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Spotlight Shines On Title-Winning Sooners
NORMAN -- The morning of June 7, the Oklahoma softball team was riding its school-record 31-game winning streak and was one victory away from claiming its third NCAA championship this millennium under coach Patty Gasso.
Fully utilizing a wicked combination of offense, defense and pitching, the Sooners had steamrolled their way through the postseason with a 9-0 record and had trailed only once – 1-0 for the top half of the first inning – before scoring three runs in their first at-bat against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Super Regional.
OU went 3-0 in its first-round Regional at Marita Hynes Field, outscoring Wichita State and Ole Miss by a combined 19-3 in 19 innings. The Sooners then swept ULL in the best-of-3 Super Regional in Norman to make the program’s 10th Women’s College World Series appearance and their fifth in the last six years.
Victories over Alabama, Michigan and LSU in the first three games of the WCWS at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City were simply a continuation of OU’s wrath. The No. 3-seeded Sooners hadn’t lost in more than two months. From April 29 to May 26, they had never even trailed in a game.
RUNNING ON FUMES
Through games played June 6, OU sophomore pitcher Paige Parker had overwhelmed opponents, running her overall season record to 37-3 and her postseason mark to 9-0. Parker also had been backed by the nation’s No. 1 team in both batting average (.354) and fielding percentage (.985).
With the Sooners just 21 outs away from the crown, Parker understandably was running on fumes, having thrown 958 postseason pitches to that point. That June 7 morning, fresh off OU’s 3-2 opening victory over Auburn in the best-of-3 championship series the night before, Gasso had a chat with her First Team All-American left-hander.
“I talked to Paige about what was left in her gas tank. ‘What do you have left?’ ” Gasso explained. “The night before, she said she had 50 percent in her tank, which was barely enough to win because they (the Tigers) were starting to get on her late in the game. The next morning she said, ‘I have 30 percent left in my tank,’ which was not enough against Auburn. We all knew that. I said, ‘You know what we need to do.’ Paige said, ‘Yes, and I agree with what you’re saying.’ ”
Choosing to rest Parker in Game 2 of the best-of-3 championship series was not determined solely by the pitcher and head coach. Gasso made it a team decision by promptly discussing the matter with her staff and players.
"Paige said, ‘If I can get to 90 percent, I can beat anybody,’"
— Patty Gasso
“I went in and talked to the team. The pitchers were not part of the group at this point,” Gasso said. “I told them what we were going to do, and our team was puuuumped. They were fired up and smiling and excited for our other pitchers to get a chance to make a difference in the next game.
"Then I went in and talked to the pitchers, and they were just gleaming from ear-to-ear that they were going to get this opportunity. Everybody was on-board and everybody wanted in. Our players came out and scored so fast (taking a 7-0 lead in the second inning). That was their plan. They were saying it out loud, ‘We’re going to come out and we’re going to get on them quick. We’re going to get out early and try to get our pitchers settled early,’ and they did.”
Auburn responded with five runs in the bottom of the second and two more in the fourth to tie the game at 7. Gasso admitted there was still a scenario where Parker might have pitched. With the score still tied at 7, Parker headed to the bullpen and started warming up in the sixth inning.
“If we could have scored a couple runs after the 7-7 tie, we were ready (to send in Parker),” Gasso said. “We wanted her to be prepared if we scored, but if we were tied and went into extra innings, it would have completely blown the (initial) plan. It was very specific. We were very calculated in what we wanted to do. If we had to surrender this game, at least we’ll have a shot the next night. But we won’t have a shot at all if we keep throwing her out there with nothing left in her tank.”
The Tigers went on to win 11-7 on Emily Carosone’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the eighth. OU freshman right-hander Jayden Chestnut replaced senior Kelsey Stevens in the second inning and wound up taking her only loss of the season (9-1). For Stevens and Chesnut, it was their first pitching appearance since May 14 against Oklahoma State.
“Jayden and Kelsey, they did their jobs,” freshman first baseman Shay Knighten said. “They did all they could do. We couldn’t have asked anything better from them. We were behind them 100 percent as a team and Paige was there behind them, too. It was about allowing them to play and not worrying about ‘What if Paige were here (pitching).’”
The following day, a replenished Parker said her tank was at 90 percent for the title tilt. “And Paige said, ‘If I can get to 90 percent, I can beat anybody,’ ” Gasso said.
And Parker did, posting a 2-1 victory over Auburn in the championship game on June 8.
When it comes to her health, Parker said she’s forthright with Gasso.
