OKLAHOMA CITY — Hall of Fame Stadium sat in stunned silence on Thursday afternoon.
The Oklahoma fans in left-center field watched quietly as James Madison left fielder Kate Gordon’s hit in the top of the eighth inning carried further and further, sneaking over the outfield fence to put the Dukes up 4-3 on the top-seeded Sooners.
In the bottom of the eighth, OU couldn’t cash in when James Madison’s star pitcher Odicci Alexander walked USA Softball Player of the Year Jocelyn Alo, and the Sooners fell in their Women’s College World Series opener on Thursday.
Alexander, the NFCA Second-Team All-American, put in perhaps her finest performance in the circle of the season against OU. She struck out nine batters and only allowing two walks (both to Alo) to ensure the Dukes would never trail.
“Alexander is really, really good. The ball gets on you really, really fast. The ball breaks really, really hard. She changes speeds really, really well,” OU head coach Patty Gasso said after the game. “Look, we flat out got beat. We all admit that.”
The plucky underdogs from Virgina would actually be the ones to strike first in the top of the third inning.
Catcher Lauren Bernett led off the inning with an infield single, after controversially being called safe on the play at first. TV replays showed Bernett was out on a bang-bang play at the bag off a throw from Tiare Jennings, but with no instant replay review to come to OU’s aide, Gasso’s protests fell on deaf ears.
“Yeah, obviously dove, got the ball, kind of got stuck in my glove a little bit. Once the runner got on first, I thought double play ball, just get outs,” Jennings said after the game. “It was a good play. I did my best. Tried to move on.”
"I will not make a comment on the play at first," Gasso said of the play. "Our error did not help the cause much. I mean, that allowed for two runners on."
The Dukes made Oklahoma pay.
In the ensuing at-bat, center fielder Michelle Sullivan reached safely on a bunt due to an error by Sooner third baseman Jana Johns fielding the ball, setting the stage for shortstop Sara Jubas to launch a one-out bomb off of Shannon Saile to take a 3-0 lead.
But in the bottom the third inning, the Sooners found a response.
Johns and Taylon Snow hit back-to-back singles, and newly minted NFCA Freshman of the Year Jennings tied the game on one swing of the bat, sending her 26th home run of the season to the stands and sparking the first real roar from the overwhelmingly pro-OU crowd at the expanded Hall of Fame Stadium complex.
Saile, who was given the start in the circle for Oklahoma, was steady after the third inning. The senior struck out nine batters herself, only walking one and hitting another, but her two home runs allowed would prove decisive.
“I was just playing pitch by pitch. I trusted my teammates. I trusted them in the field, I trust them at the plate,” Saile said. “I think next time we come out, we just got to throw punches early and fast and keep laying them down, play like we got nothing to lose.
“I think a little bit there we were playing not to lose. I think that's the difference for going forward.”
While the loss doesn’t mean elimination for the Sooners, it does make the road ahead significantly harder if they wish to return to the Championship Series.
OU would have to now win a pair of games on “Elimination Saturday,” and then replicate that with another pair of wins on Sunday to earn a berth in the finals.
“You have to have short memory here or you're out of this tournament before you even play your next game,” Gasso said. “They've been called out.
“We've watched Florida State do it not that long ago, so it can be done. But it's going to have to take a completely different approach, attitude, commitment as a team to stay alive as long as you can.”
First up, however, the Sooners play the loser of Thursday’s Oklahoma State-Georgia game. Both the Cowgirls and the Bulldogs have beaten Oklahoma (50-3) this year.
OU’s first elimination game is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.