OKLAHOMA CITY — THE TEARS and hugs and group photos were taking so long that the grounds crew couldn’t wait any longer. So they got to work, digging up the chalk lines with shovels and sweeping confetti into a pile with rakes. Then they ran over the collection of crimson and white and gold paper with a Billy Goat lawn mower, shredding it and shredding it and shredding it until it was indistinguishable from the dirt.

Backpack blowers wheezed in the background as the Oklahoma Sooners lingered in the outfield, their families and friends joining in on the celebration that so many of them had become accustomed to by now.

Three championships in three years. Six championships in 10 seasons. Seven championships in total.

Jayda Coleman, a junior who has known nothing but national titles, understood the drill when Jordy Bahl struck out the final batter and Oklahoma beat Florida State, 3-1, to win the championship series. She raced from her spot in center field to join the dog pile that seemed to form in the blink of an eye between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.

It was fun, Coleman said later, watching the newcomers figure out where to be and how to behave.

“Just to see the joy of the transfers and the freshmen, for them, that’s what I love,” she said.

For the players on the field, this didn’t feel stale or expected or … unfair.

Their dominance might irk others, particularly the way they hoard talent. There’s a phrase for it internally: Oklahoma fatigue. They could sense it building with each passing win, an NCAA-record 53 and counting.

The additions of Alex Storako, Haley Lee, Cydney Sanders and Alynah Torres this past offseason — all either all-conference or All-American picks at their previous schools — prompted superteam comparisons and made their critics that much more vocal.

Sooners coach Patty Gasso heard the breathless questions from reporters and fans: Why do you need that?

Well, she explained during an interview earlier this year, it’s simple. She had scholarships available, she said, and why would she go after the second-best player? “That makes no sense,” she said. “I go after the best as long as they fit.”

Parity isn’t her concern.

“Is that good for the game?” Gasso asked. “It’s good for job security. It’s kind of like UConn women’s basketball and winning the championship how many years in a row? And people are like, ‘This is boring’ or ‘This is not good for the women’s game to have an elite team.’ But it’s our job, and I think for sport connoisseurs, they want to see what greatness looks like.”

This is the story of how greatness happens — the players who are drawn to it and the coach who has built a program that has the rest of softball competing for second place.

STORAKO CRIED AS she embraced pitching coach Jennifer Rocha.

“Thank you so much,” she said.

A moment later, she and fifth-year senior shortstop Grace Lyons locked eyes, held hands and, jumping up and down, screamed in unison, “We did it! We did it!”

Around and around Storako went, grinning as she wore a championship T-shirt and hat that a year ago felt unattainable.

And to think, she wasn’t sure what to expect when she decided to transfer from Michigan last May. Honestly, she said, she feared no one would call. But six minutes after she entered the portal, her phone rang and showed an Oklahoma City area code. Then Gasso introduced herself.

The pause that ensued might have lasted only a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. Storako whispered to her sister and roommate who it was.

The days that followed were some of the most stressful of her life, she said, because she was still torn about leaving Michigan. She loved the school and the community and the life she’d built there. But she was losing the spark she used to feel for softball — the sense that she was growing and building toward something. She felt that she’d maxed out and, on top of that, she felt the weight of having to carry the team.

“The pressure to perform — every pitch, day in and day out — it takes a different kind of wear-and-tear on you, mentally and physically,” Storako said.

So rather than hang up her cleats — which she said she considered doing — Storako opted for a fresh start elsewhere. And before her official visit to Oklahoma was over, she knew it was home. She immediately called Florida, Florida State and Alabama and canceled her visits. At the Oklahoma City airport, she posted on social media that she’d committed to OU.

That’s when the backlash began.

Storako, the former Big Ten Player of the Year, said she was “greatly criticized” for joining the defending champs.

“I was called ‘Kevin Durant,'” she said, referencing the star NBA forward and the criticism he received when he went to the Golden State Warriors in search of his first championship. “I was questioned whether I was getting an under-the-table NIL deal, which I think is unfortunate because these people asking that don’t know my personality and the way I grew up and play the game.

“I wasn’t a big recruit coming out of high school. I worked hard to get where I am.”

