OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s star freshmen have earned much of the attention so far this year.
But with a trip to the Women’s College World Series Championship Series on the line, a pair of “super seniors” stepped up to provide the spark on Monday afternoon at Hall of Fame Stadium.
Giselle Juarez and Nicole Mendes stepped up to help power the top-seeded Sooners all the way out of the loser’s bracket, beating the James Madison Dukes 7-1, their second victory over the Dukes in as many days.
Oklahoma advances with a 54-3 record. JMU ends its season at 41-4.
After much consternation about Dukes pitcher Odicci Alexander getting an extra day of rest due to Sunday’s weather postponement, it was the offense of James Madison that struck the first blow.
On the very first pitch of the game, center fielder Kate Gordon launched a home run past the fence in left field to give the Dukes an immediate 1-0 lead.
But then Juarez settled in.
“You know, I knew they were going to come out swinging,” Juarez said after the game. “They're an aggressive team, so just understanding that I have to attack the zone and trust my stuff and trust my D and understanding that my hitters have my back the entire way, and they did.”
HOW TO WATCH: National Championship Series
- Game 1: Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN
- Game 2: Wednesday, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN
- Game 3 (if necessary): Thursday, Time TBA, Network TBA
Despite giving up the leadoff bomb, Juarez said she never panicked in the circle.
“Really staying within myself and going at my pace and knowing that every time I get three outs, our hitters are back up there,” she said.
After combining to pitch 10 1/3 shutout innings against Georgia and UCLA on Saturday, Juarez returned to form against the Dukes.
Going the distance, Juarez struck out 11 batters and only allowed four hits. Juarez has now punched out 25 batters in 17 1/3 innings at the Women's College World Series.
Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso said she was proud of Juarez’s response battling against a talented James Madison offense.
“Exceptional. On the big stage, exceptional,” Gasso said after the game. “This is the best she's been throwing all season the last week and a half, two weeks. She's been throwing outstanding. Very proud of her and excited about what she can do in this next couple of days.”
While Juarez was cooking, Alexander was matching the OU ace blow for blow in the circle.
The James Madison pitcher held the Sooners hitless through the first three innings and only allowed three base runners, all via walk.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Mendes ended Alexander’s dreams of throwing a no-hitter in the WCWS in emphatic fashion, connecting on the first pitch she saw for a leadoff triple.
Two batters later, Mendes scored on a ball four wild pitch to Mackenzie Donihoo. As the ball hit the backstop, it bounced up onto the net behind home plate, but since Mendes was ruled to have already been in motion toward home, the run stood to tie the game.
Later in the inning, Jana Johns would put Oklahoma in front.
With Lynnsie Elam on third and Jayda Coleman on first, the OU third baseman sliced a ball that landed safely into shallow left field, allowing Elam to score and put the Sooners up 2-1.
“It was really important for some of our players that haven't — maybe we haven't talked too much about since we've been in the tournament, to see Nicole Mendes lead us off, I thought Jana Johns had some really quality at-bats today,” Gasso said. “I really love what those guys have been doing, and you didn't have to depend so much on the top three, although (Kinzie Hansen) swung it well today.
“It was just nice to see different faces and different ways of getting it done besides the big home run.”
Things then fell apart for Alexander in the bottom of the fifth.
A pair of two-RBI doubles from Donihoo and Coleman extended the lead to 6-1.
Coleman said that Donihoo’s was the catalyst for Oklahoma’s fifth inning rally.
“I think it was a big deal. I feel like (Alexander) was really trying to get out of the inning and I was so glad that (Donihoo) got us rolling and we kept going,” Coleman said after the game. “When I got that base hit I was so excited to look at my dugout and how hyped they were. Our whole stands get really hyped for us, and it was awesome.”
With the Sooners firmly in front, James Madison head coach Loren LaPorte made a trip to the pitcher’s circle to withdraw Alexander for the first time in the Women’s College World Series. The entire crowd at Hall of Fame Stadium rose to their feet, sending the star pitcher out with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Gasso was incredibly complimentary of the job that Alexander and the entire James Madison team did in the series.
“Wow. Just wow… what a competitor. She made us better. She made us work. She is outstanding,” Gasso said. “Some of the plays that she made I think forever will be in our minds just watching that squeeze play that she dove and made that play on against Oklahoma State. She is just a great competitor. It was honestly an honor to play against her.
“I think singlehandedly James Madison made our sport better because they brought a lot of people in that wanted to watch them. I think that's the ultimate compliment I could give a coach and a program.”
Battling all the way back from a Game 1 loss, the Sooners became just the sixth team ever to reach the championship round at the WCWS, and they will meet the 10-seeded Florida State Seminoles.
Florida State also lost on the first day of the WCWS, and this will be the first time in the history of the tournament that two teams who lost their first game will meet for the national title.
Game 1 of the best-of-three Championship Series is slated to start at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.