OKLAHOMA CITY — Every player dreams of ending their career on top.
But the cruel fact of life is that only one team can win the championship at the end of the year, and only one group of seniors will get to experience that accomplishment on the final time they take the field.
On Thursday afternoon, Oklahoma stars Nicole Mendes, Shannon Saile and Giselle Juarez left Hall of Fame Stadium in crimson and cream for the final time, but they left sitting atop the softball world.
The path to Thursday was tumultuous. The 2020 season, originally supposed to be the trio’s final year in Norman, was cut short due to the pandemic, leaving the future of senior athletes across the country in doubt.
Though the NCAA granted them an extra year of eligibility, they had to withstand the grind of the COVID season. Test after test followed by anxiety about positive cases and contact tracing, OU head coach Patty Gasso said she leaned on her veterans for leadership as the team navigated perhaps the most difficult season in program history.
“It's so hard to get here. It is so difficult to be sitting here — like I can't even — words can't even express. It's just really hard,” Gasso said after capturing her fifth National Championship on Thursday. “It's a grind. Everyone has got to be kind of in the right mindset.
“Really what got us here was really good leadership. … There was some really good leadership going on this week. Those three in particular I was really proud of how they took some things over.”
Once the Sooners got to Oklahoma City, their path to the title was the most unique in the history of the sport. Becoming only the third team since 2000 to lose on Day 1 of the Women’s College World Series and rebound to win it all, OU set a WCWS record by winning six straight elimination games in the same year.
A big part of staying alive was OU’s ability to rebound from losses and never lose to the same team twice. After the Sooners dropped the first game of the Championship Series to Florida State, Mendes even went as far as guaranteeing the team wouldn’t lose again to the Seminoles — a promise Oklahoma kept.
“It's a pride thing. I'm proud to represent OU and I'm proud to represent my sisters, Coach Gasso, this university, and I'm not going to let anybody come out and beat me twice,” Mendes said after Thursday’s win. “I take that personally if I get a loss, and we take it personally and we fight for each other because it's not just me, it's not just my team, it's OU, it's this university, it's all that kind of stuff. I think that definitely plays into the resiliency factor.”
Gasso wasn’t surprised Mendes kept her promise, as it’s something Gasso said she’s become accustomed to when Mendes sets out to do something.
“Nicole Mendes is a whole 'nother level of leader,” Gasso said. “She's so well spoken. She's so passionate. But anything she says, she backs it up.”
Entering the World Series, only four of Oklahoma’s nine initial starters in the batting order had experienced the WCWS in a Sooner uniform, and the trio of super seniors were essential in preparing key contributors like Kinzie Hansen, Mackenzie Donihoo, Jayda Coleman and Tiare Jennings for the moment, Gasso said.
And not just vocal leaders, Oklahoma’s leaders showed the path forward, setting a great example for their teammates to follow.
“Giselle was — just something different about her this week that everyone felt very confident about,” Gasso said. “She had a different look, approach, calm, confident, wanting the ball. Shannon, as well. Shannon was ready at all times.”
The Sooners will return a majority of their key contributors next season, and new leaders will emerge. Jocelyn Alo and captain Lynnsie Elam already excel in that category, and Gasso has refilled the cupboards before, winning her five National Championships over the last 21 years.
But no two teams are the same. And no two teams take the same path, no matter how similar it looks.
So while the Oklahoma Sooners will surge on next season, they will do so with Juarez-, Saile- and Mendes-sized holes in the locker room, and Alo said she was proud the team could go out and finish the job for their departing teammates.
“It's going to be tough without them next year, man. It's going to be so sad without them. It's just kind of setting in that this was my last game with them,” Alo said, fighting through tears. “I’ve come through this program with them, and they mean so much to this program, and I'm so happy we could win a national championship for them.
“I was just so happy to have this with them because we've been talking about it all year, and we just continued to trust in God, and man, I'm going to miss them. I'm going to miss them so much.”