“I was pretty honest with them (coaches) at that point,” Parker said of her game-day update. “Coach and I had a conversation in the morning. I was just willing to do whatever was right for the team. It was a team decision. Kelsey and Jayden left their heart out on that field.”
This much is certain, Parker never tries to pace herself through fatigue.
“Every pitch is all-out,” she said. “Pacing yourself, I don’t think you would be able to have much success doing that because of the level of the hitters that you’re facing every day at the World Series. It was just all-out every pitch and, as much as I could, not letting fatigue cross my mind during the game.”
THE NAIVETY OF YOUTH
Parker’s exhaustion could not prevent the Sooners from getting fitted for their third championship ring. Nor could back-to-back losses that began their season, nor could an 8-4 overall start, nor could having a roster overwhelmed with eight freshmen.
“I wasn’t too worried after that (slow start) because obviously we had some new faces on the team,” Parker said. “We just needed to settle down and find out who we are as a team. I think we started to do that toward the middle of the season. Even at the beginning of the season I knew this team was something special just because of our team dynamic, our team chemistry, just because of how we got along. We kind of needed to get our feet wet at the beginning of the year. Once we did that, it was go time and we really hit our stride. All cylinders started to click.”
Mother Nature was another obstacle that potentially could have stalled OU’s momentum entering the WCWS. After playing the first 1½ innings, a rain delay postponed the Sooners’ opening-round game against Alabama for roughly 24 hours, but OU responded with a 3-0 victory thanks to Knighten’s walk-off 3-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning that shoved the Sooners into the winner’s bracket.
Knighten said staying focused was the key to her enduring what could have been a stressful delay.
“I wasn’t going to look at my surroundings until it was over,” she explained of her final at-bat. “It was to try and help me settle in, not to think too big. Try to think of it as any other game like I normally would. Because we were able to get that first inning and a half in (the day before), it probably helped us relax more. We weren’t pressing as much once we knew the rains were coming. Just figured it out from there.”
Asked for the best way to pass the time during a rain delay, Knighten said, “For us, it’s just listening to music, laughing, playing jokes. We don’t really try to do too much. Just spend time with each other in the last few moments of the season we have together.”
Parker said the rain delay, “didn’t really matter much to us. We stayed loose during the break. Once they ended up calling the game, we were like, ‘OK, we’ll come back out tomorrow, come out strong and not worry too much about that inning and a half. We hung out in the workroom underneath. We played some games. We had fun with each other.”
After stumbling out of the gate to begin the season, the Sooners closed with remarkable consistency. Gasso said one constant was key.
"I truly felt our defense won us this championship. We were so solid. Never rattled. Never pushed. Never pressed."
— Patty Gasso
“The defense was something spectacular,” she explained. “You hear football coaches all the time say defense wins championships. Well in our sport, pitching wins championships. I truly felt our defense won us this championship. We were so solid. Never rattled. Never pushed. Never pressed. The defense was so solid and the offense just executed everything I asked. They always found a way.”
Four rookies wound up being key everyday contributors in Knighten, second baseman Caleigh Clifton, third baseman Sydney Romero and designated player Fale Aviu.
“That’s what’s great about young players. They’re unpredictable and they stayed in that mindset of just getting better,” said first-year assistant coach JT Gasso, Patty’s son who previously served as an OU graduate assistant from 2012-13.
Parker gave props to the senior class for serving as a welcoming committee for the newcomers.
“They’re all incredible athletes,” Parker said of the freshmen. “They really came into their own even before this season started. The seniors did such a great job of welcoming them on to the team. I think they felt free to play like they knew how to play. They did such a fantastic job of coming into their own and not being too freaked out or anything like that. I’m just so proud of our freshmen and how they came in this year. They didn’t play as freshmen.”
Knighten, who beat Alabama in both meetings this season with walk-off home runs, led the Sooners in hitting (.397), slugging percentage (.670), home runs (13), RBI (62) and was selected as a Second Team All-American at-large player. A product of Sunny Hills High School in Buena Park, Calif., Knighten said she felt comfortable from the start.
“I remember that vividly,” Knighten said of the seniors’ unselfishness. “They said, ‘We know there’s eight of you guys and we’re not going to treat you any differently. You’re on our team for a reason. You belong here just like we all belong here.’
"They didn’t want us to feel the pressure of freshmen needing to step up. They knew it would take some time for us to get adjusted. If you’re not sure of something, ask. It was a feeling of ‘don’t let what’s going on around you keep you from playing the game you all love and have played your whole life.’ To us, age doesn’t matter. It’s about playing a sport we’re passionate about. A lot of us went over to their house just to hang out. Anything they could do to make us feel more comfortable, they did.”
