Finally, there’s an elite softball team standing in Oklahoma’s way.
The No. 1-ranked Sooners host No. 7 Texas this weekend in a Big 12 Conference series at Marita Hynes Field, and the Longhorns definitely present the biggest challenge OU has faced this season.
It’s OU’s first top-10 opponent. The Sooners (6-0) and Longhorns (6-0) are the last unbeaten teams in the Big 12. OU has the best record in the country at 30-0. UT is second at 31-3.
“We're finally ready to just play some people who are ready to give it back to us,” said junior shortstop Grace Lyons.
“There's a lot of adrenaline,” said freshman pitcher Nicole May. “Everyone's super hyped. … Even coach has been saying that, ‘This is a game you're gonna remember.’ ”
The Sooners have won 37 in a row dating back to last year’s COVID-shortened season. The NCAA record is 47, and the school record is 41. A three-game series against Texas — probably the best team on the schedule — is no time to be thinking about winning streaks. In fact, this Oklahoma team has taken the opposite mindset.
“Having kind of the record that we do and the standing that we do,” Lyons said, “we still kind of think of ourselves as an underdog when we look at our RPI and talking about that. We just kind of take that mentality so that we're not entitled to anything, you know, we're ready for a fight. And we know that they're going to give it to us.”
The RPI — Ratings Percentage Index, a strictly mathematical power rating that emphasizes schedule strength — is something the Sooners wear as a badge of honor. Despite being unanimous No. 1 in the polls and having run-ruled 22 of their 30 opponents, OU is No. 16 in the RPI this week. (Texas is No. 17; Georgia, next week’s midweek opponent, is No. 18.)
OU had last week’s games at Wichita State (rain) and Baylor (COVID) postponed, so coach Patty Gasso polled the players, then put everyone on a bus and played two games in Ruston, LA, against Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech. It was a logistical challenge for a team that hasn’t faced much adversity this season, and it was something Gasso felt she had to do.
“I felt it was worth it for us to be in a little bit of an adverse situation,” she said.
The net result was two more run-rules: 9-0 and 10-0. But really, the net result was minor.
“Our RPI did not move,” Gasso said. “It didn’t go up, didn't go down. We thought it might go up, but it was just kind of a stalemate.”
Three games against the Longhorns, then, are a huge chance for the Sooners to finally prove it: are they really one of the great softball teams of all time? Or are they just a very good team who hasn’t played anyone?
“This weekend is a big chance for us to make some moves in that area,” Gasso said. “We did what we could do, last (minute) notice. We've worked endlessly to try to find something. It's really hard.
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“Also when you're the No. 1 team, I would think a lot of people would love that opportunity, but … not a lot of people are loving the opportunity to play us. For some reason.”
Texas won’t shy away from the white-hot spotlight of playing against Oklahoma. The series should be epic: OU leads the nation with a .453 batting average, while Texas ranks second at .379. They also rank 1-2 in the Big 12 in scoring, home runs per game, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Texas pitcher Shea O’Leary is 15-0 over her last 22 starts, while May (10-0) and Giselle Juarez (11-0) have won 21 straight this season.
The Sooner lineup boasts the four best batting averages in the country: Jocelyn Alo (.537), Jayda Coleman (.524), Tiare Jennings (.510) and Kinzie Hansen (.506).
OU has outscored its opponents 357 to 39, Texas 269 to 85.
The teams didn’t play in 2020 thanks to COVID, but their last series in 2019 was memorable: OU won Game One on a diving catch by Lyons and 10 strikeouts by Juarez, won Game Two 4-3 in extra innings when catcher Lynnsie Elam tagged out a Texas runner at home in extra innings, and won Game Three 9-2 on a huge night by Green (home run, four RBIs).
“You know, my memory doesn't serve me as well as it used to,” Gasso said, “but that is a series that I did not forget. It was intense. It was good softball. It was exciting. And those are the moments, I was telling our team today, like, those big moments and those intense moments (are) what create the best memories for you.”
Said May, “We’re more just, excited to be in this high-adrenaline, high-intensity game that we haven't really been in that much. And especially because they're like, our rival team and all that.”
“We're excited for that,” Green said, “because it's finally time for us to just show everyone what we've got against a really high-ranked team and a team who's ready to compete. So it's gonna be fun.”