MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

OU

May 29, 2014

WOMEN'S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES: Title bout of 2012 a first-round match in 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY — Let the fun begin.

That’s coach Patty Gasso’s stance as Oklahoma prepares to defend its national title at the Women’s College World Series this week, beginning with an 8:30 game tonight against Alabama.

“The hard part, to me, is over, and the fun part begins,” she said at Wednesday’s press conference. “The hard part is the regional and super regional with so much at stake, and once you get here it’s ‘OK, let’s go.’”

OU’s road to the World Series this year was most certainly work. The Sooners (50-11) began the season just 5-4 as they struggled to find their identity. For a team that won the 2013 title on the back of a dominant lineup, they scored just six runs in the four losses, including a 5-4 loss to a Kentucky team that, like OU, is playing in this week’s Women’s College World Series. The Sooners fell to No. 23 in the national polls, the closest they’ve come to falling out of the poll since its inception in 1995.

But OU turned things around, thanks to the emergence of pitcher Kelsey Stevens as a true ace, and to the re-emergence of Shelby Pendley, who struggled through the postseason a year ago but returned to form in the regular season in 2014 and has kept up her production in the postseason. Perhaps most important were Pendley’s contributions in the circle, a position she hadn’t played since high school but was effective at in limited innings this season.

Things didn’t get any easier for OU once the tournament began. The Sooners needed some late heroics and a timely Texas A&M error to secure the first game against the Aggies in the regional, and they needed a third game to defeat last year’s NCAA title opponent Tennessee in the supers after the Volunteers shut out the Sooners in the second game of the season.

To Gasso, the postseason run has been a validation of the work the Sooners put in at the beginning of the season while working through their struggles. They’ve seen several athletes — first Kady Self, then Callie Parsons, Javen Henson and Erin Miller — step into prominent roles in the lineup while the Sooners dealt with the loss of Lauren Chamberlain for a month and then Self for the rest of the season after she tore her ACL.

“We’ve been through quite a bit, we started slow and finished fast,” Gasso said. “As we got started we were still trying to figure out who we are. We lost some of the best college softball players to play the game. Especially how we started the season, to see where we are now is pretty amazing, and we’re very proud of our accomplishments.”

In many ways, the Sooners’ season has mirrored the 2013 campaign of Alabama, its opponent tonight. The Tide defeated OU in the NCAA final to win the 2012 national title, a landmark accomplishment for the program but one that adds immense pressure on those that follow.

For OU to do what Alabama couldn’t and win the first back-to-back titles since Arizona in 2006-07, the Sooners will first have to beat the last team to defeat them in Oklahoma City.

Not that the Sooners are focusing on that.

“This team isn’t going into this World Series saying we have to defend our title,” Gasso said. “We don’t even talk about it; it’s not worth the pressure.

“It’s an honor to be back to have the opportunity, but it’s not a focus. I’ve seen this team grow up quite a bit and mature as softball athletes as well as young women. It’s a journey I’ll never forget, and this is just the icing on the cake.”

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