STEPPING INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
Last season ended prematurely for the powerful Sooners with back-to-back losses at the Alabama Super Regional. Then came the departure of the most prolific home-run duo in Division I history in Lauren Chamberlain (an NCAA record 95 career home runs) and Shelby Pendley (84). Attempting to replace all that power and might with a slew of first-year teenagers didn’t exactly spawn national title aspirations for 2016.
“We weren’t like, ‘Hey, national championship. Here we come,’” JT Gasso said of the team’s preseason attitude. “It was more like, ‘Hey, every game we play, we’re going to fight. We’re going to battle. We’re going to compete. We’re going to find ways to win.’ It just so happened we did that 31 straight times into the championship series. The idea of getting better every day, the girls totally gravitated toward it.”
"The idea of getting better every day, the girls totally gravitated toward it."
— JT Gasso
The previous generation of OU teams hammered opponents into submission with the long ball. Not this year’s team, which ranked 29th nationally in home runs per game.
“I knew I had to come in with something different,” Patty Gasso said of her team’s new offensive approach. “I kind of presented it to the team. The coaching staff knew pretty much what it wanted to do. Not only was the team new, but so was the coaching staff (with the additions of JT Gasso, volunteer assistant Andrea Gasso and graduate assistant Jackie Bishop).
"It was creating a different culture to really buy in and kind of start over. We know the tradition in this program, but this was a new beginning in many ways. Our offense was going to have to change in the direction of more contact and an attacking style of hitting. I was calling two-strike, two-out, bases-loaded squeeze plays with everyone asking, ‘What are you doing?’ When you go into a tournament like that, my attitude was, ‘You know what, let’s just go for it.’ ”
The players quickly embraced this kamikaze plan of attack. Some Sooners even joked they didn’t know exactly what to expect from their Mad Scientist head coach.
“It’s fun,” said the immensely talented Knighten. “Going back to the basics of softball – sacrifice bunting, sacrifice flies, hit-by-pitches, taking those walks, ground ball to the right side to move the runner – I think the basics of softball are so much fun to watch and for us it’s fun to be a part of. We’re always going to try to do something. And if it doesn’t work out, we know we have the whole lineup to try to figure it out. Coach makes it a game within a game for us. We’re all so competitive, we want to win each challenge that’s given to us.”
OU played four different teams the first four days of the WCWS and then closed out with two more championship series games against Auburn. In the end, four different scouting reports had evolved into one.
“For me, a variety is fun,” Knighten said of playing a different team every outing. “It’s a challenge each and every day. You face pitchers who have different things. That’s the fun of the game, if you face more than one pitcher. If you get a different look, I think it betters you as a hitter because you’re not sure what’s coming. You’ve really got to think what’s coming next rather than knowing what’s coming.”
This year’s Sooners became champions, despite a dozen players being either freshmen or sophomores. Needless to say, there will be championship pressure for an encore next season, and the next, and the next.
“I don’t know if we understand what mess we just got ourselves into because all eyes are going to be on the Sooners next year, I’m assuming,” Gasso said with a laugh. “We’ve got to approach it the right way. But no one has even mentioned next year since we won because they’re still on Cloud Nine. The freshmen working our camps right now are all laughing and having a good time – although they’re tired. They’re still tired.”
But just like Parker, they’re not too tired to win.
Oklahoma Softball Earns No. 3 National Seed
NORMAN -- Winner of five straight Big 12 championships, the Oklahoma softball team (47-7, 17-1 Big 12) has earned the No. 3 overall seed in the 2016 NCAA Division I Softball Championship and will host an NCAA Regional in Norman beginning Friday.
The No. 3 seed is the highest for OU since being No. 1 and winning the national championship in 2013. Oklahoma has been a national seed for each of the past 10 seasons.
The four-team, three-day event features Tulsa (35-19, 9-9 American) facing Ole Miss (39-20, 11-13 SEC) at 5:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN3, before Oklahoma takes on Wichita State (35-19, 18-6 Missouri Valley) at 8 p.m. Friday night on ESPN.
Friday's winners will square off in the first of three games Saturday, while Friday's losing teams will face off in an elimination game for game two of Saturday's tripleheader. The loser of Saturday's first game will take on the winner of the day's second game in an elimination game later Saturday night. The winner of Saturday's final game will take on the winner of the day's first game on Sunday with an if necessary rematch scheduled for later on Sunday.