Lee could relate. Not only did she hear the criticism from fans, leading her to shut off all her social media notifications, she heard it from coaches as well. Like the one coach who told her, “You’ll just be another number on their roster.” Or the other coach who said, “The program’s already built. You don’t want to just jump on the train.”

It’s as if everyone assumed the transition would be easy — that Lee wasn’t stepping far outside her comfort zone, that she wasn’t going to be battling for a spot in the starting lineup, that she wasn’t going to feel the pressure to live up to expectations. If all went well, Lee would be replacing Jocelyn Alo, the 2022 Player of the Year and the NCAA career home run leader, as the designated player.

“OU works hard, and works differently than a lot of schools,” Lee said. “So if I was willing to grind, put in the sweat and tears that it takes, then this was a spot for me.

“And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it since.”

Storako’s joy for the game was back when she started the decisive game of the championship series Thursday. She screamed in celebration and danced between innings.

She didn’t have to do it all herself. In the bottom of the fourth, she cheered on Coleman when she leapt at the center field wall and yanked back a would-be three-run homer. Coleman shouted to Storako: “I got you!”

When Storako gave up a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth, her teammates picked her up the very next inning as Sanders and Lyons hit back-to-back solo home runs to take the lead.

Forget getting her 18th win of the season. She got the thing she’d been chasing all along: A championship ring.

“There are a lot of dreams that came true tonight,” Gasso said. “Alex Storako is definitely one of them.”

GASSO SAT AT the far side of the podium during Thursday night’s postgame news conference and turned to the seats Coleman, Bahl and Tiare Jennings had recently vacated.

“Looking at all these guys coming back, they’re the future,” she said.

Then she paused, as if trying to will herself from the inevitable work that awaits tomorrow.

“I don’t even want to think about it right now because the grind will start again,” she said.

Make no mistake, though, Gasso enjoys every bit of it.

“I’ve been doing this here for 29 years,” she said. “It’s not a job. It’s life.”

A similar scene played out last year when Gasso said she was “swallowed up” by the emotion of the moment — the team and family photos, the parade of thank-yous and congratulations.

She sighed and explained how, “you just kind of get stuck with that.”

There was frustration in her voice because she was ready for everyone to get the celebration out of their system. She needed them to move on to the question that had been gnawing at her for weeks: How do I keep this going?

To compete at Oklahoma’s level, there’s no choice but to think that way. Consider Alabama football coach Nick Saban and how he once complained that playing for a championship — and winning — cost him a week in recruiting.

“You high-five, you hug and then you move,” Gasso said. “You just move.” Remember, Alo was on her way out the door a year ago. So were All-Big 12 pitcher Hope Trautwein and four other seniors.

Gasso had already signed a freshman class that included Extra Innings’ No. 1-ranked prospect, Kierston Deal. But how long would it take for the newcomers to acclimate? To avoid any chance of a dip, Gasso needed the kind of ready-made talent only the transfer portal could offer.

That process began before the WCWS started. And it continued with her making calls to Storako and other targets between games at the WCWS.

Gasso said it’s a common misconception that the coaches pick whichever player they want, wait until the season ends and scoop them up like a cheeseburger at a takeout counter. They can’t wait and risk that player going elsewhere. Nor can they jump the gun and take a player without doing their due diligence, studying video and calling trusted sources to get a sense of whether they’re a good cultural fit.

Gasso estimated they walk away from 30% of prospects because they spot a red flag in the evaluation process. The balance of team chemistry and talent is that important, she said, because it’s the newcomers who have to fit into Oklahoma, not the other way around. Storako might have been Michigan’s ace, but she had to be OK with being the No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Torres was a star shortstop for Arizona State, but Gasso needed her in right field.

Depth is everything. Gasso’s goal is to have two quality athletes at each position, but this season was different. During fall intrasquad scrimmages, Gasso said, “It felt like two top-10 teams playing against each other.”

Then, early in the season, Gasso said she did something new: She called timeout and substituted essentially the entire defense. “And it was kind of prideful to see — the depth and hard work — that I didn’t feel uncomfortable doing it,” she said.

It was also pragmatic because she needed everyone engaged in order to get back to the championship series. She needed Sophia Nugent to come off the bench and deliver a pinch-hit RBI against Clemson. She needed Sanders to weather an early-season slump, be OK not starting a few games and bounce back during the NCAA tournament to drive in seven runs.

