This article was originally published on May 11, 2011 — the 20-year anniversary of Creighton's 56-inning doubleheader matchup with Utah.
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Bruce Rasmussen had some explaining to do.
Twenty years ago this spring, before the age of cell phones and text messages, a bushed and bleary-eyed Rasmussen strolled home after dawn on a Sunday morning. His wife, naturally, wanted to know where he had been, how come he hadn’t called and why he’d been out all night.
Rasmussen’s alibi didn’t fly. Gone so long and back so late because he was watching college softball? No call to explain his absence because he didn’t dare leave Seymour Smith Field to find a phone? Sure. Right.
Rasmussen — now Creighton’s athletic director; back then the school’s women’s basketball coach — had his wife call a few trusted sources to confirm his story. Only then was he off the hook.
It was May 11, 1991, when the final rounds of that year’s Western Athletic Conference softball tournament began at Omaha’s Seymour Smith Field.
Creighton opened that Saturday by winning a noon elimination game 1-0 over New Mexico. It was the Bluejays’ third straight 1-0 victory after they had dropped their May 9 WAC opener 2-0 to Colorado State. The contest against New Mexico lasted the regulation seven innings, and it offered no clue that the 1991 WAC tournament was about to enter the Twilight Zone.
At 6 p.m., the Bluejays began playing Utah. Creighton won that game 1-0 in 31 innings — a 6-hour, 21-minute marathon that still ranks as the longest softball game in NCAA history.
But that was the first loss for Utah in the double-elimination tournament. And the college softball selection committee needed to know the WAC champion by noon Sunday so it could fill out the 20-team field for the NCAA tournament.
So at 12:45 a.m., Utah and Creighton got right back on the diamond to settle which team would get the WAC’s automatic NCAA invitation. It’s a good thing they didn’t wait, because the decisive game was a 25-inning, 4-3 Utah victory that ended at 6:08 a.m. Sunday. That game remains the third longest in the history of NCAA softball.
“I have to say, the most bizarre feeling was when the sky started to lighten and the birds started chirping and we were still playing,” said Mary Higgins, Creighton’s former coach who piled up 564 wins and two NCAA Women’s College World Series appearances while coaching the Bluejays from 1977 through 1993. “Then it kind of dawned on all of us, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been going at this the entire night.’”
During his lifetime involved in athletics, Rasmussen has attended basketball Final Fours, the Indianapolis 500 and the Masters. He watched Creighton beat Florida in double-overtime on a last-second shot in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, and he saw the Bluejays baseball team crash the College World Series.
Rasmussen said the goings-on 20 years ago at Seymour Smith Field endure as one of the most amazing sporting events he’s witnessed.
“With every inning, the tension grew, because you knew something unusual was happening,” Rasmussen said. “And so it became easier to get into the game as it kept going, where you think it would be the opposite. Every inning, you thought, ‘This might be the inning.’”
An ace for the ages
While pitching in all of the Bluejays’ final three games, Creighton star Kelly Brookhart was in the circle for 58-1/3 of 63 total innings. Even though the Bluejays lost, the senior from Des Moines was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
During the 31-inning game, Brookhart tossed a 25-hit shutout, striking out nine and allowing eight walks — all of them intentional. She also went 6 for 11 at the plate.
In the 25-inning battle, Brookhart went 3 for 11. Her two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the sixth tied the game 3-all and forced extra innings. She pitched the final 20-1/3 innings of that game, allowing 16 hits, fanning six and issuing seven more intentional passes. That’s 51-1/3 innings of work, all in a span of 12 hours, without a single unintentional walk.
And the decisive run that Utah scored in the top of the 25th inning Sunday morning was unearned. In all, Brookhart finished her career by pitching 91-1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
The underhand motion used by softball pitchers puts far less stress and strain on an arm than the overhand style used by baseball pitchers. That’s why a softball pitcher can shoulder such a big load in the circle. Still, mental exhaustion and physical fatigue can lead to mistakes. Both Higgins and Utah coach Jo Evans said Brookhart’s heroics that weekend simply defy logic.
“Looking back, the most impressive part of the whole experience for me was watching Kelly Brookhart,” said Evans, who now coaches at Texas A&M. “She threw 50-some innings, and I swear she could’ve gone 50 more. She had such a smooth pitching motion, but her mental and emotional strength and maturity — it was just unbelievable.”