Oklahoma, which claimed its 13th Big 12 title this season and is on a nation's best 22-game win streak, owns a 45-7 all-time record against Wichita State. The Sooners have won 32 straight against the Shockers, OU's longest active winning streak against another opponent. The teams met earlier this year on April 6 with Oklahoma winning 10-1 in five innings.
The Sooners also faced Tulsa earlier this season, earning a 4-1 victory on May 4. Oklahoma is 39-10 all-time against the Golden Hurricane, including five straight wins where OU has outscored Tulsa 20-3. Oklahoma is 3-0 all-time against Ole Miss, though the teams have not met since the 2000 season.
The winner of this weekend's regional will advance to the NCAA Super Regional round against the winner of the Lafayette Regional, hosted by Louisiana Lafayette, the following weekend with an ultimate goal of reaching the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma has made the NCAA tournament in every year of head coach Patty Gasso's 22 seasons at the helm of the program and in 23 straight seasons overall. Last season, Oklahoma reached the Super Regionals for a sixth consecutive year.
General admission all-session tickets for the 2016 NCAA Softball Norman Regional are on sale online at SoonerSports.com and over the phone beginning at 10 a.m. Monday morning at (405) 325-2424 or (800) 456-GoOU.
Prices are $25 for general admission adult all-session tickets and $20 for general admission youth (2-18 year old, OU student & senior citizen 55 years and older) all-session tickets. Each day of the regional is considered one session and a session ticket is good for all games in one day. Children under one year of age are admitted free. OU students will have to purchase an OU student ticket for this event as it is an NCAA sponsored tournament.
Single-session tickets, if availability remains, will not go on sale until the first day of the tournament at the Oklahoma Softball Complex box office. Single session tickets are $15 for reserved tickets, $10 for general admission adult tickets and $8 for general admission youth/OU student/senior citizen tickets.
Orders will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis and are subject to availability.
By Karl Anderson
Assistant Director of Communications
JANUARY 08, 2016
OU SOFTBALL: PARKER'S WEEKEND NETS MULTIPLE HONORS
NORMAN – In helping the No. 12/9 Oklahoma softball team to a 4-0 record last week, sophomore pitcher Paige Parker has been named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Week, the ESPNW National Player of the Week and the Big 12 Pitcher of the Week.
Parker earned all four wins last week for No. 12/9 Oklahoma, including a three-game sweep at then-No. 19/18 Baylor to put the Sooners in first place in the Big 12. It was the first time Baylor had been swept in a three-game series at home since the sport was reintroduced in 1996 at the school.
For the week, she threw three complete games in four starts with a 0.81 earned run average as she gave up just three earned runs in 26.0 innings. Parker struck out 19 and walked six while opponents hit just .234 off her.
This is the second time in her career that Parker has been named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Week, also earning the honor for the week of April 6 last year. She joins former Sooner Keilani Ricketts as the only players in program history to win the award more than once.
Parker now has three Big 12 Pitcher of the Week honors this season, previously winning on March 15 and Feb. 23. It was also the 10th such honor of her career, putting her alone in fifth place all-time in league annals behind Texas' Cat Osterman (25), Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts (16), Texas' Blaire Luna (13) and Missouri's Chelsea Thomas (12).
A native of Independence, Mo., Parker began the week with 4.0 shutout innings against Wichita State as she struck out four and walked one.
Baylor had been shut out just once entering the weekend, but Parker did it in consecutive games. In the series opener, she struck out five and walked three in tossing her seventh shutout of the year. The Bears had scoring opportunities in the second and third innings, stranding a runner on third in the former and runners on the corners in the latter. Parker ended both frames with a strikeout. Baylor’s Kyla Walker and Shelby Friudenberg combined to go 4-7 (.571), but the rest of the team was just 1-17 (.059) against Parker.
Parker was flat-out dominant for OU Saturday, throwing a career-high 8.0 innings to record her eighth shutout of the season. She now has 17 in her career, tying her for ninth in OU history despite being only a sophomore. She struck out six and gave up just four hits with no walks. Baylor was shut out in back-to-back games for the first time since the second and third games of the 2013 season. The Lady Bears didn’t get a runner past first base, and after a leadoff single by Caitlin Charlton in the fifth, Parker retired the final 12 batters she faced.
