Two Big 12 teams that have faced and overcome adversity open play in the Women’s College World Series Thursday in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma, the defending national champions, have shuffled its lineup because of injuries but have reached the WCWS for the fourth consecutive season. The Sooners (50-11) take on Alabama – the team that beat OU for the 2012 national championship – in the final game of the day. And Baylor (47-14) is making its third WCWS appearance and opens against Florida.
The Lady Bears’ NCAA run has been fueled by pitcher Whitney Canion. The Big 12 pitcher of the year as a freshman in 2009, she earned the award again this year. Yes, that’s a six-year gap. She received two extra seasons of eligibility from the NCAA because of injuries. Canion missed most of the 2010 season with a stress fracture in her left forearm and missed the bulk of the 2012 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“People say you’ve had six years, but I would have chosen not to have those injuries, especially the knee,” said Canion, who is 24. “I honestly thought I was done. … A few times I honestly thought, ‘Do I really want to play my sixth year?’ ”
“I never questioned coming back from the arm injury. But after the knee injury, I really wasn’t conditioned enough last year, and I thought was it worth it again. But after a few weeks into the season, I can’t imagine how I would have ever done that. My flexibility in my knee was back and I wanted to go out with a bang.”
Canion (31-10, 1.40 ERA), along with sophomore Heather Stearns (13-4, 1.69 ERA) gives the Lady Bears two outstanding pitchers. Baylor led the Big 12 in pitching and it has the most strikeouts of the eight teams in the WCWS.
Baylor won a game in its first World Series appearance in 2007, and won two games in 2011 to reach the semifinals. Coach Glenn Moore believes that Canion’s experience and talent along with a potent offense that has produced a school-record 71 homers gives his team a chance to bring home a trophy.
“We’re going up there expecting to win,” Moore said. “I don’t think we’ve taken this kind of offense to the World Series, and we’ve got the arm in the circle to do it. We don’t think there’s a team with any more talent or intangibles or more battle tested.”
Baylor finished second in the Big 12 and also played a challenging non-conference schedule. That experience was a big help when the Lady Bears went on the road and won the Super Regional at Georgia.
“We had to strengthen our RPI, and to travel to the places we did was difficult,” Moore said. “But now we’re seeing it pay off. I really think our schedule prepared us for playing in an environment against a team like Georgia. That’s how you compete against Georgia is you play teams that are equal to them and pitchers that are equal to their talent.”
The Sooners had to replace two-time national player of the year Keilani Ricketts, whose pitching and hitting helped OU win the national title last season. Sophomore Kelsey Stevens, a transfer from Stanford, has taken over in the circle. She is 36-8 with a 2.34 ERA and has been pitching her best over the last few weeks.
Oklahoma junior Lauren Chamberlain missed 23 games with a back injury and after coming back from that issue she suffered a knee injury in the final regular-season series.
While Chamberlain was sidelined, the Sooners lost outfielder Kady Self, who had worked herself into the lineup and was a legitimate contender for Big 12 player of the year when she suffered a torn ACL that ended her season.
Chamberlain, however, was back in the lineup and helped power the Sooners past Tennessee in the Norman Super Regional.
"She’s doing this with one leg, literally,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of Chamberlain. “I’ve never seen somebody so in tune and so confident. I don’t know even know the words to describe the hitter she is because she can hit anything. Nothing rattles her, nothing makes her uncomfortable. She just thrives on pressure situations.”
Oklahoma went 5-4 to start the season. Its offense struggled, scoring just four runs in the losses and the team dropped to No. 23 in the national rankings - the closest they’ve come to falling out of the poll since its inception in 1995.
“The start of the season is the start of the season, and that’s when you work out the kinks,” Chamberlain said. “We knew we had work to do and we set our minds that we weren’t going to fall out (of the rankings) and were going to make a stand at the end of the season.”
Oklahoma has lost three games since March 18.
Baylor (47-14) vs. Florida (50-12), 11 a.m., ESPN
How they got here: The Lady Bears are the No. 13 seed and won two games against Georgia in the Athens (Ga.) Super Regional to advance. Baylor won a regional their home field to reach the super regional. Baylor defeated Tulsa, 3-1, to capture the regional crown. The Gators rolled to three victories in the Super Regional they hosted, outscoring their opponents 29-0.
Baylor update: The Lady Bears have won 15 of their last 16 with the only loss a 3-2 decision at Texas. … Whitney Canion has 123 career wins. Her 31 victories this season equals the school record. Canion’s 131 appearances are the most in Big 12 history. … Junior outfielder Kaitlyn Thumann has reached base safely in her last 26 games. … The 474 strikeouts by the Lady Bears’ pitchers are the most of any WCWS team.
Florida update: Florida coach Tim Walton played on OU’s 1994 national championship baseball team and is a former assistant coach on the softball team. … The Gators are on pace to break team records for on-base percentage (.442), stolen-base percentage (.887) and fewest errors (36). … Florida is making its sixth WCWS appearance in the past seven years. … Lauren Haegar is tied for sixth nationally with 20 home runs. … Kelsey Stewart’s .405 career average is the best in school history.
Oklahoma (50-11) vs. Alabama (50-11), 8:30 p.m., ESPN
How they got here: The Sooners are the No. 7 seed and they beat Tennessee in a decisive Game Three in the Norman Super Regional. Oklahoma hosted the regional on their home field and won three games to advance. Alabama beat Nebraska in two games to win the Tuscaloosa Super Regional.
Oklahoma update: The Sooners have won 32 of their last 35 games and 16 of their last 17. … Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley are two of seven active players - and the only juniors - with 50 or more career home runs. … Sophomore Kady Self was hitting .500 over her last 22 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. … The defending national champions are making their ninth WCWS appearance.
Alabama update: The Crimson Tide is the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 seed Oregon. … Alabama won the 2012 national championship by beating Oklahoma in three games. … The Crimson Tide has scored 53 runs in their five NCAA victories. … Junior outfielder Jaydn Spencer is hitting .526 with six RBI in the NCAA tourney. … Second baseman Kailia Hunt has 57 career home runs, three shy of the Alabama record. … senior pitcher Jaclyn Traina is 23-3 with a 2.02 ERA.