Wednesday, June 19, 2024

OU nears 4-peat; Texas embraces ‘underdog’ role

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — No. 2 Oklahoma’s role as an “underdog” — as coach Patty Gasso called the Sooners on Tuesday — didn’t last long.

In Game 1 of the Women’s College World Series finals, Oklahoma resumed its role as Texas’ foil, pummeling the Longhorns 8-3 while launching three home runs as starter Kelly Maxwell held the No. 1 Longhorns’ bats in check.

Maxwell, an offseason transfer from Oklahoma State who crossed the rivalry lines to join the Sooners, was making her first WCWS finals appearance. Despite throwing 148 pitches Tuesday to help the Sooners survive an elimination game against Florida, Maxwell went all seven innings Wednesday, striking out eight and allowing just one earned run on 119 pitches.

“Kelly was masterful all game,” Gasso said. “Her dream has been — she’s never been this far, and when now you’re in the championship series, adrenaline took over for her. But she’s not going to walk away from this opportunity. I asked her if she wanted the ball. She looked at me like, ‘Duh.’ I’m like, ‘OK, we’re good.'”

On the Texas side, Teagan Kavan’s storybook run at the WCWS ended as the freshman, who had thrown two one-hit shutouts against Stanford, led off the game by hitting Jayda Coleman with a pitch, then gave up a homer to Oklahoma star Tiare Jennings, who hit her 11th career WCWS homer, one shy of the all-time record.

Kavan got the loss after giving up five earned runs and three homers in 2⅓ innings against the Sooners.

“We have to come out and control the game a little bit better in the first inning. A rough start for our freshman,” Texas coach Mike White said of Kavan. “Obviously Teagan was our hot hand. If I hadn’t started her, somebody else giving up the runs, I would say why didn’t I start Teagan? You ride the horse that got you there.”

The Sooners’ eight runs were their third most in a WCWS championship series game, behind 16- and 10-run games against the Longhorns in 2022. Oklahoma is now 6-0 against Texas in NCAA tournament games, outscoring the Longhorns 55-14.

While the Longhorns closed the gap this year, winning a regular-season series against the Sooners for the first time since 2009, Wednesday’s loss in the best-of-three series has the Longhorns fighting to stay alive.

“Now it’s theirs to lose in some respect,” White said of the Sooners. “They have to win one of the next two games. I like being in that position, sometimes being the underdog. We’re the top dog for a little bit, so to speak, but were we? They’re three-time national champions. It’s a mind game. Champions reframe. How can we reframe from this loss, what we’re facing right now, come out and have a better game and see if we can play some good softball.”

The good news for the Longhorns is they dropped the first game to the Sooners in Austin during the regular season before fighting back and taking the next two. And in the super regional against another rival, Texas A&M, the Longhorns lost Game 1 before rallying to take the next two.

“I think we’ve done a good job of shifting the momentum,” Texas’ Joley Mitchell said. “We’re a tough team. As long as we stay together, do the job, we’ll be just fine the next two games.”

Still, just one team in the past 10 years — Oklahoma in 2021 — came back to win a national championship after dropping Game 1.

For most of the Sooners — who are chasing an unprecedented fourth straight WCWS title — a win here is nothing new. But for Maxwell, who came to Norman for one last shot at a national championship, there is an urgency.

“This is it,” she said. “This is my last opportunity. I’m just going to do everything I can to keep this team in it. I know that they have my back and I got theirs.”

Gasso said she can feel Maxwell’s confidence in the big moments, like closing out the game with two strikeouts.

“There’s some things stirring in her internally that’s just hard to explain,” Gasso said. “Just feels at peace about what’s going on. She’s not chasing. She’s not feeling nervous. She’s got a peace with her team about what she’s doing, how she’s doing it. What was really cool is seeing her come out in the seventh and just pumping it. She was getting after it.”

With Game 2 on Thursday looming, the Sooners are tempered in their enthusiasm, even after beating a rival in the championship series.

“We’re not over-jubilant because we know there’s still a lot of work to do against a very, very good team that has very good pitchers, very good hitters,” Gasso said. “We know what’s in front of us still. So you don’t see us celebrating.”

On Thursday, Oklahoma could clinch its eighth overall championship, but there is plenty of familiarity between the two Big 12 rivals, who are both headed to the SEC next season.

“I know that Texas, they’re not no softies,” Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen said. “They’re not going to roll over.”

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