OKLAHOMA CITY— The two-time defending national softball champion Oklahoma Sooners might be better than ever.
The Sooners blew through the competition to post a 55-3 record and return to the Women's College World Series. The offense, led by freshman power hitter Jocelyn Alo and junior infielder Sydney Romero, led the nation in scoring. Star pitchers Paige Parker and Paige Lowary were exceptional again, helping the Sooners rank second nationally in ERA. Oklahoma backs up its pitchers by leading the nation in fielding percentage.
Now, the fourth-seeded Sooners are trying to join UCLA (1988-90) as the only programs to win three straight. Oklahoma will open World Series play Thursday against No. 5 Washington (49-8).
The Sooners want to approach the tournament as if they are chasing their first title.
"I think the key is not feeling like you're marked," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "We don't think that way. We don't play that way, because there's a lot of teams out there that could say just with the tradition that they have that X on their back. But we just try to go out and give it our best every day."
In other games Thursday, top-seeded Oregon (52-8) will play Pac-12 rival and No. 8 Arizona State (48-11), No. 2 Florida (55-9) will play No. 7 Georgia (48-11), and No. 3 UCLA (56-5) will face No. 6 Florida State (52-11).
Parker already has made her mark in World Series history as the ace during two championship runs. She has posted by far the best season of her career with a 0.86 ERA.
Lowary was the first overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch League Draft, ahead of Parker. With a fastball that reaches the mid-70s on the radar gun, she has 72 strikeouts to just 13 walks in 93 innings.
The Paiges will need to be at their best if Oklahoma is to win again. The top eight seeds made it through to the World Series.
"Probably the toughest top to bottom that I've seen or been a part of in a long time," Gasso said. "There's no easy side. You look either way, it's no easy side."
Here are some things to watch as the event unfolds:
The Pac-12 had a season for the ages. Now, it hopes to return to its past glory.
For years, current Pac-12 schools dominated the sport. UCLA has won 11 national championships and Arizona has eight. The conference won all but one title from 2001 to 2011, but hasn't claimed one since Arizona State's championship in 2011.
This year's event offers as good a chance as any. Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Arizona State all qualified.
Conference play was brutal. For perspective, the No. 5 seed in the WCWS field, Washington, finished fourth in the Pac-12 this season.
UCLA's Rachel Garcia is a first-team All-American pitcher and the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. She has a 27-3 record with a 1.02 ERA and has 273 strikeouts in 185 innings. She also hit .356 with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs.
Oklahoma's Alo is posting one of the best seasons ever for a hitter, and possibly the best season on record for a freshman.
Alo has 28 home runs, two short of the freshman record of 30 set by Hawaii's Kelly Majam in 2010 and matched by Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain in 2012.
Alo is much more than a power hitter. She leads Oklahoma's formidable attack with a .415 batting average and has 10 more home runs than strikeouts.
HOME RUN LEADER
Alo is quite the home run hitter, but the nation's active career leader is Florida State's Jessie Warren. The senior has 81 blasts in her career and is tied for 10th in the nation this season with 19.
Warren recently was named ACC Player of the Year. She is the second player to be named All-ACC first team in four straight seasons.
With Georgia outfielder Cortni Emanuel's pedigree and success, it wouldn't be surprising if she left her mark on the WCWS.
The nation's active leader in hits just won the New Balance/NFCA Golden Shoe Award as the nation's top base stealer with 51 steals in 56 tries this season.
Emanuel is following in some large footsteps. Her father, Bert, had 4,852 yards and 28 touchdowns receiving in the NFL. His best seasons were with the Atlanta Falcons.