High-five costs softball team walk-off victory

UPDATE: The Rematch

Central Lakes and Rochester Community and Technical College met in a rematch Thursday in the NJCAA Division III national tournament.

RCTC earned a 5-2 victory, keeping its title hopes alive. Central Lakes will play in the seventh-place game today.

Both teams lost their first-round games in the tournament, setting up a showdown in the consolation bracket.

Trailing 5-2, Central Lakes loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh inning, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate.

The batter? Ashly Erickson, the player who had her apparent walk-off home run disallowed after high-fiving a teammate on her way to home plate in the bottom of the seventh inning May 1 against RCTC in the state tournament.

Officials later ruled that the call was incorrect; Central Lakes should have received a warning, Erickson’s run should have counted, and Central Lake should have won the game. But, by the time Central Lakes coach Heidi Rogge learned that the ruling was made incorrectly, it was too late to appeal.

There was no such controversy Thursday.

Erickson, who suffered a torn hamstring in the regional tournament last week, hit a liner to RCTC’s second baseman, who caught the ball and fired to first base to complete a double play. The next Central Lakes batter grounded out, and RCTC advanced with a victory.

"I told my team that this was just another team," Rogge told the Rochester Post-Bulletin. "It doesn’t matter what happened before."

Said RCTC pitcher DeAnna Mock, speaking to a Post-Bulletin reporter: "It wasn’t really about that. It was about staying alive in the tournament."

Minnesota West softball coach Rosalie Hayenga-Hostikka couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

Just hours after the Lady Jays suffered a 9-1 loss against Central Lakes College (Brainerd) in the Minnesota Junior College Athletic Conference state tournament Friday, Hayenga-Hostikka and her players watched in disbelief as the team that eliminated them earlier in the afternoon had a potential game-winning run disallowed.

CLC’s Ashly Erickson hit an apparent walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, giving the Raiders a 1-0 victory over Rochester Community and Technical College.

Or so it seemed.

Erickson’s teammates exploded from the dugout and sprinted toward home plate, eager to greet the freshman infielder with a celebratory mosh pit. But some refused to wait.

As Erickson rounded third base and headed toward home, she high-fived several of her ecstatic teammates before reaching the plate.

As the celebration continued, RCTC coach Jean Musgjerd grabbed her rulebook and met with the umpires. She argued that Erickson’s high-five, which occurred before she touched home plate, violated the rules for "player interference/assistance."

The umpires eventually ruled Erickson out, and they disallowed the run. RCTC went on to win 4-0 in nine innings, eliminating CLC from the tournament.

"My whole team and I, we were sitting there like, ‘No way — you cannot do that,’" Hayenga-Hostikka said. "It’s turned into quite a fiasco."

The story has received significant local and national attention. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a story on its website Monday, and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann railed against Musgjerd on his "Countdown" show Tuesday. But the story of CLC’s stunning loss hasn’t garnered so much attention just because the opposing coach cited a rather obscure rule, but because the ruling actually was wrong.

The Star Tribune reviewed the NCAA softball rules, which also govern the NJCAA, and found this:

"Offensive team personnel, other than base coaches and runner(s), shall not touch a batter or base runner (s) who is legally running the bases on a dead-ball award until the player(s) contacts home plate. For a first offensive, the umpires shall issue a warning to the offending team."

Translation: Erickson’s high-five was in violation of the rules, but, since it was their first offense, the Raiders should have been hit with a warning. The run should have counted, CLC’s starting pitcher should have finished with a no-hitter, and the Raiders should have continued celebrating a state tournament victory over the top-ranked team in the nation.

"The warning is down much farther (in the rule book), and I wasn’t aware of the warning until much later," Musgjerd told the Rochester Post-Bulletin. "It was left up to the umpires, and they (chose) to go with an out. I’ve never seen it as a warning. I’ve seen it called an out.

"The rule is plain, and I just asked for the rule to be interpreted. I was just trying to do everything I could to help the (RCTC) kids."

Hayenga-Hostikka was aware of the rule, and she had the opportunity to cite it earlier in the afternoon. CLC hit three home runs just hours earlier against the Lady Jays, and, as each player rounded the bases, Hayenga-Hostikka said the Raiders celebrated prematurely — according to the rulebook. But she refused to allow a technicality to take away from a player’s on-field accomplishment.

