ready to pitch and I was like ‘seriously they changed their jerseys?'”

Higgins had her own way to keep everyone going. “I remember just being goofy. I took a sock stirrup and putting it upside down on my head while in the coaches box.”

30th Inning

As the teams toiled on into the 30th inning. Creighton had its best scoring chance since back in the seventh. Wendy Moon reached with a one-out single. Strnad then attempted a sacrifice. The throw to second base was high and late, allowing Strnad to reach first base. Moon and Strnad then executed a double-steal. With runners on second and third and one out, Womack continued to pitch the at-bat to Pendleton, who struck out on the next pitch. Womack then intentionally walked the Bluejays’ number eight hitter, Teir Wilbur, to get to Heidi Ives. Ives grounded out to end the threat.

Utah countered in the bottom of the 30th. Green led off the inning with her seventh hit of the game, a single to right field. She then stole second base and advanced to third on Laurel Simmons’ base hit to left. That brought up DeMeglio, who was intentionally walked for the fifth time in the game and loaded the bases with nobody out. The next batter, Christina Freeman, bounced one slowly back to Brookhart. She threw home to force out Green. So now with bases loaded and one out, Gaylyn Hoshide came to the plate. She also hit the first pitch back to Brookhart, but with a little more speed and Brookhart threw home to Ives, who then threw down to first for the 1-2-3 double play, the only one of the game.

31st Inning

The finish of the game came down in dramatic fashion. For Creighton at the top off the inning, leadoff batter Lorrie McGill reached on an error by Utah shortstop Hoshide, who ended the last inning grounding into the double play. After a failed sacrifice attempt, McGill stole second on the first pitch to Brookhart.

The Utes then decided, even after being ahead in the count 0-1 on Brookhart, that they were going to intentionally walk her. At the time, that appeared to be a good decision since Brookhart already had six hits in the game. On the third intentional walk pitch, a balk was called by the third base umpire on Utah’s shortstop, Hoshide, because she had shifted over and a foot was out of the field of play down the third base line. (The TV announcers thought it was a balk called on the pitcher that she did not present herself.)

Recalled Evans, “Janet Womack’s dad was so furious he chased the umpire into the men’s restroom, yelling at him for making the call. I had to go into the men’s restroom and tell Mr. Womack to back off. It was crazy.” The other ironic part was that the balk was called by the umpire from Utah. The rest of the crew was from San Diego, New Mexico, and Omaha. Creighton scored their run with Bluejay cleanup hitter, Tracy Rice, lofting a sacrifice fly to right scoring McGill.

Utah went out with a whimper in the bottom of the inning with a routine fly to left, a strikeout looking, and a pop out to shortstop to end the game. The Creighton win forced a second game for the title. The announcers assumed it was going to be played on Sunday afternoon when in fact the teams were going to play again in about 15 minutes.

The final line score was Creighton with 1 run, 16 hits, 3 errors, 19 left on base; Utah with 0 runs, 25 hits, 2 errors, and 34 left on base. The game ended at 12:25 a.m. — a mere 6 hours, 25 minutes after first pitch. The Cox crew packed their things up and did not stay for the second game.

Notable Stats From the Game

Brookhart threw 390 pitches in her 31 innings of work. McGill noted, “That was like four and a half normal games, all in a six hour time period.” She worked out of bases loaded, two-out jams in both the third and fifth innings before settling down to retire 14 straight batters between the final out of the sixth inning and the 1st out of the 11th. From the 13th inning on, she rarely had an easy frame. Between the 13th and 26th innings, Brookhart had only one 1, 2, 3 inning (16th). She did set down the side in order in three of her final five innings — including a rather uneventful 12-pitch bottom of the 31st. As mentioned above, all eight of her walks were unintentional.

On the opposite side, Womack pitched all 31 innings, throwing 320 pitches. As the game went on, her injury suffered earlier in the game was more apparent. As she came out for the 16th inning, her thigh was taped over her uniform pants.

Evans recalled that moment as well. “We played at a city park with chain link dugouts, so there was no privacy where the trainer could wrap/tape her leg, so she taped it on the outside of her uniform pants.” Evans continued, “She was grimacing throughout the game and limping off the field, but she never came out of the game. Early on I told her if she needed to come out to let me know, but she never asked to come out of the game. If we had played a 32nd inning she would have gone back out there.” After Womack gave up the run in the 31st, she had taken off the bandage from around her thigh.