Entering Sunday's game with a 28.0 inning scoreless streak, Parker tacked on 2.1 more frames before Baylor ended the streak at a career-high 30.1 innings dating back to Friday night against Kansas. It was her seventh career streak of at least 20.0 scoreless innings. Parker is now 17-3 on the season as she gave up four runs (three earned) with two walks and 11 hits allowed. She also struck out four to earn a win in her ninth consecutive start as the Sooners won 7-4.
On the season, Parker is 17-3 with a 1.66 ERA in 122.0 innings. She’s struck out 136 batters against just 33 walks, has thrown eight shutouts and has held opponents to a batting average of .187.
By Karl Anderson
Assistant Director of Communications
JANUARY 08, 2016
MILLER, PARKER NAMED TO TOP 50 WATCH LIST
NORMAN – Oklahoma senior outfielder Erin Miller and sophomore pitcher Paige Parker were each named to the Top 50 Watch List for the 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award, the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) of America and USA Softball announced Wednesday.
Miller is coming off the best season of her career as she set career highs in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.409), runs (56), hits (63), doubles (9), triples (6), home runs (8), RBI (52), slugging (.701) and on-base percentage (.508). She led the Big 12 in triples and triples per game (0.11) and ranked third with 1.02 runs per game. Her six triples were tied for the sixth most in a season in OU history and eighth most in Big 12 annals.
For her efforts, Miller was named a first-team all-region honoree and earned a spot on the All-Big 12 First Team. She is the team’s returning leader in several categories, including average, slugging, OBP, runs hits and RBI.
Parker burst onto the scene as a true freshman, throwing four perfect games to tie an NCAA Division I record and winning NFCA Freshman of the Year honors. She was also an NFCA Second Team All-American and a first-team All-Region honoree. A seven-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Week, Parker became the fourth player in league history to be named both the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and Big 12 Freshman of the Year in the same season.
The Independence, Mo., native led the Big 12 in earned run average (1.65), shutouts (9), wins (28) and hits allowed per seven innings (4.16) and was second in saves (3) and walks per seven innings (1.84). She also finished 13th nationally in hits allowed per seven innings, 14th in shutouts and wins and 19th in ERA.
Oklahoma is one of 12 schools, and the only Big 12 representative, to have at least two student-athletes on the list. Georgia, LSU and Michigan led all schools with three selections. Miller and Parker are looking to become the second player in OU history to win the award as former Sooner Keilani Ricketts was a two-time winner in 2012 and 2013.
Now in its 15th year, the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award, given by the national governing body for softball in the United States, is designed to recognize outstanding athletic achievement by female collegiate softball players across the country.
The Top 25 Finalists for the 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award will be announced April 13. An athlete does not have to be on the “Watch List” to be considered for the Top 25, but the eventual USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year will come from the Top 25 Finalists.
The Top 10 Finalists will be announced May 11 and the Top 3 announced May 25. The 2015 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year will be revealed May 31.
By Karl Anderson
Assistant Director of Communications
JANUARY 08, 2016
ROMERO CHOSEN FOR USA ELITE TEAM
NORMAN – Oklahoma freshman infielder Sydney Romero has been selected for the USA Softball Women’s Elite Team, the Amateur Softball Association of America and USA Softball announced Friday. She was one of 18 chosen for the roster after the four-day Women’s National Team Selection Camp in Irvine, Calif., which began Saturday.
The Elite Team will participate in a series of exhibition games against the Women's National Team, in addition to the World Cup of Softball XI. It will also participate in exhibition games at the USA Softball JO Cup in Marietta, Ga. Dates for exhibition games have not yet been released.
Romero, who spent last summer playing for the USA Junior Women’s National Team, is one of eight freshmen on the OU roster this season. In the first five games of the fall exhibition schedule she went 14-16 at the plate for a batting average of .875. Of her 14 hits, two were home runs and three were doubles to help give her a 1.438 slugging percentage and .882 on-base percentage.
In addition, she scored seven runs, stole two bases and did not commit an error in 11 chances in the field.
"Sydney is a very complete player and has all the tools necessary to become a collegiate superstar,” Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso said of Romero on National Signing Day in 2014. “She has great speed, good actions on the infield and is a pure hitter with a great eye for the ball. She comes from another very athletic family and I’m confident Sydney will become a legendary Sooner during her four years at OU."
Oklahoma opens the 2016 softball season on Feb. 12 at the Sportco Kick Off Classic in Las Vegas, Nev. The Sooners face Minnesota and Washington on opening day, two teams that reached the postseason a year ago.
By Karl Anderson
Assistant Director of Communications
JANUARY 08, 2016