Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Love Oklahoma’s dynasty or hate it, but respect what Sooners have accomplished in softball


OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Fans in the outfield turned their gaze toward left field as Oklahoma’s Kelly Maxwell jogged out of the bullpen. The Sooners were four outs away from a national championship, and Maxwell’s entrance was met with enthusiasm and a collective deep breath.

The Sooners already felt in control of their fate, but coach Patty Gasso was putting in her ace to close this championship series against No. 1 Texas. Maxwell, later named the Women’s College World Series most outstanding player, did just that, clinching the Sooners’ 8-4 win to sweep the championship series and make Oklahoma the first team to four-peat as national champions in college softball history.

Oklahoma is familiar with this stage, but the players and Gasso are sure to point to the challenges that come with reaching this level of success again, and again, and again. This season especially, the pressure mounted, senior outfielder Jayda Coleman said.

“As we went on, if we lost one game, two games, lost to Texas, everyone had an opinion about us,” Coleman said. “It was frustrating just to see everyone on Twitter, TikTok hoping anybody else but us.”

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She shrugged. “Well … that didn’t happen, so …”

With eight national titles and 17 WCWS appearances since 2000, Oklahoma’s dynasty has been building for some time. In the past four national championship seasons, OU has compiled a record of 235-15.


Coach Patty Gasso and Kelly Maxwell led Oklahoma to a fourth straight national title. (USA Today)

As the wins stacked, skepticism followed. Oklahoma lost more games this season (seven) than it did since 2017. Texas dethroned the Sooners as the top seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. Doubters pointed to these as signs of vulnerability, while comments about the home crowd advantage OU enjoys by playing the WCWS 20 miles up the road from campus stirred frustration and conversations about rotating the event.

“It’s probably the hardest coaching season that I’ve had in a while because of a lot of the naysayers,” Gasso said. “Heavy is a head that wears the crown is the one thing that really stuck out. I heard someone say that. That really has felt true. It’s been exhausting.”

But as the noise around the team increased, Oklahoma maintained its identity on the field.

“Love us or hate us, I feel like there has to be some level of respect there from what we’ve done for softball, for women’s sports,” senior pitcher Nicole May said. “It’s just crazy to see the growth of this sport, and I just hope to see it keep growing.”

Texas coach Mike White pointed to Oklahoma’s ability to “reload and continue to get premier players into their program” as one of the factors that continuously puts the Sooners on top. Freshman outfielder Kayden Henry and sophomore infielder Viviana Martinez pointed to the Sooners’ veteran roster as the biggest difference: Oklahoma’s 10-player senior class has anchored each championship run.

In that class are Coleman, Tiare Jennings, Rylie Boone, Alyssa Brito and Kinzie Hansen, who all rank in the top 10 in program history in career batting average. The trio of Maxwell — who transferred to OU this season from rival Oklahoma State — May and Karlie Keeney anchor the pitching staff. Infielder Alynah Torres and utility player Riley Ludlam close out that dynastic senior class. The five who have been at OU since the start of their careers — Coleman, Jennings, Boone, Hansen and May — never went through a postseason without a national title.

“They’ll go down in history — not just at OU — but I personally would say across the country as one of the best classes softball has ever seen. I’m proud of that,” Gasso said. “It would be easy to say we’ve had enough. This is hard and we’ve had enough. But they’re elite athletes. Whether they want to or not, they grind, they work hard.”

But what Gasso has built in Norman won’t end with their departure. That’s where the freshmen come in. Ella Parker and Kasidi Pickering were the two newbies who jumped into the starting lineup this season, and neither shied away from the postseason spotlight.

Parker went 3-for-4 in the Sooners’ elimination game against Florida — hitting the game-tying RBI that took the game to extra innings. She ended the season with a .415 batting average, best on the team. Pickering hit a home run in each championship series game. Both freshmen were named to the WCWS All-Tournament team.

“I give all the credit to the seniors,” Pickering said. “Every at-bat a senior came up and talked to me before and helped me with my mentality for these upcoming at bats so I give everything to them.”

When asked if she feels any pressure in taking over what the seniors leave behind, Pickering quickly answered no.

On the horizon for Oklahoma is a move to the SEC, which just sent all of its 13 teams that compete in softball to the NCAA Tournament. The realignment will introduce a new level of competition. The Sooners also welcome an eight-player class in the 2024 recruiting cycle that ranks first in the country per Extra Innings Softball. Of course, an unprecedented five-peat will be top of mind, too.

“We need (the freshmen). They’re doing some great, great things offensively,” Gasso said. “There’s a lot of pitchers that are young that are watching and learning and waiting for their number to be called. The future is going to continue to be bright even without these 10 seniors.”

Hansen, Keeney and Jennings will return as graduate assistants next year, Gasso said. But even as the players who formed the dynasty move on, the figure behind each championship run remains in Gasso.

“I’m ready to start coaching again because I don’t have to coach this,” Gasso said, gesturing to the of seniors beside her. “They know it. They’ve got it. They coach each other. I’m really excited about what’s coming.”

Oklahoma’s parade to the outfield Thursday night to celebrate with tearful eyes and championship trophies in hand felt equal parts familiar yet exhilarating. Like an ace entering a game at a pivotal moment, the last hurrah finally arrived. This chapter in OU history closed with a sense of accomplishment and relief for making history once again.

“This one, to me, I definitely felt a little bit more sentimental. We grew up together,” Hansen said. “It was never one hero at the plate or on the mound or anything like that. This was a team effort. We fought all season. Everybody had something to say about us all the time. People counted us out. It was just a grind. All in mentally, physically. We fought the whole year. It was all so worth it in this moment.”

(Top photo: Tyler Schank / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)



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