"We played Central Lakes the game before that, and they hit three home runs against us and did the same thing," the five-year Minnesota West coach said. "I didn’t even think about it. For one, I’m not going to protest it. And, two, I don’t care if the kids are giving someone a high-five when she just hit a home run. To me, it’s a dead ball.

"I hate that rule. I want to say that I just wouldn’t have done it, and I didn’t do it when they did it to us. And it wasn’t a walk-off situation, but maybe it shouldn’t matter. I just don’t agree with it. You can’t take away a kid’s home run because of (a technicality), especially in that situation. I mean, gosh, you’re excited — a walk-off home run in the state tournament, in a 0-0 ballgame. It’s kind of like in a basketball game and you hit a last-second shot and the kids storm the court with 0.8 seconds left and they end up getting a technical foul or something. It’s a ruling that has no bearing on the game whatsoever.

"I’d like to say that I don’t think I would have protested in a situation like (RCTC’s), but I wasn’t in that situation, either."

CLC coach Heidi Rogge was in that situation, on the losing side, and by the time she learned the ruling was incorrect, it was too late to appeal.

"Almost every other coach came up to me after the game and said they would have said, ‘Nice hit’ and shook hands," Rogge told the Star Tribune. "The girls have learned their lesson, and they kind of joke about it now. But it’s still bittersweet."

Hayenga-Hostikka said she may not have handled such a situation as gracefully as Rogge did.

"She took it pretty good, actually; I was amazed," Hayenga-Hostikka said. "I told my girls, ‘Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me, because I don’t think I would have taken it with as much grace as (Rogge) did.’ I know I wouldn’t have because that just drives me crazy when you take away what a kid did for other kids getting fired up."

Worthington softball coach Sam Baumgartner agreed.

"I think the rule is being taken a little too literally there," he said. "You’re applying a rule that really doesn’t have anything to do with the game. The girl hit a home run, fair and square. And, in a situation like that — a state tournament game, with a walk-off home run — they’re going to be excited and they’re going to be jumping up and down. And somebody gives them a high-five a couple steps before they touch home plate? Big deal. Heck, if they carried them around the bases I wouldn’t give a damn.

"You have to let the players play the game. I don’t understand why that’s even a rule. It’s a dead-ball situation, and a congratulatory high-five shouldn’t be an issue, no matter where it’s at."

Said Worthington baseball coach Pat Shaughnessy: "I would have trouble taking that away from them. If a kid hits a home run, I guess I’m not going to look for a technicality to get them out on the way to the plate."

But Musgjerd did, and she had every right to do so. The situation is outlined in the rulebook, and it wasn’t her fault the rule was interpreted incorrectly.

"You don’t want to win that way, but you have to play by the rules," Musgjerd told the Star Tribune. "You get schooled on the rulebook, and you find out really fast that you need to know it.

"I don’t care what the score is. You can’t call rules in certain ways sometimes and not other times."

Last year, in late April, two college softball teams drew national attention after they were involved in a similar dilemma.

Central Washington University hosted Western Oregon University in a Division II softball game. CWU entered the doubleheader one game behind WOU in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings, with a berth to the playoffs at stake. CWU lost the opener, putting extra importance on the nightcap.

In the second inning, WOU’s Sara Tucholsky belted her first career home run — a three-run blast over the center-field fence. She was so excited that she missed first base. And when she turned to go back to the bag, her knee gave out and she tore her ACL.

"I was in a lot of pain," Tucholsky told The Oregonian. "Our first-base coach was telling me I had to crawl back to first base. ‘I can’t touch you,’ she said, ‘or you’ll be out. I can’t help you.’"

WOU was preparing to send in a pinch runner to replace Tucholsky at first base when CWU’s all-time leader in home runs, Mallory Holtman, volunteered to carry her injured opponent around the bases.

The umpires said there was nothing in the rulebook against players helping opponents around the bases, so Holtman and teammate Liz Wallace picked up Tucholsky and helped her complete the four-bag trip.

All three runs counted, and WOU eventually earned a 4-2 victory.

"In the end, it is not about winning and losing so much," Holtman told The Oregonian. "It was about this girl. She hit it over the fence and was in pain and she deserved a home run.”

CWU didn’t make the national tournament, but Central Lakes did.

Both RCTC and the Raiders advanced to their respective regional tournaments, which begin this weekend. If both teams advance to the national tournament, they could meet again.

"At least Central Lakes didn’t get eliminated from their season," Hayenga-Hostikka said. "That’s the saving grace in this whole situation."