It was thought that there were only a few copies of the video from this game when we were gathering information for this piece, but it appears that commemorative copies of the game were made available to people to buy. In fact, Brookhart mentioned she stole her mom’s copy and would pop it into her VCR when she walked her treadmill while her children were young.

Game 2 vs. Utah (12:45 a.m., May 12, 1991)

Creighton fought hard to force a game two. With the NCAA requiring the game to get over by morning so they could declare a conference champion, CU and Utah were forced to play the second game right away. With no video to document the game, the contest lives on with box scores and a lot of memories from players, coaches, and others that were still around for that game.

The Bluejays went with a new pitcher in game two, Jenny Ruzich. This time, Creighton pitched to DeMeglio and they suffered the consequences. DeMeglio hit a home run in the fourth inning to put Utah up. She hit another bomb in the fifth inning, bringing home two more runs to stake the Utes to a 3-0 lead.

With Ruzich getting roughed up and only a couple of innings to go, Higgins decided to put Brookhart back into the game to pitch after she had already pitched the New Mexico game earlier in the day and was fresh off the 31-inning marathon only an hour or so before.

“I asked Kelly if she would be willing to pitch a little more since we tied things up. It wasn’t that big of a deal at that point,” Higgins said. “It would only be a couple more innings at that point, no big deal.” Brookhart would go on to pitch the final 20 1/3 innings.

Creighton battled back in the bottom of the fifth and sixth innings to tie the game at 3-3. Brookhart had the game-tying hit in the bottom of the sixth with a bases loaded, two-out, two-run single. The marathon was on again.

Meanwhile, Utah’s Melissa Halkinrude pitched all 25 innings in the (early morning) nightcap. Remarkably, Creighton left the bases loaded in the bottom of the 19th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd innings. Higgins said, “I remember we had the bases loaded so many times in that game and we would just ground out to end the inning. It was just bizarre.”

Fatigue sit in as there were a combined 13 errors in the game compared to 5 during the first game, although players and coaches remarked that they all felt pretty good and sort of lost sense of time.

Food Run
With the game continuing into the early morning hours, Evans remembers a food run that was made for her Utah team.

“It was around 2:00 p.m. when we had last eaten and during the night, early morning, we were starving. We sent someone out for food, but the only place open was a gas station, so we ended up devouring graham crackers and chips, trying to satisfy our hunger.”

With the games going so long, it was tough for Higgins to come up with a new cheer after every inning. “We would give some instructions and put our hands in and say something like ‘Go Jays,’ but we were completely out of phrases to say. We were just trying to stay awake. I remember saying ‘With enthusiasm we are going to say mayonnaise. Ready?'” McGill threw in “and peanut butter.”

International Tiebreaker Rule

At the start of the 23rd inning, WAC Deputy Commissioner, Margie McDonald, met with both coaches to tell them that she was instituting the International Tiebreaker Rule. The rule states that in extra innings, a runner would be placed on second base to start the inning to give teams a better chance to score and end the game. Higgins recalls the rule was in effect during the season.

“I always liked it. I hated games that went more than three hours where the fans got bored and nothing happened. I just liked the energy that the rule created. I almost wished it was instituted sooner in these games.”

Higgins went on to say that earlier in the game, Creighton’s third baseman went diving for a ball, ran into a fence and hurt her shoulder. “It annoyed me to this day that we had to go all those extra innings when we could have implemented the tie breaker sooner. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. She got hurt because she was so tired and we didn’t have to do that.”

Most conferences had instituted this rule to go into effect by the 10th inning, but the WAC did not have that rule in place for the tournament. Evans talked about McDonald’s meeting at the pitcher’s circle.

“I remember noticing she was wearing glasses. I think she usually wore contacts, but since we had played through the night and into the morning I guess she took her contacts out and put on her glasses. She had had enough! She said we needed to start the tie-breaker. I distinctly remember telling her I didn’t want to use the tie-breaker because we were the visiting team and the home team has a clear advantage in that situation. She looked at me like she wanted to punch me and said, we are playing the tie-breaker right now. It was pretty funny.”

