Oklahoma City — Even among champions, this Oklahoma softball team had a special makeup.
These Sooners had a unique chemistry, a powerful bond, a mystique, perhaps, that allowed them to cut their own notch — OU’s fifth — in Patty Gasso’s national championship belt.
More talented that everyone else? Almost assuredly. No collegiate softball squad within America’s four corners — or perhaps outside, for that matter; remember they swept three games from the Mexican National Team — has the kind of lineup that comes at pitchers with wave after wave of power and speed like Oklahoma does.
More heart than everyone else? That seems apparent, too, after Thursday’s 5-1 victory over Florida State in the title match. These Sooners lost just four games all season, but every time they did, they rectified that loss with a furious vengeance: a nightcap run-rule over Georgia, three straight wins over Oklahoma State, back-to-back wins and a knockout blow of James Madison, and two straight wins over FSU for the title.
“Yeah, you could see both teams today were really starting to run out of gas,” Gasso said, “especially with how hot it was and the amount of games that we’ve played and the quick turnarounds that we have to face on a pretty much daily basis.”
In the longest, most drawn out and possibly the most dramatic Women’s College World Series ever — they played all 17 games this year for the first time, remember — Oklahoma stood above the crowd by winning six times while facing elimination.
Losing to JMU in the opener way back on Thursday was probably ultimately a good thing for the Sooners, just as it was likely the impetus that sparked FSU through the loser’s bracket and into the championship series.
This was just the fourth time in history that a team lost its WCWS opener and came back to win the national championship, and also the fourth time ever that a team lost Game 1 of the championship series and rallied to win it all.
This Oklahoma team has that kind of makeup: super seniors who have been here before, younger seniors and underclassmen who have world class talent, and freshmen who refuse to flinch.
With their backs against the wall — throughout 2021 and certainly in the WCWS — the Sooners were at their best.
And the best of the best were two seniors who refused to lose: slugger Jocelyn Alo and pitcher Giselle Juarez.
Juarez had been a dominant pitcher, but had surgery last year for a torn biceps muscle, and her return to form had been slow. But after pitching back-to-back complete games against the Seminoles — 31 1/3 innings in five appearances facing elimination, five wins, 38 strikeouts and just eight walks — she’s definitely back and better than ever with a 23-1 record and a 2.81 earned run average with 159 strikeouts in 128 innings pitched.
“Giselle was — just something different about her this week that everyone felt very confident about,” Gasso said. “She had a different look (and) approach: calm, confident, wanting the ball.”
And Alo won this year’s National Player of the Year award, and was very good all season and just as imposing in the NCAA Tournament and WCWS. But in the three-game championship series against the Seminoles, Alo was at her absolute best: 7-of-10 (.700) with two home runs, a double and three RBIs. She finished with a school-record 34 home runs and raised her season batting average to .475.
“Jocelyn Alo is made differently,” Gasso said. “When she puts her mind to something, she gets it done, whatever it is. She is such a perfectionist with hitting. We handed her the circle late in the game, and she just got right in the middle of this team and told them what they needed to do and how they needed to change.
“There's nothing I'm going to do to stop that because they want to listen. They want to hear what she has to say.
“But she is a perfectionist and one of the smartest hitters I've ever seen, knows how to use her body the right way, knows what to look for. She was so, so focused and calm throughout this series, the entire World Series, that it disrupts pitchers. It disrupts their rhythm. It's hard to call, what to call against her, what pitch to throw, because she is so versatile about every pitch. She was just a really outstanding leader by voice and by example this week.”
Gasso praised the leadership and talents of her other seniors as well, pitcher Shannon Saile and right fielder Nicole Mendes, the latter of whom was the only remaining link to Gasso’s previous national title team in 2017.
The team returns all but three players next year in Mendes, Juarez and Saile, so, like it or not, the expectations are that several from this year’s squad will win multiple championships in their OU careers.
“This is a young group, and I didn't realize until we lost our first game (at the WCWS), I'm … driving to the hotel from the stadium, and I'm thinking, ‘Wow, why did we look so ‘deer-in-the-headlights?’ We weren't quite ready for what we were facing with Odicci (Alexander) and James Madison.
“I started counting like how many players have been here before, and there was a lot less than what I thought because they've handled themselves so well in postseason and through the season. But it's quite a different situation when you get to the big stage and what they've been dreaming of.
“But for them to find out what it feels like and what it takes to win it, the future is really, really bright for the Sooners.”