Through it all, Brookhart — whose married name is Kelly Prokupek — said she never really felt tired. It wasn’t until later Sunday afternoon that her forearm felt weak and she had trouble holding a mug and opening her car door. Her shoulder, she said, never bothered her.
“When you’re in the middle of any game, you’re just playing,” she said. “In high school, when you play on travel teams, we were used to playing five or six games in a day. ... I really didn’t realize it was going on so long.”
In the Bluejays’ 31-inning win, Utah’s Janet Womack, throwing despite a leg injury, matched Brookhart pitch for pitch. In all, the teams combined to leave 53 runners on base. Brookhart dug deep to keep an unbelievable 34 Utes stranded.
“Both teams had so many chances to win,” Higgins said. “But nobody could come up with that big hit. And there were kids on both sides making some really spectacular plays in the field. It was so intense, because both teams wanted so badly to win.”
Creighton’s Dede Pendleton almost ended it in the top of the seventh, when she hit a hard two-out smash with runners on second and third. But a defensive gem by Utah infielder Wendy Stewart sent the game into extras. Bluejays outfielder Tiffany Strnad made a diving catch in the gap to prevent the Utes from scoring in the 13th inning. Utah All-America center fielder Charmelle Green crushed a drive that looked like a homer in the 15th. But the ball banged off the outfield fence, and Green settled for a double — one of only four extra-base hits the teams managed in the game.
Brookhart thought the Bluejays were toast in the bottom of the 30th, when the Utes, the home team for that game, loaded the bases with no outs. But Utah’s next two batters both grounded the ball back to the circle. Brookhart first threw home to get a force out. The second comebacker allowed the left-hander to start an inning-ending double play.
“That was amazing,” Brookhart said. “Some of the looks on our players’ faces after that inning — they were like, ‘You mean we have to keep playing?’”
To lead off the top of the 31st, Creighton’s Lorrie McGill reached on an error. McGill stole second, then she moved to third on Womack’s illegal pitch. That set the stage for Tracy Rice, whose one-out sacrifice fly drove in McGill. Brookhart then retired the Utes in order in the bottom of the inning to end it. The previous NCAA record was set in 1984, when Central Michigan defeated Kent State 2-1 in 28 innings.
Evans remembers that the illegal pitch call so infuriated Womack’s father, he followed the umpire into the bathroom and berated him relentlessly. Evans said she actually went inside the restroom to pull Womack’s dad away and get him to cool down.
“That just shows you how emotionally charged it was there,” Evans said. “It was unreal.”
Keeping score that weekend — paying rapt attention to every single pitch — was Vince Lodl, then a student assistant sports information director at Creighton who handled Bluejays softball. Because Higgins wanted to keep a close eye on her lineup and make sure she didn’t make a substitution error, Lodl worked the games from the CU dugout instead of the Seymour Smith press box. With space at a premium on the bench, Lodl watched the two marathon contests while sitting on the edge of a cooler.
Lodl today does freelance television work out of Chicago for ESPN and other major networks. Whenever a fellow crew member complains that an extra-innings Cubs or White Sox game is going to last forever, Lodl said he always thinks back to the 1991 WAC softball tournament and tells his co-workers that they haven’t seen anything.
“It was one of those things where, even while the games were going on, you kind of realize, ‘Boy, this is something that’s never going to happen again,’” Lodl said. “It was such a unique thing to see. It was one thing to have the 31-inning game, but then to follow it up with a 25-inning game right after that, it’s just unimaginable.”
It almost never ended
Who knows how long the final game of the tournament would have lasted had the league not decided to invoke the international tiebreaker rule?
During the Utes’ 25-inning triumph, Melissa Halkinrude got the complete-game victory, working around 16 Creighton hits and giving up only one earned run. The Utes built a 3-0 lead, sparked by Deb DiMeglio’s fourth-inning solo homer off Bluejays starter Jeni Ruzich, who was relieved by Brookhart in the fifth. After Brookhart’s tying two-run hit in the sixth, the teams kept getting hitters on base but again couldn’t find a way to score. They would leave another 56 combined runners stranded as the WAC tournament continued into the wee hours Sunday morning.
