Thousands of red-and-whiteclad fanatics rose to their feet as Taylor McQuillin reared back and hurled an off-speed pitch on Sunday afternoon.
The University of Arizona ace pitcher threw the brilliant pitch past an overmatched Mississippi State hitter, closing out a hard-earned 4-3 victory in the championship round of the Tucson Regional of the NCAA Softball Tournament.
The win earned the Wildcats' spot in next weekend's NCAA Softball Tournament Super Regionals, but also cemented a rightful final chapter at the stadium that has been their home for a quarter century.
Head coach Mike Candrea, who has guided the Wildcats to eight national championships in his 32-year tenure in Tucson, fought back tears as he described the team's final game inside the friendly confines of Rita Hillenbrand Stadium.
"I've got to be honest with you, there's a few tears," Candrea said. "I guess one of the good things about being old is that you get to live through history, and I've been able to do that."
The Wildcats will return to a new stadium on the small parcel of land that Hillenbrand has occupied next spring, after the school completes an $8 million renovation of the facility.
McQuillin acknowledged the team's extra sense of motivation going onto the field on Sunday, knowing they were likely toeing the line at the venue for the final time before the renovation.
"Everybody's excited to come to the arena for the last time looking like this," she said. "It's a great feeling, knowing that this is the team that we had to finish off before Rita gets a facelift."
Candrea covered the evolution of the vaunted program, starting with the $1.6 million donation from Bill Hillenbrand, whose family owned the largest manufacturer of caskets and cremation-related products in North America at the time.
Hillenbrand's gift covered the entirety of the stadium's construction costs, allowing the Wildcats to take the sport by storm over the next 15 years.
The historical importance of the venerable venue wasn't lost on Mississippi State Coach Vann Stuedeman.
Stuedeman praised the University and Candrea for their roles in expanding the sport, describing how much it meant to the Bulldogs to be involved in a small piece of softball history this weekend.
"The historical value of playing there, their last game, you know, it's like, I won't say the Yankees out here, I'll probably get in trouble, but you know, it's like closing their stadium," Stuedeman said. "We're a small part of big history. It's very cool."
The Wildcats' memorable weekend had as much to do with its on-field success as it did off of it, beating Saint Francis, North Dakota State and Mississippi State en route to their 29th regional championship in the last 32 seasons.
McQuillin's pitching prowess played a major part in the team's success, striking out 22 batters in 19 2/3 innings of shutout ball.
Her steady hand in the pitching circle allowed Candrea's team to defeat the Red Flash of Saint Francis 1-0 on Friday, followed by a 5-0 win over the Bison of NDSU on Saturday.
The Mission Viejo, Calif., native saved her best for last, however, tossing 5 2/3 innings of hitless relief against the Bulldogs on Sunday.
The junior entered Sunday's contest with two outs in the second inning, after starter Alyssa Denham surrendered three runs on three Bulldog home runs.
McQuillin shut the door, retiring the first 13 batters faced, before giving up a walk in the game's final inning.
She responded with gusto, striking out the final two batters she faced to earn the win—propelling the Wildcats into next weekend's Super Regional against third-seed UCLA.
McQuillin admitted that pitching in relief of Denham forced her to change her approach in the pitching circle, but that her team gave her all the motivation needed.
"I had to make sure that I could shut the other team down, so they could go out and continue the job and not be as stressed or tense in the box," McQuillin said.
McQuillin is excited to play the Bruins, stressing that the Wildcats have greatly improved their game since they were swept by Kelly Inouye-Perez's team in mid-April.
"We're just excited to still be in postseason and still be able to make it to Super Regionals," McQuillin said. "Regardless of where we play, we're going to play Arizona softball and we're going to leave everything out on the line."
The emotions of the last 25 years came out for Candrea as he described what he'll remember from the team's one-run win on a scorching-hot afternoon.
Candrea believes the new facility, with a shaded concourse and enclosed row of loge seating, will allow the Wildcats to keep up in the facility arms race that's spread across the country.
He knows that the improvements are key to contending for top-notch recruits, while giving fans reprieve from scorching heat.
"Old Rita has been good to us, but the new Rita coming in, I think will be a great place for these fans," Candrea said. "And, hopefully we can keep filling the seats and doing what we do."
The Wildcats (43-14) will play the UCLA Bruins (53-5) in a best-of-three Super Regional between Thursday and Saturday. Games are scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, with the third game at 4 p.m., should it be necessary.
Candrea expects a battle against the Bruins this weekend, with the two programs meeting in the postseason for the first time since 2010—the last time his squad qualified for the Women's College World Series.
"It's a great matchup. It's a World Series matchup in my eyes," Candrea said. "And you just have to play the game at that level."