OKLAHOMA CITY — A group of carefree freshmen and sophomores led Oklahoma to the Women's College World Series title a year ago.
This year, the Sooners cared and the game became a chore. Coach Patty Gasso said Oklahoma didn't handle the pressure of high expectations well at first.
"It's very tiring to live in that world," she said. "We, through a lot of work together, pretty much decided this isn't fun."
Gasso told her players to get back to just playing rather than worrying about what others were saying. They responded, and now the Sooners are back at the World Series with a chance to repeat. Oklahoma will play its first game Thursday night against Baylor.
"They all bought in and exhaled and became a very competitive, trusting bunch with each other and enjoyed softball again," Gasso said.
Oklahoma's path to Oklahoma City was difficult. The Sooners had to get through Tulsa's Emily Watson, one of the nation's best pitchers, in regionals. Then, the Sooners played at Auburn, last year's national runner-up, in super regionals.
"To see them step up and face the challenge was exceptional, so I'm extremely proud of this group," Gasso said. "Getting a chance to be back here and being called one of the final eight is quite an honor."
Oklahoma pitcher Paige Parker, last year's WCWS Most Outstanding Player, has a chance to do it all over again and help Oklahoma claim its fourth national title. She has a 23-5 record with a 1.29 ERA.
She has help this year — Paige Lowary has a 15-3 record and Mariah Lopez has a 17-1 mark.
"Having options and having a little bit deeper staff takes a lot of stress off of Paige and keeps her mind a little bit freer and strong, and I think our team feels that, as well," Gasso said.
This road won't be easy, either.
Florida seeks its third national title in four years after missing the event last year. Texas A&M is making its first appearance since 2008. The Aggies won national titles in 1983 and 1987.
Washington, Oregon and UCLA will try to win a title for a current Pac-12 team for the first time since Arizona State won in 2010. LSU is in for the third consecutive year. Baylor stunned No. 2 seed Arizona in super regionals to advance.
Other things to watch:
Florida's pitching staff is the main reasons the Gators earned the top seed.
Sophomore pitcher Kelly Barnhill is USA Softball's national player of the year, and she's only slightly more productive than teammate Delanie Gourley.
Barnhill has a 24-3 record, leads the nation with a 0.36 ERA and has thrown four no-hitters this season. Gourley, a senior, has a 21-4 record and is fourth in the nation with a 0.67 ERA. That gives Florida a one-two punch that will make it difficult to knock the Gators off.
HARRINGTON'S HEARTJust days after her father died, Texas A&M pitcher Trinity Harrington was the winning pitcher in two super regional games against Tennessee to push her team into the World Series.
Harrington missed regionals while spending time with her family, and the team wanted to reach super regionals so she could play again. Texas A&M coach Jo Evans said she was pleased with Harrington's play and how the players supported their teammate.
"A time to grow for us, the silver lining of learning empathy and how to be resilient," Evans said. "Trin has been a great example of that. She came out in our super regional and was phenomenal."
The long ball makes UCLA a threat to win it all.
The Bruins average 1.27 home runs per game, third in the nation. The team's slugging percentage of .526 was sixth nationally.
Delaney Spaulding and Brianna Tautalafua both have 16 homers this season. Madeline Jelenecki has 15 and Bubba Nickles has 10.
Three of the four games on Thursday pit teams from the same conference — Baylor and Oklahoma from the Big 12, Washington and Oregon from the Pac-12 and Florida and Texas A&M from the Southeastern Conference.
Oklahoma went 2-1 against Baylor this season, Washington took two of three at Oregon and Florida and Texas A&M will play for the first time.
The only opening day matchup that doesn't involve two teams from the same conference pits LSU of the SEC against UCLA of the Pac-12.
Unseeded Minnesota, the nation's No. 1 team in the USA Today-NFCA rankings before the NCAA tournament, fell in the regionals. Also notable by their absences are No. 2 seed Arizona (lost to Baylor), No. 4 seed Florida State (LSU), No. 7 Auburn (Oklahoma) and No. 8 Tennessee (Texas A&M).