Greatness doesn’t take days off.
Even when it’s hot and humid and things aren’t going exactly right and the ball keeps bouncing exactly the wrong way, greatness shows up. It finds a way. It believes, even when down to its final strike, with a chance at making history fading away, “We’re never out of a game. No matter what.”
Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso uttered those words Saturday afternoon after her team showed once again what greatness looks like. She left her tears on the field and explained to reporters how her team came back from three runs down to beat Clemson in extra innings, win the super regional, advance to the Women’s College World Series and set an NCAA record with 48 straight victories.
“We could be down by five, four, whatever,” Gasso said. “We’re not out of the game. And we believe that.
“Can we do this? I guess we can. They don’t doubt it.”
Who would at this point? Oklahoma has been greatness personified in college softball for the past decade. It won 41 straight games in 2019 and 40 in a row in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
There’s a chance that OU becomes the first team ever to lead Division I in runs per game, ERA and fielding percentage in the same season.
When Kinzie Hansen launched the tying three-run homer over the left-field wall against Clemson — facing an 0-2 count against USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Valerie Cagle, on Gasso’s 61st birthday — it had the distinct air of inevitability.
Running around the bases faster than she had her entire life, Hansen said, “I knew right then and there, this team is not done in 2023 until we decide we’re done.”
On Thursday, Oklahoma will begin the WCWS as the overwhelming favorite to win a third straight national championship. They have the best pitching staff, the best everyday lineup and the best defense in the country. The numbers don’t lie.
It has been 102 days since the Sooners last lost a softball game. But the 48-game winning streak they’re on is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their dominance this season. During this streak, they have three times as many wins by double-digit runs (12) as they do wins by one run (4).
“There’s such little margin for error when you play Oklahoma,” Clemson coach John Rittman told reporters after the super regionals. “You can’t make too many mistakes. We were just one strike away from winning the game. We didn’t get that 21st out when we needed it.”
Oklahoma advances to WCWS on Jennings’ 9th-inning HR
Tiare Jennings hits Oklahoma’s 5th home run of the game to send the Sooners to the WCWS.
Only one team has felt the relief of securing that final out. Back in February, Baylor dealt Oklahoma its lone loss on the season, a 4-3 defeat in Waco.
“Well,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said, “first of all, I don’t think one win puts you anywhere near the level that they are on. So I don’t feel like I’m all knowing in the fact that we had some success against them.
“We’ve actually played them well many times. As you look at the record, it’s terrible … but everybody else’s is too.”
Baylor won that first game. But then Oklahoma swept the Bears at home during a three-game series in April. The combined score: 13-0. No team has beaten Oklahoma twice in the same season since 2019.
So, no, Moore has no illusions that he has all the answers to toppling the reigning dynasty in softball. But he’s as good a place to start as anywhere.
The key, he said, is preparation. And maybe it’s not as much about X’s and O’s as it is having the right mental approach, which involves telling the truth.
“I tell the team that I just want competition. I want to set them up for success,” Moore said. “And doing that with OU, I think winning is improbable. So if that’s going to be your measure of success, then you’re setting your team up for failure most of the time.
“In order to have the possibility of success, you’ve got to break it down into smaller victories.”
Moore stressed to his players that they should play to their standard, respect the competition and take any advantage they can.
“And in the event that a team like OU doesn’t come fully prepared — and I’m not saying that was the case the night we beat them — but in the event that they don’t bring their best game, if they’re the better team, then you be prepared to take advantage of that,” he said. “On that night, we were ready.”
In terms of limiting Oklahoma’s offense, Moore said the key was to try to throw off the batters’ timing at the plate.
The Sooners rank first in batting average (.372), scoring (8.39 runs per game), home runs per game (1.96) and slugging percentage (.683). They have five different players with at least 10 home runs and 45 RBIs.
But during the loss to Baylor, Oklahoma had no home runs and left nine runners on base.
“We were probably one or two outs away from losing this game, but it ran out at the right time and we caught a fly ball in center field,” Moore said.
Moore said the key to beating the Sooners was keeping their batters guessing. He had Dariana Orme pitch through the lineup twice in four innings before paving the way to Aliyah Binford, “who has one of the top change-ups in the country and just really kept them out of balance for the rest of the game.”
The WCWS field is filled with dominant pitchers Oklahoma has yet to face this year, like Stanford’s Freshman of the Year NiJaree Canady and her league-leading 0.48 ERA, Alabama ace Montana Fouts or Tennessee’s trio of Ashley Rogers, Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens, who have collectively held batters to a .151 batting average.
“I think the change of speed and out-guessing their timing is key in beating that lineup if you’re going to have a chance,” Moore said.
On the flip side, you have to make OU’s pitchers work. Their team ERA is a Division I best 1.00. The next best is Tennessee at 1.48.
And the Sooners have three legitimate aces.
Nicole May is 18-0 with a 0.82 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 102⅓ innings.
Jordy Bahl is 18-1 with 1.08 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 122⅔ innings.
Alex Storako is 17-0 with 1.13 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 99 innings.
Get into the bullpen and find Kierston Deal, the former No. 1 recruit with a 0.78 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 27 innings and an opponents’ batting average of .160.
Again, it’s about small victories.
When Baylor beat Oklahoma, it had only five hits against Bahl. But the Bears worked each at bat — six strikeouts isn’t bad considering Bahl averages 9.1 per seven innings — and forced a pair of walks, plus a free pass on a hit by pitch.
“We saw Jordy Bahl and were trying to make her throw pitches that were hittable,” Moore said. “A lot of times she gets people out because she’s deceptive and keeps the offense swinging at pitches that aren’t hittable. And she can throw it down the middle and be tough enough. But if you make her throw in the zone, you have a much better chance of putting some balls in play.”
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When Bahl left a pitch over the heart of the plate on a 1-1 count, Shaylon Govan pounced, launching a three-run home run to left field.
“I think our discipline was key,” Moore said.
The problem, which showed up in the subsequent three-game series, is that Oklahoma doesn’t make that many mistakes, especially in the field. The Sooners’ .988 fielding percentage (16 errors in 1,374 chances) leads the country and is currently on pace to set the single-season record.
Which is why Moore is comfortable celebrating one win out of four chances this season. Beating Oklahoma is that big a deal.
“It’s pretty rare,” he said, laughing. “Pretty rare.”
That fact isn’t lost on Stanford, which faces Oklahoma on Thursday. The Cardinal lost to the Sooners 10-1 in February.
Stanford coach Jessica Allister said the Cardinal will revisit the game and learn what they can from the film. But she pointed out how they’re both different teams now.
“There’s a lot of ball that’s been played since then,” she said.
And a lot of Oklahoma wins.
Five more and the Sooners will complete a rare three-peat.
As Gasso said immediately following the Clemson game, everyone expects OU to come out on top.
“The amount of pressure is pretty insurmountable. And we keep standing up to it.”
WCWS 2023: Is Oklahoma softball’s dominance inevitable?