FRESNO, Calif. - New Mexico State softball senior Hoku Nohara blasted a two-run walk-off home run over the left field fence in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the top-seeded Aggies a come-from-behind win over fourth-seeded Hawai'i in the 2011 Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Softball Tournament at Fresno State's Bulldog Diamond.
NM State (41-15) now awaits the winner of game two between second seeded Boise State and sixth seeded Louisiana Tech for a 3 p.m. MT Friday matchup between the final undefeated teams in the tournament. The Aggies' win sets a new program record for victories in a season, besting the previous mark of 40 set in 1996. NM State has now won 22 of its last 26 games.
Nohara now has 22 home runs on the year to lead the nation and stands tied with former Fresno State player Christina Clark atop the WAC career home run list at 62. The Aggie designated player chose the right time to drill career home run No. 62. The country's home run leader had not hit a home run against a WAC squad since Apr. 16 at Nevada and had not hammered one out of the park in seven games, since a towering home run at Loyola Marymount on Apr. 27.
The dramatic ending written by Nohara's homer capped a four-run rally by NM State over the final two innings against UH relief pitcher Jenna Rodriguez. NM State plated a pair of runs in both the sixth and seventh innings. The Aggies never led in the game until Nohara crossed the plate at the end.
"Hoku is a high-level hitter and hardly anyone is better with the game on the line," said head coach Kathy Rodolph. "We needed her today and she delivered."
The Aggie win snaps a seven-game losing streak to UH and is the first neutral-site win by either team in the all-time series. All four games between the squads this season have been one-run contests decided on the home team's final at-bat. Hawai'i won three games at home Apr. 29-30 before today's NM State victory. Each of the last three games between the squads has ended in a 5-4 decision.
With the loss, Hawai'i (36-17) moves to the elimination bracket against last night's upset victim and third seed Fresno State in game three of the tourney lineup today. As a result, one of the top two WAC preseason picks will be eliminated from the tournament this evening. Fifth seeded Utah State will face the loser of Boise State and LA Tech in the nightcap Thursday.
Aggie ace Alex Newman started the game against WAC Pitcher of the Year Stephanie Ricketts of Hawai'i.
Newman was solid against the Rainbow Wahine, retiring the first six batters of the game in order. Meanwhile, Ricketts allowed just one hit to NM State senior Kandis Jones over the first two scoreless innings of the battle.
Hawai'i started the scoring in the third inning. After opening with a single, UH hit into an Aggie double play but an NM State error helped the Wahine rally with two outs. Two singles and a walk pushed across an unearned run to give UH a 1-0 lead after three.
New Mexico State tied the game in the bottom of the fourth inning when WAC Freshman of the Year Valerie Swedberg drilled a home run over the fence in right center. NM State continued to pressure UH starter Ricketts with a single and walk, forcing a pitching change to bring in Rodriguez. The newcomer to the circle loaded the bases before getting the next two Aggies to fly out.
The Rainbow Wahine rallied in the bottom of the fifth with a pair of runs. Hawai'i started the frame with a single off of Newman before the next batter reached first base on Aggie error. A single by WAC Player of the Year Jessica Iwata scored two runs to make it 3-1 UH. Iwata moved to second on another NM State error. She later scored on a two-out single by Melissa Gonzalez to put the Wahine up 4-1.
The UH score prompted a pitching change by NM State as Clovis, Calif., native Kelsey Schueler came on to pitch for the final out of the inning.
The Aggies began their comeback in the bottom of the sixth inning. Senior Ashley Maroda reached on a Wahine error. Junior Shaleese Javillo came into the game to pinch run for Maroda. A sacrifice bunt by sophomore Teresa Conrad moved Javillo to second. Junior Brittany Clifton walked before sophomore Tehani Kaaihue reached on a fielder's choice that saw Javillo out at third.
Senior Kylie Randall doubled to left center to score Clifton and Kaaihue before advancing to third on the throw. However, Rodriguez and UH got out of the inning with an outfield fly up 4-3 heading into the final inning.
After a hit-by-pitch, Schueler retired the next three Wahine batters to set things up for the Aggie offense in the bottom of the seventh.
Junior Tiare Jennings battled for a walk to open the inning before Nohara's walk-off home run sealed the win for NM State.
Schueler earned the victory in relief to move to 4-3; Rodriguez took the loss to fall to 3-1.
NM State faces the winner of Boise State and Louisiana tech on Friday at 3 p.m. MT in a battle of undefeated squads. Fans can listen to the game live in Las Cruces on KSNM 570 AM with play-by-play from Kyle Doperalski.
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