OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – There was plenty of chaos and down-to-the-wire thrillers at the 2016 Women’s College World Series.
Oklahoma sophomore left-hander Paige Parker, however, stayed just a little bit above the fray.
The Independence, Mo., product watched from the dugout as Auburn rallied from a 7-0 deficit on Tuesday night to set up Wednesday night’s deciding third game of the best-of-three championship series. Parker was far from perfect on the final night of the 2016 collegiate campaign, but she battled a pesky Auburn offense all night and led the Sooners to a second national championship in four years.
Auburn’s Jade Rhodes hit a solo home run in the fourth inning, but that was it as Oklahoma won 2-1 in front of a record crowd of 8,367 for Session 10 at Hall of Fame Stadium.
Parker (38-3) tossed her fifth complete game of the week, allowing five hits and striking out five. Her fourth complete game came two nights ago in a 3-2 win that saw Auburn manage four hits and two runs, both coming in a spine-tingling seventh inning that ended when first baseman Shay Knighten threw out the tying run at home plate to end the game.
“It was one of the most fantastic feelings that I’ve ever had in my whole life,” said Parker, who was named the 2016 WCWS Most Outstanding Player after throwing 36 innings over the last seven days. “Our fans this year have been so vital to all of the things that we’ve done. They’ve supported us so much, and to have all of them here and to have all of our families here, as well, just meant so much to us, and it was just incredible to get to share this feeling with them, as well.”
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Despite a Game 2 loss, Parker got that extra day of rest as Kelsey Stevens and Jayden Chestnut handled the pitching duties.
“Kelsey (Stevens) and Jayden (Chestnut) did a fantastic job yesterday, and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Parker said. “They’ve worked so hard this whole year, and I’m just so proud of the heart and the fight that they showed. You know, after the game they both talked to me, and they were like, go out and do it for the pitching staff. That meant so much to me.”
In Game 3, OU took a 2-0 lead in a bizarre bottom of the first where the ball barely left the infield. Following an infield single by Caleigh Clifton, an Emily Carosone error on a ball hit by Knighten put runners at first and third, but, before the play was dead, Carosone tried to stop a throw she started to make and simply spiked the ball into the dirt, allowing Clifton to score and move Knighten to third. Fale Aviu then grounded one slowly to Auburn shortstop Whitney Jordan, who took too much time throwing to first, and the Sooners had two gift runs and the early advantage.
It was all the Sooner lefty would need.
“I can’t say enough about not just Paige Parker but the whole team playing great defense behind her,” Sooners coach Patty Gasso said. “Tonight was a tribute to a great pitching performance who shut down a very potent offense and a defense that made incredible plays behind her. We came out strong early, scored first, and then we got stagnant, and I will give – (Makayla) Martin did a great job of keeping us a little off balance. I could feel like our bodies looked like they were getting tired, and we just couldn’t get our legs into things and get the ball through the infield.”
Parker worked out of a first-and-second, no-out jam in the top of the second, getting a fielder’s choice and a pair of strikeouts. In the third, an error by Parker started a sequence that saw the Tigers load the bases with no outs. But the sophomore hurler got Carosone swinging, then got an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play to keep the Tigers scoreless.
Clint Myers’s Tigers went 1-2-3 in the seventh and end the season 58-12 with a second straight trip to Oklahoma City. AU made it five-straight years and six of the last seven where a Southeastern Conference squad has played in the championship series in Oklahoma City.
“We lost to an outstanding Oklahoma team, well-coached, great athletes,” said Myers, who led Arizona State to WCWS titles in 2008 and 2011. “We talked at the beginning in August about having the opportunity to be here. We were picked, I believe, to finish sixth in the SEC. We lost to Arizona … people said we couldn’t come back. We came back. We lost the first game to Oklahoma, but we came back. We came up one-run short (tonight).”
All week the Tigers battled, including a miraculous final-inning rally late to beat Georgia, 4-3, on Saturday and a wild 8-7 extra-inning victory over a charging Florida State team on Sunday night. Freshman Makayla Martin (15-4) was the hard-luck loser on Wednesday; the right-hander worked 12.1 innings during the WCWS and allowed just one earned run. The Sooners had five hits off Martin in the finale.
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Gasso wasn’t sure what her 22nd squad in Norman was about early this season after dropping its first two games.
"It was almost panic from the first weekend. All of us were like, wow, wait, what happened? They were scared, very tight, and I think we just started to understand – and they’re going to laugh when I say this word because every time I say it they laugh, but the word freedom is about what this group is about," Gasso said. "The freedom to make mistakes. They can be good mistakes because you can learn from them, and that is why this group can be so loose because they just can play the way they need to play without me pointing my finger in their face or anybody."
Oklahoma won 31 of its last 32 games and finish an incredible 57-8 with a lineup that included four freshmen and three sophomores. OU shut-out Alabama to open the week, held off a late rally by Michigan to win 7-5, and advanced to the championship series with a 7-3 win over LSU on Sunday night.
“I felt our team definitely took the hard road through this,” Gasso said. “We had to open up with Alabama, and that was a very tough game, and then on to -- who did we play next? Michigan, LSU. We played some of the best in the country, so I definitely feel like this team earned every second of our success because they played from the first pitch to the last.”
It’s obvious from a 57-win season and the performance this week that Knighten and fellow freshman third baseman Sydney Romero will give opposing pitching staff fits for the next three years. The infield of Romero, quick-handed sophomore shortstop Kelsey Arnold, Clifton at second, and Knighten at first with Parker in the circle give Gasso a formidable squad.
Florida won back-to-back WCWS titles in 2014 and 2015; the Sooners will be the early favorite for 2017 without question.
“For me, it was more of Coach (Patty Gasso) just not letting me think I was a freshman, and that goes for the whole team,” Knighten said. “They said, well, even though you’re a freshman, you’re going to have to step up one way or another, and so I kind of took that to heart and was like, okay, I’ve got you guys. I’m going to figure this out. Even though I’m a freshman I’m not going to be too big, do anything out of what I’ve already done, and just help you guys to the best of my ability, and I couldn’t thank Coach or the seniors or anybody else on my team enough for it.”