Lady Flames shock No. 2 UCLA Bruins in historic NCAA Tournament Upset, fall short to San Diego State in Regional Final
An at-large bid to the NCAA Los Angeles Regional meant a tough slate of West Coast opponents was awaiting the Lady Flames softball team on a national stage May 19-21.
After suffering a crushing ASUN Conference Tournament defeat, however, Liberty found life in the City of Angels, where Head Coach Dot Richardson made a return to Easton Stadium — the home of her alma mater UCLA Bruins.
When given the opportunity to coach against her college team, Richardson saw her ladies rise to the formidable challenge, knocking out the nation’s No. 2 team from the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Regional Final in a historic upset.
“Personally, I just love to compete against the best. UCLA is one of the best. For the program it’s huge. It shows everyone that what we can do is not a fluke. We’ve been able to do it against top teams … it was just a great game.”Head Coach Dot Richardson
While Liberty would fall just short in the following day’s final against the San Diego State Aztecs, the win was a benchmark for both Richardson and the program. The team’s ability to surmount the Bruins was especially impressive after Liberty was shut out 7-0 in its first game of the regional against San Diego State.
The Lady Flames initially took the field for the regional opener on Friday, eager to earn their first victory of the tournament. What ensued, however, was offensive excellence from the Aztecs that initiated in the 3rd inning, when a three-run homer from Cali Decker off the arm of Liberty pitcher Paige Bachman found the Flames playing catch-up.
San Diego State extended the lead in the following innings, putting up seven total while shutting down the Flames at the plate. Aztec pitcher Allie Light allowed just one hit on the night, which came off the bat of junior Megan Fortner.
“As a whole, our hitters were just thinking too much,” Fortner said. “We were in our own heads. We were beating ourselves. (Light is) a great pitcher, but we have to adjust quicker than that.”
As the contest ended, the Aztecs walked away having outhit Liberty 10-4, with the Flames recording four errors. Set to take on a daunting UCLA program in an elimination game the following day, Richardson understood the challenge that lay before her team.
“At this level, you gotta be ready for anything and play loose and just have that passion,” Richardson said. “(My team) did some great things, but we have to put it together tomorrow.”
Liberty ace Karlie Keeney took the mound for the ever-important game. The first batter to step in the box, however, sent Keeney’s pitch over the fence, giving the Bruins the swift 1-0 lead.
It wasn’t until the 4th inning that Flames sophomore Rachel Roupe would return her team to a tie with UCLA, blasting her 14th home run of the year to left center. Now in an even game, defensive excellence from both teams was on display. The Liberty team that committed numerous errors the night before was seamless on the field, with no errors on the night.
Roupe managed to find the bases once again in the top of the 7th, standing firm on second in hopes of a teammate bringing her home. Pinch hitter KC Machado provided the opportunity with a single to left.
Roupe dashed around the bases, with no other motive than reaching the plate. As the ball was heaved from the UCLA left fielder to Bruins catcher Paige Halstead, Roupe dove head-first around Halstead and found the go-ahead score in dramatic fashion.
“I felt very confident,” Roupe said. “Coach and I were talking when I was at the base, and I was going regardless. It’s do or die … just trusting everyone around me.”
Keeney shut down the Bruins last efforts to keep their season alive in the bottom of the 7th, securing the historic victory that sent the expected College World Series competitors out on their home field.
“Every time I get the ball, I just go out there and try to do what my team needs. If that’s throwing two complete games, that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve kind of had to do that my whole life, I’ve had to be the number one arm coming from a small town, so that’s kind of helped me be who I am today.”Karlie Keeney, pitcher
Richardson claimed victory over the program that she reserves legendary status in, earning the biggest win of her time as the Flames coach.
“Personally, I just love to compete against the best,” Richardson said. “UCLA is one of the best. For the program it’s huge. It shows everyone that what we can do is not a fluke. We’ve been able to do it against top teams … it was just a great game.”
Liberty had little time to rejoice in the thrilling upset — 35 minutes, to be exact. Another elimination contest against Grand Canyon University awaited Liberty, with the winner receiving a spot in the Regional Final against San Diego State on Sunday.
“As a coach, it’s purposeful for me to have elation, but also, you’ve got to move forward. You can’t relish in it, it’s not over,” Richardson said.
The Lady Flames, however, picked up precisely where they left off about a half hour before. Roupe crushed a two-run homer to left field in the 1st, giving Liberty the early 2-0 advantage. That lead would only multiply, as the bats caught fire for the Flames lineup. Five runs came home for Liberty on the night, making Liberty’s adjustments at the plate evident.
The contagious hitting was cushioned by lights-out pitching from Keeney, who allowed just one unearned run on three hits and notched her second win of the day. The win was Keeney’s fourth career NCAA Regional victory, proving just how effective the junior has been donning the Flames jersey.
“Every time I get the ball, I just go out there and try to do what my team needs,” Keeney said. “If that’s throwing two complete games, that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve kind of had to do that my whole life, I’ve had to be the number one arm coming from a small town, so that’s kind of helped me be who I am today.”
With a momentous day down, all that stood between Liberty and its first trip to the Super Regional was a pair of wins against a red-hot Aztecs team.
It seemed the energy from Saturday had carried over for Liberty, as a double from Fortner in the 1st brought Roupe and catcher Caroline Hudson home for the 2-0 lead.
The Aztecs, however, clawed their way back in the 4th, as Decker sent a home run to left that shifted the scoreboard to 2-2. San Diego State then broke through in the 6th, extending its lead to 6-2. As the final read 6-3 in favor of the Aztecs, the story of Liberty’s 2023 season found its end.
“I was just proud of our team and the way we fought,” Keeney said. “No regrets.”
The 40-22 Liberty Flames were just one of six NCAA Division I softball teams with 40 or more wins every full season since 2017, with three of this year’s wins coming against powerhouse programs in UCLA, Alabama and Clemson.
“We have a young program, and it’s hard for a lot of them who have never experienced regionals, but now they have,” Richardson said. “And I told them to never forget this taste … Once you taste it, you want more of it. And I think we’ll be getting more of it.”
Annie Cory is the Sports Editor at the Liberty Champion. Follow he on Twitter @anniecory1