Woodward, Okla. —
By Corbin Hosler
CNHI News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma had been in this position before. The Sooners took Game 1 of the 2012 Women’s College World Series championship before Alabama stormed back to win the next two and take the title.
This time, it ended like it was supposed to for the nation’s No. 1 team.
With the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Keilani Ricketts airplaning her way into her teammates’ arms at home plate after a three-run homer. With Michelle Gascoigne throwing 12 strikeouts — and ending the game with one — in her first appearance of the tournament. With Shelby Pendley breaking out of a World Series slump to give the Sooners a boost of energy. With senior catcher Jessica Shults — who missed the postseason two years ago due to a sudden and severe illness — gunning down a stealing runner in her last collegiate game at Hall of Fame Stadium. With the usually-controlled Lauren Chamberlain crying tears of joy in postgame interviews as she thanked the seniors.
With the Sooners as national champions.
OU defeated Tennessee 4-0 in the deciding game of the championship series on Tuesday night to earn the Sooners’ second national title in program history, 13 years after the first.
“I will tell you why this happened: One year ago we watched another team celebrate right in front of us,” coach Patty Gasso said. “We prayed together and thanked God for the opportunity to be in a national championship and learn from it. From that last out, this was supposed to be the team to beat. And that’s not easy. But we followed the path. It was windy at times but we never stepped off. I cannot express how proud I am.”
The season’s 57th and final win was emphatic. The Sooners followed up the longest and most dramatic game in Women’s College World Series history with a statement game for a team that has been compared favorably to the best in softball history. Gascoigne earned the start after Ricketts threw 188 pitches in Monday’s marathon 12-inning game. And the senior made the most of her first postseason start, allowing just three hits and no walks alongside her 12 strikeouts.
It was an emotional moment — and an inspiring performance — for a pitcher who spent four years in the background as Ricketts drew the accolades.
After striking out Lexi Overstreet to end the game, she wasn’t in the background any longer. But she was at the bottom of the dogpile.
“We’ve never dogpiled before because we’ve been waiting for this moment,” she said. “And I think I had the circulation in my arm cut off.
“I only found out (about starting) three hours before the game. I was just excited. Knowing that Keilani was all for it and she was supporting me and would be there in the bullpen if I needed her brought me all the confidence in the world.”
And Ricketts capped off one of the most impressive careers in NCAA history exactly the way everyone expected the two-time USA Softball Player of the Year would. She drove in all four runs on Tuesday, sending a third-inning pitch deep over the right-field wall for her 50th and final career home run. She also brought in an insurance run in the seventh inning.
“After last year’s national championship game, it gave us one of the most painful feelings any of us have ever felt,” she said. “That gave us so much drive and determination to get back to this moment. We’ve had a lot of high points throughout our careers, but this is definitely the highest.”
The four seniors on the team — Ricketts, Gascoigne, Shults and Brianna Turang — ended their careers at the pinnacle of the sport, somewhere Gasso knew all along they could reach.
“They’re a tremendous group, and from the moment they stepped on campus I knew we had to find a way to win them a national championship,” she said. “I cannot tell you how honored I am to be the coach of this team. They bowed up when they needed to, together. They’re a tremendous group of athletes that I loved to coach every day.
“They’re just special.”