On the Biggest Stage, Oklahoma Flinched in its WCWS Opener

The top-seeded Sooners looked like a shell of themselves as they were upset by James Madison, but now have a chance to prove their grit matches their talent.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — David added another Goliath-sized notch in the belt on Thursday.

The question now is, what does Goliath do next? Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso is eager to find out.

“There were a few people whose faces changed in the dugout today,” Gasso said after the Sooners were stunned 4-3 by James Madison in the opener of the Women's College World Series. “Faces that we really need in this lineup.”

JMU, the unseeded underdogs, stunned OU and most of the 11,546 fans gathered in USA Hall of Fame Stadium to watch the top-seeded Oklahoma Sooners begin their bid for a fifth National Championship.

Instead, it was the Dukes (40-2) who captured the dream start, upsetting No. 1-seeded OU (50-3) in eight innings and sending the Sooners to the loser’s bracket.

Pitcher Odicci Alexander was exceptional, striking out nine OU batters and only allowing eight base runners all day. But it was the Sooners' inability to recreate the formula that's powered them season that ultimately did them in.

As the Sooners worked their way through the lineup time and time again, they failed to gain any headway on figuring out Alexander, leading to a season-low scoring output.

“She's a great pitcher. I give all the credit to her,” freshman Tiare Jennings said after the game. “Really effective rise ball that I think we couldn't make adjustments on. But I think that's just what really hurt us at the end, is just (not) making adjustments. I think going on in the future, just continue to make those adjustments as quick as we can to try to win ballgames.”

More concerning than the inability to figure out Alexander in the circle, the Sooners appeared to abandon their entire approach at the plate.

Gone was the patience that had been OU’s calling card all season. It appeared that most batters were looking solely for a game-changing home run instead of trusting their teammates, working Alexander deep into counts and putting pressure on the James Madison star by putting runners on the base paths.

In fact, the only time Oklahoma was able to put more than one runner on base, Alexander hung a ball over the plate and Jennings promptly smacked it over the outfield fence.

“I think a little bit there we were playing not to lose,” OU pitcher Shannon Saile said. 

Gasso said the team would have to dissect the film on Friday to determine what truly went wrong.

“I think at the plate some of our plans got lost. You can see that by the way we were swinging. So we need to figure out why,” Gasso said. “Why did our plans get lost? Were the lights too big for you? Was the speed too fast for you? The video will tell us exactly what we need to know, so we can work on fixing that as we go forward.”

Perhaps the moment was too big for some Sooners. Of the starting lineup, only Jocelyn Alo, Grace Lyons, Nicole Mendes and Lynnsie Elam had taken the field in the Women’s College World Series for Oklahoma before Thursday’s opener.

And in the face of adversity on the biggest stage, Gasso didn’t get the reaction out of her team that she wanted.

“You could tell that we were having a little bit of problem at the plate,” Gasso said. “Then it just seemed to kind of rub off into some other areas.” 

As a result, the middle of the OU order brought little to the table on Thursday. Oklahoma’s 4-5-6-7 hitters combined to go 0-for-13 against Alexander, unable to capitalize off anything Jennings, Alo and Kinzie Hansen contributed at the top of the lineup.

And the Sooners' defense, No. 1 in the nation in fielding percentage almost all season, committed two costly errors — one leading directly to a run. Tack on a pair of home runs allowed by Saile and Oklahoma played uncharacteristcally tight in all three phases.

Now, with a loss already on their record — just the third of the season — Oklahoma has no choice but to come out firing against the Georgia Bulldogs at 11 a.m. on Saturday. OU is 1-1 against Georgia this season, with an extra-inning loss and a run-rule win in Athens.

The loser's bracket isn't a death sentence. The Sooners won the national title in 2017 after dropping their NCAA Tournament opener to North Dakota State. And OU still has every chance to battle back and recreate Florida State’s magical title run through the WCWS loser's bracket in 2018. 

But the Sooners haven’t made life easy on themselves in Oklahoma City this weekend. 

“I think we learned a lesson. Tough way to start out the World Series,” Jennings said. “We just got to flush it. One pitch at a time. Just do what we do, stay true to our circle now. Just, you know, taking it one pitch at a time, just doing this thing.”