OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Perhaps the biggest challenge in sports is to win when you’re expected to win. The pressure and weight of expectations can make the best athletes perform like Joe and Jane Average.
For the last year, ever since Alabama dog piled on the dirt at ASA Hall Fame Stadium after winning the 2012 national championship in a deciding Game Three, Oklahoma has lived with the awful memories.
Losing two straight after taking Game One … how Alabama won Game Two with two bases-loaded hits with two strikes … how in Game Three the rain and resulting delay derailed starter Keilani Ricketts in the middle innings and then a late rally falling short.
This season, OU was dominant from the first pitch, ranked No. 1 and talked about as one of the best teams in women’s softball history. All well and good, but validation only comes with a championship.
“We weren’t the underdogs,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “We were supposed to win and we’ve never been in that situation before. That’s difficult. The best team doesn’t always win.”
The best team won. Oklahoma took care of business in Game Two of the Women’s College World Series Tuesday night with a 4-0 victory over Tennessee. The Sooners finished 57-4, the first team since Arizona in 2001 to win a national title with just four losses.
And if you don’t understand the extra emotion the NCAA trophy brought, check your pulse.
"Oklahoma is my home now,” said California native Lauren Chamberlain, who hit the game-winning walk-off homer in game One. “It's kind of just doing what we can for this state and using softball as a tool to almost bring hope to a really dark time in our state."
Two top-of-the-scale EF-5 tornadoes scythed through this area over the last two weeks. The first devastated Moore, located just north of OU’s campus. The second last Friday carved a path two miles wide for 40 minutes just west of OKC, sending the eight teams here for the WCWS to shelter.
One of the young victims of the Moore tornado was grade schooler Sydney Angle, an avid softball player. Her older sister Casey has served as OU’s bat girl and Sydney’s “Bring It ‘04” team was honored before Tuesday’s game.
“We had so much to play for, so many people we felt like we were playing for,” Gasso said. “That pressure of wanting to do something so badly … for the state, for the people in Moore, the people who lost loved ones. I really didn’t know how to handle that, but this team was great carrying so many burdens. They just stayed the course.
“We got the last win of the season.”
The next-to-last win of the season, Monday night’s epic 5-3 triumph in 12 innings, put Oklahoma a game away from the title … just like last year. Gasso was asked if she needed a reality check to make sure that Monday night really happened, that Oklahoma had bounced back from a 3-0 deficit with six consecutive extra bases hits after being down to their final two outs and twice down to their final strike.
“I didn’t worry if it was a dream or not,” she said. “I didn’t sleep at all. I stayed awake to make sure it was real.”
Ricketts, the two-time national player of the year, threw 188 pitches in Game One. With senior Michelle Gascoigne available – she hadn’t made a start since May 11 – Gasso chose to start Gascoigne.
“About two hours before the game they told me,” she said. “I was a little surprised but that’s the way we’ve done it. Throughout our careers Keilani and I, we’ve just kinda tag teamed it.”
Pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi’s Yoda-like advice to Gascoigne: “Do you and do you well.”
The result was a seven-inning shutout. Gascoigne allowed three hits, struck out 12 and retired 16 of the last 17 hitters.
“I was assuming I would throw but I thought it was the best decision to have her throw,” said Ricketts, who was 35-1 with a 1.23 ERA this season. “She’s been phenomenal all year. She brought her best stuff.
The starting pitching decision altered OU’s lineup. Ricketts was the designated player and hit third in the order. In the top of the third, she came to the plate with one out and runners at second and third.
“There was a reason for all of this working out the way it did,” Gasso said.
Ricketts drilled a 2-1 pitch into the stands in right field for a 3-0 lead. The Volunteers (52-12) had talked of “flushing” the Game One loss but Ricketts’ rocket – her 15th of the season and 50th of her career – kept the memory fresh.
“It was really cool to just be able to get the runs for Michelle myself, because I knew what it was like last night when we were scoreless for a long time,” Ricketts said.
“After Keilani’s homer, I came out with new fire in me,” said Gascoigne, who finished the season 18-3 with a 0.88 ERA – the nation’s best. “I was excited to pitch … my drop ball was really working and I just tried to keep ‘em guessing.”
After Game One, the WCWS drama tank was empty. After Ricketts’ blast, Tennessee managed one hit. The closest the Vols came to scoring was in the second inning when the leadoff hitter singled and was sacrificed to second. OU’s Destinee Martinez made a sliding catch of Melissa Davin’s liner to center for the second out and then Gascoinge struck out Cheyanne Tarango for the third out.
After recording the 21st out on Gascoigne’s 12th strikeout, the Sooners dog piled. For a baseball or softball team, there is no better celebration.
“It’s a great feeling to finally accomplish something we’ve been aiming for since our freshmen year,” said Ricketts, who was named the WCWS most outstanding player. “I came to Oklahoma to win a national championship. I didn’t win it by myself we won it together. And it’s a great feeling knowing that we won this for the entire state.”
OU’s talent is obvious and plentiful. Sports history, though, is littered with teams that seemingly had everything but never won a championship. The Sooners’ perseverance resided in their gray matter.
“This team was mentally tough,” Gasso said. “From last year, we learned to stay in the moment, go one pitch at a time. You dream your whole life of raising that trophy and it’s so close, it’s so close. But you can’t think about that. You have to stay focused on the moment, the next pitch. They listened and they responded.”
Oklahoma, which last won the national championship in 2000, becomes the fifth Division I program to win multiple NCAA softball titles, joining Arizona (8), Arizona State (2), Texas A&M (2) and UCLA (11).
“Any other year, this (Tennessee) team wins the national championship,” Volunteers co-coach Karen Weekly said. “We just ran up against the 1927 Yankees.”
The analysis will now begin. Is this Oklahoma team the greatest? The numbers are compelling.
In 10 NCAA victories, the Sooners scored 91 runs – in 61 games, their opponents scored 74 runs. OU outscored its foes by 402 runs; 280 of the other 289 D1 teams did not score 400 runs this season. With 7.8 runs per game and a 1.16 ERA, OU is the first team in Division I history to finish ranked No. 1 in both categories.
“This team is right here, in my heart,” Gasso said. “Are they the best ever? I’ll let others decide that. But to me, right now, they are the best.”