The shock of not winning a ninth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship may have finally worn off — and just in time for Oklahoma’s trip to Alabama for the NCAA Regionals.
Coach K.J. Kindler said Wednesday that she likes the way her team has leaned into the expectation that comes with competing at Oklahoma and being ranked No. 1 and pursuing national championships, but also acknowledged that everyone could have responded to the pressure better in finishing second in the Big 12 Championships back on March 20 — the Sooners’ first loss of the year after starting 20-0.
“I think the pressure is internal,” Kindler said. “I have a team that expects the best out of themselves. They want to be great every time they step out there.”
Oklahoma has won four national championships in the last eight years (2014, 2016, 2017, 2019), and the Sooners have the No. 1 seed in this week’s regional at Tuscaloosa, AL.
“It’s always our goal to be a top seed going into a regional,” Kindler said, “which means top four really, because to be a 1-seed, it does carry some confidence along with it.”
Denver prevailed at the Big 12 meet in Morgantown, WV. OU and DU were tied going into the last event, but Kindler said a long delay from a judges conference created a disruption in her team’s momentum.
“We could have responded better after that,” she said. “I felt like that kind of was a turning point in our momentum, unfortunately, and we need to handle it better if something like that happens again.”
To which, Kindler said, the Sooners have bounced back.
“These are the best workouts we’ve had all year the last two weeks,” Kindler said. “I’m pretty pleased as a coach with our preparation and feel about as good as I could feel walking into this meet.”
OU will face No. 7 Alabama, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 15 Auburn, Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State, Eastern Michigan and Maryland when regional action begins on Thursday.
OU competes Friday night at 7, and the top two teams from each session move on to Saturday’s 7 p.m. regional final.
The top two teams from each region will then advance to the NCAA Championships on April 16-17 in Fort Worth, TX. The Sooners have won 10 straight regional titles and have competed in 16 straight NCAA Championships.
Championship expectations or not, the pressure to perform while ranked No. 1 and being a prohibitive favorite can be overwhelming to the athletes — in any sport. So Kindler is hoping the loss at the Big 12 Championships can be turned into a positive.
“Certainly they were disappointed in the result,” Kindler said, “but I also think it's good to lose, and we haven't lost since 2018 — and they honestly, really, they kind of needed that. They needed that little kick.
“The practices have been phenomenal. The mindsets been great. The energy in the gym has been really good. So I think it's something maybe that we needed to give us a little boost.”
Like most programs, OU’s schedule this year has been truncated and disrupted by COVID. It wasn’t a normal year, Kindler said. The Sooners haven’t faced the same upper-level competition that they usually do.
“Our schedule’s been a little bit different this year than normal,” she said, “so we haven't had as many tight meets, high-profile meets that really pushed us against the wall. And I think when their back was against the wall, we didn't respond the way we should. You know, we got nervous a little bit, we held back a little bit.
“Our goal is not to be undefeated every year, it's to go against the best and to be challenged. When you're challenged during the regular season, it prepares you for the postseason.”
Kindler said OU practices are normally pressure filled, but she also said the coaching staff has ramped things up over the past couple of weeks to elicit a better response under pressure.
“These last two weeks, we’ve really gone above and beyond to try to get them in that that mindset and that state where the pressure is on,” Kindler said. “And they've responded really, really well. I think they've done everything they possibly can, let me say that. In the last two weeks, they’ve done everything they possibly can to prepare for these moments this weekend.”