COLUMBIA, Mo. - Simone Heyward picked the most opportune time to notch her first extra-base hit of the season and cranked a three-run, third-inning double to vault the LSU softball team to a 3-1 victory over No. 9 national seed Missouri Sunday at University Field to punch the program's third ticket to the Women's College World Series.
LSU (39-23) bounced back from a 5-1 defeat in 12 innings earlier in the day and advances to meet No. 1 national seed California (56-5) in Thursday's Women's College World Series opener at 2:30 p.m. televised by ESPN2. It marks LSU's first WCWS appearance since the 2004 season.
"First, we have to congratulate Missouri on the season they had, and what a tough battle that was today," head coach Beth Torina said. "They fought so hard, a big congrats to them on the season that they had. I am so proud of our team. I thought it was a total team effort today. We had some timely hits, with Simone, we had some great pitching and some phenomenal defensive plays today. We are just really excited to be included in this final eight."
"These kids just have such a way of shaking things off and moving on," Torina continued. "That is really them. They are just really special. I think it just has to do with the eight seniors, their leadership and just being experienced in this game. They understand that you are just one pitch away from greatness."
In the top half of the third inning, Heyward turned a critical double play to keep LSU's deficit at 1-0. With the bases loaded and one out, Heyward made a running catch going towards left centerfield. She fired a one-hop bullet to catcher Morgan Russell to gun down Missouri's Corrin Genovese at the plate.
LSU turned that play into instant momentum in the home half of the frame. Tammy Wray sparked the three-run rally with a leadoff walk, while Russell followed by getting hit-by-pitch. Dylan Supak executed a sacrifice bunt to advance pinch runner Jacee Blades and Russell into scoring position. A.J. Andrews battled her way to seven-pitch free pass to fill the bases.
On a 2-1 offering, Heyward cleared the bases with a double into the left centerfield gap. She was called out on a bang-bang play attempting to get to third base. It not only was Heyward's first extra-base hit of the season but it doubled her season RBI total.
"I don't know where the ball was, somewhere outside," Heyward said. "I think I closed my eyes when I swung, I think I did, I am not going to lie. When I opened my eyes, I saw the ball going to the fence, and I just ran."
That would be more than enough run support for Rachele Fico, who won her fourth straight NCAA postseason decision. The junior right-hander surrendered one run on two hits and recorded four strikeouts versus zero walks en route to her 20th victory of the season.
Missouri's Chelsea Thomas was dealt the loss and concluded her junior campaign at 27-9. All three runs she allowed were earned. She issued three walks in her three innings of work.
"We were just trying to keep them off-balanced," Fico said. "We were trying to limit free passes. I think we definitely got stronger as the game went on. We had a little bit of a rough start, and they were definitely barrelling up on the ball. They were putting some solid balls into play. As the game went on, we definitely got stronger and gained momentum."
Missouri (47-14) made the most of a pair of infield singles from Kayla Kingsley and Genovese to open the third inning. They moved up to scoring position on Ashtin Stephens sacrifice bunt, and Mackenzie Sykes platted Kingsley on a RBI bunt of her own down the first base line for the contest's first run.
Missouri continued to charge as Jenna Marston was hit-by-pitch to load the bases. However, the threat ended with Fleming's double play ball.
Fico retired 12 of the final 14 Missouri hitters she faced with the exception of a hit batter during the sixth inning and a two-base error in the seventh inning. Ashley Langoni made up for that error by catching a Genovese fly ball on the very next play for the game's final out.
"I think I just settled down," Fico said. "Coach Torina does an awesome job with me. She knows how I work, and how I operate. She always knows the right things to say. Whenever I run into trouble, it is because I get too uptight, and I am trying to do too much. She calmed me down, told me to trust my pitches, make them spin and make them move."
Every LSU postseason game will have live audio and live stats available inside the Geaux Zone on LSUsports.net. The games also will be carried live on Country Legends 104.9 FM in the Baton Rouge area with Patrick Wright and Matt Dunaway set to call the action.
Fans can follow every pitch of LSU softball this season via live in-game updates on LSU softball's social media outlets at www.Facebook.com/lsusoftball and @lsu_softball on Twitter.
Women's College World Series Schedule
Thursday, May 31
(4) Oklahoma vs. USF, noon
(1) California vs. LSU, 2:30 p.m.
(2) Alabama vs. (7) Tennessee, 6 p.m.
(3) Arizona St. vs. (11) Oregon, 8:30 p.m.