Unfortunately, the ruling led to Creighton’s eventual loss in the 25th inning, as Utah’s Christina Freeman scored from second on an error by Creighton first baseman Teir Wilber. With the run being unearned, Brookhart finished her career by pitching 91 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. She had a consecutive scoreless streak of 81 innings.

In the bottom of the inning, Creighton tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move the runner to third, but the player was tagged out at third and the Bluejays were unable to score to try and keep the game going or win the game.

Aftermath

At 6:10 a.m. Sunday, May 12, 1991, the WAC softball championship finally concluded. Twelve hours after the start of what would be two games between Creighton and Utah, the Utes were headed to the NCAA Tournament. They would advance to the Softball College World Series.

Amazing Pitching

One question Evans had was, “how did Kelly (Brookhart) pitch those 56 innings? I always wondered how she felt the next day, and how long it took her to get over the soreness. I also wondered if she sustained any permanent damage or injury to her arm/shoulder from pitching 56 innings.”

When I asked Kelly that very question, she said it didn’t really phase her too much. “Later that day, I came upstairs and I was cooking soup and my bowl of soup caused me some pain. After that I drove home to Ames and I stopped to get a pop. When I opened my car door, I could barely open it. I don’t remember it bothering me too much after that. Just initially after the games.”

Softball pitching doesn’t have the same effect on a person’s arm like baseball pitching, but Higgins talked about Kelly’s mechanics being the key.

“(Kelly) had such great mechanics. If she didn’t have those mechanics and done anything weird, it would have taken its toll. But she had some perfect form.”

Brookhart had pitched a 1-0 shutout against New Mexico in the noon elimination game that took only an hour and 28 minutes before pitching 31 scoreless innings in the first game against Utah. Add in another almost 20 innings of scoreless ball against Utah in game two, and it was clear to anyone paying attention that Creighton had quite the pitcher. Brookhart earned second-team All-America honors that season and is a member of the Creighton Athletics Hall of Fame..

“I was mad that I had to pitch the 6 p.m. game,” said Brookhart. “My sister was wondering what was wrong with me and I told her that I wanted to pitch the championship game. She told me I was an idiot and that if we didn’t win the 6 p.m. game, there wouldn’t be an 8 p.m. game.”

The Crowd

McGill recalled the crowd being pretty good for the game. “It started off with a lot of people there. Then people had left, but I remember that they saw the lights were still on at Seymour [Smith Park] and they came back.”

Brookhart added these sentiments. “Utah had a big following, though, because the whole Southern Utah team had stayed to watch them play. I can remember them cheering for the other team and even had some cheers obnoxiously, but in a good way.”

Higgins threw out an interesting tidbit as well. “This was the time before cell phones. So people were there very late and we truly had some people say that they got home at 7 in the morning, they were gone all night and their spouse saying ‘Where have you been? I was at a softball game…yeah right.’ They just needed to check the newspaper.”

Breakfast at Dawn

Creighton went out for breakfast after the games.

“A bunch of people went out to breakfast after the game, but I went home,” said Higgins. “We all went to Perkins on Dodge Street,” said Brookhart. “Once people sat down, they started flopping into their pancakes. Dede (Pendleton) fell asleep and hit her head on the table with a big thud.” She continued, “I remember trying to drive the vans worried that we might crash if we didn’t get back soon.”

Utah Players Exhausted

Evans expressed how exhausted her players were after the games. “I remember getting back to the hotel that morning and showering and heading to the airport. All our kids were limping through the airport. Some of our kids literally had black and blue feet from their cleats pounding into the bottom of their feet.”

In the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday morning the paper’s cartoonist drew a picture of Utah’s team laying on the field with Z’s floating above their heads and the scoreboard going on for infinity. The caption read, “Utes Win Championship by Dawn’s Early Light.” Evans said they made up t-shirts with the drawing for all the players and families. She still has her t-shirt.

Time Stood Still

Many of the people we talked to said that time seemed to stand still for them during the games.

