There was promise.
Junior center fielder Jackie Bates launched a two-run shot way over the left field wall to help the Rutgers softball team draw first blood and jump out to an early 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Central Florida starting pitcher Shelby Turnier, regarded as one of the best pitchers in the country, was on the ropes early and Rutgers held the momentum in the palm of its hand. The Scarlet Knights were in the driver's seat, had their ace on the mound -- and seemingly ready to deliver another ace-like performance that she had been accustomed to doing all season long -- and could play the game at the speed of its preference.
Then the second inning happened.
After a perfect first inning where she mowed down the top of the Golden Knights lineup in order, Alyssa Landrith looked like a completely different pitcher when she took the circle for the top of the second. The junior lefthander, who tossed a complete game four hitter where she allowed just one run in a 4-1 win the last time Rutgers faced off with Central Florida, had to have had a sore neck with how much she was turning around to watch the ball fly off the bat.
Landrith's promising start in the first inning was erased and the Rutgers ace was stunningly knocked out of the game with two outs in the second after giving up four runs on five hits and two walks. Two of those hits came off of a pair of blasts by Mariah Garcia and Samantha McCloskey.
Just like that, Central Florida had stolen the momentum from Rutgers and only continued to push down heavier on the gas pedal.
There was a late rally by the No. 4-seed Scarlet Knights, but the hole was too deep to dig out of. They dropped the AAC Tournament semifinal matchup to the No. 1-seed Golden Knights, 8-5, Saturday in Houston.
Despite being down six runs heading into the final frame, Rutgers showed some serious heart and pride -- two characteristics that symbolize the make up of this team.
After three scoreless innings of relief by sophomore righthander Dresden Maddox -- the No. 3 pitcher who battled a nagging, season-long hip injury -- the AAC's most potent lineup dug in and delivered its best shot.
In front of a national audience on ESPN 2, the Rutgers softball team showed the country the grit and never-say-die attitude that it had persevered with all season long.
The Scarlet Knights pushed across three runs on four hits, and threatened to take it all when junior left fielder Chandler Howard represented the game-winning run as she came to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Coming into the game with nine home runs on the season, one swing of the bat could have resulted in an improbable walk-off grand slam -- which wouldn't have been the first time Rutgers has experienced a finish of that magnitude.
But when Howard struck out swinging and the party began on the field for Central Florida, a great season came to an end for Rutgers.
The dreams of capturing the AAC Tournament title and automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals all but vanished with the loss, but it shouldn't takeaway from one of the best seasons for Rutgers softball in years.
Next year, head coach Jay Nelson loses just one regular starter in senior right fielder Loren Williams. Outside of that, he has a returning lineup that led the AAC in batting with a .301 average and a fourth-year ace lefty in Landrith who is climbing up the record books after recently earning the 52nd win of her career.
Most importantly, if it brings the traits that helped turnaround the slow start in which the team began the season 5-7, it will be hard for any team to bring Rutgers down next year.
At the end of the day, those qualities have to be more encouraging than any measurable statistic.