Kalei Christensen was the first to reach North Texas pitcher Ashley Peters.
UNT’s catcher sprinted from behind the plate, grabbed Peters inside the pitching circle and pulled her to the dirt at Lovelace Stadium just after centerfielder Lexi Cobb hauled in a flyball for the final out of the Conference USA tournament.
The Mean Green’s remarkable run was complete with a 9-0 win over Western Kentucky in Saturday’s championship game that was cut to five innings by the run rule.
UNT won three games in three days by a combined score of 26-4 on its way to earning the first NCAA regional bid in the history of the program. The school revived the program in 2004.
“It feels amazing,” Peters said. “We realized we had it right in front of us. Our mentality was to go get it and make a regional. For us to do it for the first time in school history in my first year here means a lot to me.”
Peters throwing the final pitch to help UNT (35-14) make program history with its win over WKU (38-13) only seemed appropriate.
The Purdue transfer emerged as the Mean Green’s top pitcher in a season that unfolded in a way few saw coming just a few months ago.
UNT coach Rodney DeLong thought he had a team capable of winning the C-USA tournament. He just thought it’d be Hope Trautwein leading the way.
Trautwein emerged as one of the nation’s best pitchers last season when she threw the first perfect game in college softball history with all 21 outs coming via strikeout.
DeLong was planning on having Trautwein back for an additional season after the NCAA granted players an extra year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mean Green were forced to change course after Trautwein entered the transfer portal last spring and quickly landed at national power Oklahoma as a graduate transfer.
Trautwein was a perfect 16-0 on the season before taking the loss in Oklahoma’s loss to rival Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Conference tournament title game Saturday.
“A lot of people counted us out and thought we were going to fall off just a little bit after Hope left,” DeLong said. “We never believed that. We used that as motivation. We knew we could get here if we played really well.”
It’s hard to imagine UNT playing any better over the course of the C-USA tournament.
Peters (19-6) picked up the win in two of the Mean Green’s three tournament games while allowing just three runs in 12 innings. All three of those runs came on a home run by Charlotte second baseman Cori Henderson in the second inning of UNT’s tournament opener.
Peters didn’t allow a run over the final 10 innings she pitched against the 49ers and WKU. The Hilltoppers only hit against Peters was a Taylor Sanders single off the centerfield wall leading off the second inning.
UNT’s was just as dominant offensively while slugging nine home runs in its three tournament games. Molly Rainey, Tayla Evans and Kailey Gamble each hit one in the Mean Green’s win over WKU, pushing UNT’s season home run total to a program record 69.
“In the past, we have tried too hard and swung at balls out of the strike zone,” Rainey said. “Doing that got us out of good counts. This week, our focus was to swing at strikes. That worked in our favor.”
That approach certainly worked for Rainey. The sophomore went 6-for-9 with two home runs and eight RBIs and was named the tournament MVP.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rainey said. “We put a lot of hard work in to get to this moment and win a conference championship. Being the MVP is the icing on the cake.”
Rainey got UNT off to a good start in the championship game when she homered to center in the bottom of the first inning to give the Mean Green a 2-0 lead.
Evans followed with her second home run of the tournament. UNT was off and running at that point.
Gamble hit the last of UNT’s four home runs, a three-run shot to right field in the fourth that gave the Mean Green a 9-0 lead and put them in position to end the game via the run rule.
Gamble has been one of UNT’s most productive hitters all season long and leads the team in both home runs (16) and RBI (52). She had just one hit in the C-USA tournament, not that it mattered with the way the rest of the Mean Green’s lineup produced.
“My team was behind me the whole way,” Gamble said. “They kept telling me that I would get a hit the next time.”
UNT’s players said that chemistry was critical to their run to the C-USA tournament title. The Mean Green endured a few ups and downs throughout the season.
UNT lost its chance to win the C-USA regular season title when it fell to Marshall in its final game of the regular season. Louisiana Tech won the championship and entered the C-USA tournament as the top seed.
“This is what we talked about,” DeLong said of responding to that loss by pulling through in the conference tournament. “The regular season hasn’t helped us get to the NCAA tournament. This is where we wanted to go. We set our eyes on this weekend.”
The way the Mean Green responded was another step in DeLong’s quick rebuild of the program that has been on the rise since he arrived at UNT following the 2018 season. The Mean Green won the regular season C-USA title in 2019 and 2021 but failed to follow up by winning the conference tournament.
UNT’s hopes to add another conference title took a hit when Trautwein transferred out. The Mean Green used the doubts about their future without their top pitcher to drive them during their run to the C-USA tournament title that ended just before Christensen tackled Peters.
“It’s a great feeling,” DeLong said. “It’s something we have worked for and set our sights on since we got here. To see it all come together at the right time is pretty special.”