Giselle “G” Juarez looked her dominant self in her return to the pitching circle for Oklahoma in last week’s Miner Invitational.
Tossing six hitless innings and striking out 11 batters in two games of action, Juarez overcame internal butterflies in what was a landmark start.
The two-time All-American’s 2020 season ended with a biceps surgery, and the road to recovery was long and offered no guarantees Juarez would ever pitch again.
“It’s been a long road for Giselle,” head coach Patty Gasso said during a video press conference on Wednesday. “The last time she pitched was a national championship game. And then you’re telling someone ‘Wow, I don’t know when you are going to pitch again.’ That’s a tough pill to swallow.
“We’ve really took a long road and I think we did it the right way. I think Giselle would agree that the doctors and Coach (Jennifer) Rocha and all of us involved, we took the long way to get to this point. I think we did it right.”
The rehabilitation process was as taxing mentally as it was physically, Juarez said.
“The process was long. It was a lot of up and downs and it was definitely mentally challenging,” she said. “Just like, “OK, am I going to pitch? Am I not going to pitch?’ That type of thing. And just understanding that I’m going to take two steps forward, but some days I’ll have to take four steps backwards and just like, get used to that. And understanding the end goal is yes, to pitch now but also to be able to pitch in June.”
Add in the pandemic amidst Juarez’s efforts to recover, and she knew she was in for a long road back.
“It kind of hit me post-surgery and after last March and COVID and whatnot that like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna take a while type of thing and that I need to be patient,’” she said. “I had a moment when I was like man, I could be done. I might have to be done because I wasn’t sure at the time either.”
The moment of clarity for Juarez came during an intrasquad scrimmage, where she couldn’t even pitch.
“I remember having those thoughts, and then we scrimmaged that day and I was in the dugout and just watching. But that scrimmage was so much fun that I was like, ‘Man, no matter how many steps I have to take backwards, it’s going to be so worth it’ because I had so much fun just watching our team play,” she said. “And I think that’s what really helped drive me to continue pushing forward and giving it everything I had no matter what was happening with my arm. Because this team is just so much fun to be around and to watch.”
Though uncertain on the results, Gasso praised Juarez’s mentality handling the recovery and her leadership despite her inability to physically take the field while recovering.
“She stayed diligent. She stayed very team-oriented. She led the bullpen even though she couldn’t throw very much at all,” Gasso said. “She’s done all the right things and this is now her reward for that.”
While back in the circle, Juarez still isn’t 100 percent, Gasso said.
“She looked pretty dominant, and she’s probably still not maybe halfway, maybe 60 percent of her best,” she said. “So she still has a lot of work to do. I think she was thrilled just to be out there and feeling pain-free. That was the most important thing.”
Juarez’s best is a pretty high standard. In her 2019 campaign for the Sooners, Juarez posted a 28-4 record with an ERA of 1.39 and an opponents’ batting average of .151 (the second best mark in OU history).
The dominant left hander acknowledged she couldn’t compare herself to years past at the moment, but her teammates helped settle her back in once she was cleared to pitch again.
“It’s been different for sure because I can’t really compare myself to, like, ’19 me, and so just trying to adapt and get used to what I can do, just getting back into the swing of things — because it’s been so long since I’ve pitched — has been huge,” Juarez said. “When I came back and faced our hitters, it felt good to face them and know that, hey, I’m facing one of the best offensive teams in the country, so to face that and that kind of competition just kind of put me at ease as well.”
Flying high off a record-breaking offensive performance to start the season, the Sooners are just as happy to have Juarez back and rolling as they chase their fifth national title in 2021.
“This team is really celebrating it because we need her so desperately,” Gasso said. “She came out and faced our lineup and she handled us very well. That was a very exciting thing to see and boosted her confidence. She’s good to go.”
Juarez her teammates are schedule to return to the diamond for a doubleheader against Houston on Sunday. First pitch for Game 1 is scheduled for 12 p.m., and Game 2 is tentatively slated to start at 2:30 p.m.