It’s a unique challenge managing such a deep roster — one that other coaches surely envy — but it’s a challenge, nonetheless.

“I need to keep these young players learning the game, playing the game, feeling the game — at an elite level,” Gasso said. “I’m trying to keep feeding them because I need them. They’re my future.”

And the future is bright.

In November, Oklahoma signed what Gasso called a “monumental” class that featured the country’s third-, fourth- and sixth-ranked recruits.

Lyons, Storako and Lee have played their final games, but who knows what star is waiting in the portal to replace them?

She can hear the groans about fairness now, even as she tries not to think about next season.

“Everybody’s out to get us,” Gasso said from that far end of the podium. “They want to bring down the Evil Empire.”

IN 2016, WHEN UConn was dominating women’s basketball to the tune of 72 straight wins and three straight national championships, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma had an answer for critics who said they were ruining the game.

“When Tiger [Woods] was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf,” he said. “Actually he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer.”

The growth of college softball in recent years — 24 schools averaged more than 1,000 fans per game last season, up six from five years earlier, and 1.74 million people tuned in to watch the WCWS final last year, roughly 150,000 more than the men’s final — suggests that what the Sooners have accomplished is good for the sport. But parity is a legitimate concern when Oklahoma is winning 28 games by mercy rule and has a run differential of +442.

“It’s always healthy to have several teams with a shot to be the top program,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. “And they’ve really separated themselves. Everybody else, I’ll tell you, is playing for No. 2.”

And that’s coming from the only coach to beat Oklahoma during the regular season — a 4-3 win in February.

Two months later, the Bears were swept in a three-game series by the Sooners with a combined score of 13-0.

“Patty has just figured out how to do it,” Moore said. “There’s something to be said about staying on top because everybody is shooting for you and saying things that will hurt your recruiting, and she continues to bring in those magnificent, All-American type players.”

It’s hard enough to overcome the pipeline Gasso and her staff have established with certain travel ball programs. But throw in their use of the transfer portal and it’s borderline insurmountable.

Liberty coach Dot Richardson said she’s fine with players transferring when they aren’t seeing the field enough at their current school. But what she sees now is starters who are going into the portal and saying, “I just hope I get picked up by Oklahoma.”

“I look at some of their pitchers who are threes or fours and go, ‘If you were here, we would go to the World Series this year,'” Richardson said. “They can pick and choose and say, ‘This is the best one.’ And then they’ll get her.”

It happened last season when Oklahoma brought in Trautwein from North Texas. Storako said Trautwein was a model for her decision to leave Michigan.

With a new head coach, the Wolverines missed the NCAA tournament for first time since 1994.

“Everybody wants close games, the excitement of the College World Series,” Gasso said. “They want extra innings, they want that, ‘Oh, I’m on the edge of my seat’ thing. And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s great, but I’m not here for your enjoyment.’

“Our goal, like any other team’s goal, is to win.”

Richardson helped UCLA take home the first of seven championships from 1982 to 1992. And she saw how that dynasty eventually fizzled out. She saw it happen again at Arizona and again at Florida.

“Someone will throw the queen off the throne,” Richardson said. “It’s going to happen. So will her run take her to eight, 10, 12 championships? I don’t know.”

Moore believes, “Rome will fall … eventually.”

“Honestly it only takes a few mistakes in recruiting to take them off that pedestal,” he said. “There’s a lot of programs out there investing a ton. So two years from now it could look completely different.”

As for next season, don’t bet against the Sooners.

Oklahoma is at 53 wins and counting, three championships and counting.

On and on it goes.

“Momentum,” former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said, “is the next day’s starting pitcher.”

But when that pitcher next season is Bahl or Nicole May or Deal — and the second baseman is Jennings and the center fielder is Coleman — it’s hard to imagine the freight train that is Oklahoma slowing down.

Players and coaches didn’t seem to be in a hurry to return to Norman on Thursday night, but the team buses exited the stadium and left something important behind: the national championship trophy.

A staff member who drove separately was able to grab it for safekeeping, but maybe he could have left it behind and picked it up, same time next year.

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Oklahoma softball: Dynasty, superteam, 2023 WCWS champion