From Jo Evans:

“What I remember most was not having any concept of time. We were in the second game in the later innings, and it was still dark outside, but I distinctly remember hearing birds chirping. It was so loud and I thought how strange to be hearing birds chirping in the middle of the night, but then I began to realize it was actually early morning, and not long after that the sun started coming up. It was the strangest thing I have ever experienced.”

From Kelly Brookhart:

“For me, that was the most fun I ever had. Double-headers were never enough. I was always like ‘Darn we are done already? Can’t we have a tournament where we play like three or four games?’ That is what I enjoyed. I don’t know if I would want to play all night again. Maybe 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. But it was a blast.”

From Lorrie McGill:

“It didn’t seem like it was that long. We were just playing and just going. There were times that people were talking about how long things were going, but it never really felt like that when you were playing. For me, I was a senior and I didn’t want to stop playing. So I was glad it just kept going.”

From Mary Higgins:

“At some point the birds started chirping. It was still dark out and they were chirping, but then to see the sky light up, it was absolutely bizarre. I think that was the first realization that we just played all night. The other thing I remember is my son who was almost four and we had a trailer with the training room stuff in it. We had put him down to sleep about 11 or 12 and then when we were ready at about 6 in the morning, and he came out of the trailer asking if we won.”

NCAA Records

These games produced a lot of NCAA records that still stand today.

  • At-bats in a game: 14 by four different Utah players, top 15 are from that game.
  • Team at-bats: 114 by Utah, 106 by Creighton
  • Base on Balls in a game: 6 by Wendy Stewart of Utah
  • Innings pitched in a game: Kelly Brookhart (Prokupek) of Creighton and Janet Womack of Utah. Halkinrude from Utah was next in the list.
  • Hits in a game: Charmelle Green from Utah and Brookhart, second and third.
  • Consecutive Scoreless Innings: 81 by Brookhart, 8th all-time.
  • Runners left on base: 34 by Utah
  • Longest Game: 31 innings

Through this research we discovered a few more that needed to be alerted to the NCAA. Current Creighton Assistant Sports Information Director Rob Simms is contacting the NCAA to report these records:

  • Individual record for Intentional Base on Balls in a game: Kelly Brookhart with 8 in the 31-inning game.
  • Individual record for received Intentional Base on Balls in a game: Wendy Stewart with 6 in the 25-inning game.
  • Single game record for Intentional Bases on Balls: A combined 11 by Brookhart (8) and Womack (3) in the 31-inning game.
  • Errors in a game: 13 combined errors in the 25-inning game.

Where Are They Now?

Through my interviews on this project, I was able to also note what they are doing today since the 1991 games.

Creighton head coach Mary Higgins spent two more seasons in charge of the Bluejay softball program before moving into administrative positions within the University. It was also at the same time when Creighton moved out of the WAC and into the Valley for softball. She is currently the Assistant Vice President for Student Retention and the Associate Director, Ratio Studiorum Program at Creighton.

Kelly Brookhart (Prokupek) recently returned to Creighton University as a part of the Residence Life department.

Dede Pendleton is an assistant softball coach at Colorado State University.

Lorrie McGill is family practice physician in the Omaha area and has three children that all start with Jay — Jaymie, Jayci, Jaycob. She mentioned how she even has their names tattooed on her leg and they come together to form a necklace that says JAYS.

A couple of the players from the 1991 team now have children that will be joining Creighton softball on scholarship. A legacy has been started.

Jo Evans, who was the head coach at Utah, is in her 14th season as the head coach at Texas A&M.

Margie McDonald is now retired in Wyoming after spending 1999-2005 as the coordinator for women’s basketball officials for the Mountain West Conference.

Lasting Memories

Creighton and Utah played their hearts out on a late spring evening into the next morning creating memories that can last a lifetime. Jo Evans said it best on how it affected her life. “I don’t think it changed my career, but it is in the back of my mind and I am always reminded of how persistence pays off and how teams never give up.” Neither one did. It was too bad one had to lose.

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** A special thanks to Vince Lodl who helped me with some excellent research on the games. He also helped uncover the video for this research.

Thank you also to Mary Higgins, Lorrie McGill, Kelly Prokupek, Jo Evans, and Creighton Assistant Sports Information Director Rob Simms for sharing their knowledge of the games.

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