OKLAHOMA CITY – Patty Gasso and Clint Myers have been here before.
Gasso, in her 22nd season as leader of the University of Oklahoma, has sent a solid left-hander to the circle backed up by an explosive offensive club in search of national championships.
Remember Keilani Ricketts? How about Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley? That 2013 Sooner squad was dominant, rolling to the Women’s College World Series title, Gasso’s second national championship since arriving in Norman.
The 2016 version of OU softball is just getting started. A squad that starts four freshmen and a pair of sophomores, plus a talented sophomore left-handed pitcher, takes a 30-game winning streak into tonight’s opener of the best-of-three championship series of the 2016 WCWS.
“I don’t think about my accomplishments, because they’re not mine, they’re ours,” said Gasso, whose club is 55-7 and faces Auburn (56-10) tonight at 8 (EST) in Game 1 of a best-of-three. “Every team that’s been there has been so different. So this is just a different, a hard-working, competitive young group that is afraid of nothing. So, it’s just what I want to do in this program, to represent OU, just like these guys, we want to represent OU. We want to represent the state. There’s a lot of pride in this.
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“But that’s who we are and that’s what our expectations are every year. So, to be here is, it’s something special, but it’s something that we expect from this program.”
The Sooners opened the week with an extra-inning thriller against postseason rival Alabama. Sophomore lefty Paige Parker worked 8 innings, allowed just 4 hits, and struck out 7 Tide hitters. Rookie first baseman Shay Knighten handled the offensive dramatics, hitting a 3-run home run, her 12th of the year, in the bottom of the 8th inning for a 3-0 victory.
A late-night 7-5 win over Michigan was next. Another rookie, third baseman Sydney Romero, joined sophomore Nicole Pendley in hitting home runs, while Knighten had a pair of hits and 2 RBI. Parker was not perfect, but battled through 7 innings, striking out 8 and holding off a late Wolverine rally.
Sunday night, in a 7-3 win over a scrappy LSU club, Knighten added a homer and Parker pitched her third complete game of the week. Senior Erin Miller was 2-for-5 and knocked in a pair of runs.
“It’s kind of unbelievable that we are (here), especially as freshmen,” said freshman second baseman Caleigh Clifton, a native Oklahoman. “Everyone sees us as underdogs. And since we were freshmen no one thought we would be here. Especially with the team we were last year.”
“It’s one of the things that I think all of us have been dreaming about since we were little,” said Knighten, who hails from Buena Park, Calif. “For it to be for like our freshman year, it’s just unreal. I don’t think it will really become real until I set foot on that field. It’s more of just taking it one game at a time, not trying to over-think things, not look at the bigger picture. Just stay with my team.”
After a grueling postseason and 62 games, Gasso no longer considers her freshmen “freshmen.”
“You know, I don’t know that I necessarily really refer to them as freshmen because of their maturity and approach at the plate, on the field,” Gasso said. “One thing that I do know about this group is they love challenges, and they love competition.”
In the other dugout, a man who has seen just about everything in collegiate softball has built a championship-level program in the blink of an eye.
After two WCWS championships in eight years at Arizona State, Myers boarded the rising Southeastern Conference train at Auburn. His second year saw the Tigers reach Oklahoma City for the first time in school history. In 2016, Myers has the Tigers on the brink of more school history.
Auburn fans, this week, have required a few antacids and possibly something stronger. After whipping tradition-rich UCLA in the opener, a miraculous 4-3 win over Georgia will not soon be forgotten.
Down 3-1 entering the top of the seventh inning, the Tigers rallied with 3 runs, the third on an unlikely play that required a translation from a Ph.D. in softball and had many inside ASA/Hall of Fame Stadium scratching their heads for a few hours. Two base-running errors led to an inning-ending double play, but, meanwhile, a Tiger runner scored to break a 3-3 tie. Confusion followed, but in the end Auburn stayed in the winner’s bracket.
Sunday’s 8-7 win over Florida State was an instant WCWS classic. Back-and-forth, Auburn led 7-4 after four innings and seemed set for a trip to the finals. But the Seminoles’ Cali Harrod drove one over the wall for a 3-run homer in the 7th and extra innings were required. A 2-base error in the bottom of the eighth opened the door for Auburn and they walked through.
To go from an also-ran in the rugged SEC to the finals of the WCWS in three seasons is a testament to Myers, but also to a program already with some quality prospects.
“I found a bunch of young women that really wanted to win, and they really wanted to learn, and they were willing to do anything,” said Myers, a native of Bismarck, N.D. “As soon as we got their trust, they would run through a brick wall.”
Like the Sooners, Auburn has some good young talent, including sophomore outfielder Tiffany Howard and sophomore catcher Carlee Wallace, who homered on Sunday. Seniors Emily Carosone and Jade Rhodes have been big this week, Rhodes hitting a mammoth home run in the victory over FSU. A sophomore (Kaylee Carson), a freshman (Makayla Martin), and a senior (Rachael Walters) battled Seminole hitters on Sunday and have worked together all week. Victoria Draper, a sophomore center fielder, made the catch of the week and one that will be shown on WCWS highlight reels for years to come against FSU.
All-American third baseman Kasey Cooper, a junior from Alabama, has made play after play in the field and is key at the top of Myers's batting order.
“It hits me every now and then because I have people come up to me and say that, you know, you’ve only got three more days of playing softball in college,” said Rhodes, who calls Sarasota, Fla., home. “I go back in my room, shed some tears so no one can see me because I hate crying. I think last year when we made it is when we all bought in. I mean, the freshmen that came in when he got here, they automatically bought in because that’s all they knew.
“So when I first came here to the College World Series last year is when I really bought in, and now to see that we’re actually going and playing three more days, like we said last year, is pretty awesome.”
The SEC has had a participant in the finals of the WCWS for five-straight years. Florida won back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 with Alabama earned the title in 2012. Tennessee was runner-up in 2013 to Oklahoma, with Florida a runner-up to Arizona State – and Clint Myers – in 2011.