The box score from that final game, the one that began at almost 1 a.m., lists an attendance of only 58. But Lodl estimates that the crowd had grown to better than 100 during the final innings. Word of what was happening at Seymour Smith Field started to spread, and people wanted to see how this all was going to end.
The coaches and players, meanwhile, were resorting to nonsensical gimmicks to keep alert and stay awake. Higgins wore a softball stirrup sock on her head as if it were a stocking cap. When the Bluejays huddled to start every inning, they would shout “peanut butter” in unison.
“It was such an emotional roller-coaster,” Evans said. “I remember at times we had kids crying. Then a little bit later, they’d all be giggling uncontrollably. The way the games went on, the way both teams kept missing out on opportunity after opportunity, it was just silly.”
Finally, after the 22nd inning, the coaches and WAC Deputy Director Margie McDonald came to a consensus. If the game was still knotted in the 25th, the tiebreaker rule would go into effect. The WAC had one of the few league tournaments that didn’t use the tiebreaker, which has each team opening an inning with a runner on second base. Prior to the postseason, conference coaches had voted against using the tiebreaker. Creighton’s Higgins had cast a vote to use it, while Utah’s Evans was one of those opposed.
And so, in the top of the 25th, Utah’s Christina Freeman took her spot at second base to open the inning. She would come around to score on a Creighton error. In the bottom of the 25th, the Bluejays had their runner thrown out while she tried to move to third. The game ended when Brookhart flied out to left.
“Most people think I’d be against the tiebreaker rule because of the way we lost,” said Higgins, now assistant vice president for student retention at Creighton. “But it’s exactly the opposite. I support it adamantly, because I think it keeps things moving and makes it more interesting for the fans. It avoids the kind of situation we were in, and we did end up having a player get hurt when she ran into the fence. We were all just so tired, it was kind of ridiculous. But even 20 years later, I couldn’t be more proud of our team’s effort. You talk about never giving in, none of our kids did, and I’ll never forget the toughness our team showed.”
After the game, the Bluejays didn’t head straight to bed to crash. Instead, the team went out for breakfast together. Brookhart said the players still seemed to be riding on adrenaline during the meal. But when one player physically could no longer stay awake, and fell asleep with her head falling to the table, they knew it was time to leave.
Brookhart earned second-team All-America honors in 1991. She was featured on ESPN for her bulldog effort at the WAC tournament, and she also was recognized in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” column.
Changes made in NCAA softball during the past 18 years, to some extent, have cut down on the ability of pitchers to dominate. Most notably, there was a switch in 1993 to bright yellow softballs that are livelier and easier for hitters to see. Since that wild weekend in Omaha, no Division I game has lasted longer than 20 innings.
There’s no question, however, that the show Creighton and Utah put on 20 years ago was far from ordinary for any era. The Utes went on to play in the 1991 College World Series, and Brookhart said she took some solace in seeing the team the Bluejays were so close to defeating make it that far.
At the same time, Brookhart said, missing out on the NCAA tournament in such excruciating fashion still stings for everyone involved with the ’91 squad.
“It’s still hurts, even now,” said Brookhart, today an administrative assistant in Creighton’s resident life department. “We still talk about it, ‘Just one more hit, and we would’ve won that thing.’”
One for the record books
The final two games of the 1991 WAC softball tournament, played between Creighton and Utah at Seymour Smith Field, are still responsible for numerous NCAA records. The Bluejays’ 31-inning win is the longest game in Division I history, while the Utes’ 4-3, 25-inning victory in the final is the third longest.
» CU’s Kelly Brookhart and Utah’s Janet Womack set individual NCAA records by throwing all 31 innings during the Bluejays’ win.
» Utah left a record 34 runners stranded over the course of 31 innings. The 31 runners the Utes left on base against Brookhart in the 25-inning contest ranks No. 3 all-time.
» Utah’s Wendy Stewart walked an NCAA record six times (all of them intentional) in the 25-inning contest.
» The Utes’ Amy Timmel, Jennifer Fotheringham, Laurel Simmons and Gaylyn Hoshide all own the record for most at-bats, getting 14 apiece in the 31-inning game. In all, the top 15 single-game individual at-bat totals occurred in that contest, and Utah had a record 114 as a team. The Bluejays’ 106 at-bats rank second all-time.
» “The most bizarre feeling was when the sky started to lighten and the birds started chirping and we were still playing.” — Former CU softball coach Mary Higgins