Featuring a roster with eight freshmen and four sophomores, the 2016 Oklahoma softball team won the NCAA championship much earlier than anticipated. With an apparent dynasty looming, the 2017 Sooners became just the fourth team in the 23-year history of the NFCA poll to ever be selected as a unanimous preseason No. 1.
Oddly enough, this year's OU team is even younger overall than last year's champs. The 2016 Sooners had five seniors, but this year's squad has only one in utility fielder Macey Hatfield, who is joined by six juniors, six sophomores and five freshmen.
With softball being among the most superstitious of all sports, team members understandably hoped to re-trace their steps to a second straight national championship.
En route to winning last year's title, the Sooners wore crimson-colored rubber bracelets emblazoned with capital white letters “CHAMPIONSHIP MINDSET.” This year's players looked forward to wearing that same lucky charm while defending the crown.
OU Hall of Fame coach Patty Gasso initially banned the bracelet, however. The woman respectfully dubbed “Three Natty Patty” for her three national crowns (2000, 2013, 2016) also took away another cherished piece of equipment when she didn't permit her players to wear their white cleats.
In Gasso's eyes, her team didn't deserve such comforts because of their early season struggles.
“I said, ‘We're going to keep working until we figure this out,' ” Gasso explained. “And they wanted those bracelets desperately, so it kind of forced them to let go of some of the stuff they were hanging onto. The whole ‘defend the title' thing kind of got in the way a little bit.”
As is her way, Gasso once again had lined up a formidable early schedule. Even though five of OU's nine losses this season have come against teams in this week's Women's College World Series (Washington and Baylor) and last weekend's Super Regionals (Arizona, Tennessee and Auburn), Gasso didn't like what she was seeing from her potential powerhouse.
“Honestly, it did surprise me some,” Gasso said of the slow start, “but then I started to see what our returners were trying to do. They were trying to match their numbers from the year before, do those kind of things, and that doesn't work.”
Last year's championship run is eerily similar to what has transpired so far this season.
The 2016 Sooners began with a 2-2 record through four games and were 9-4 through 13 games. Those are the exact same marks as this year's team.
The 2016 Sooners started out 25-7 and fell to No. 14 after losing at home to Kansas in what would be their lone loss in a 17-1 Big 12 season. The 2017 Sooners started out 23-7, slipped to No. 13 in the polls also finished with a 17-1 conference mark.
And, just like last season, OU finished with a flourish to qualify for its sixth WCWS appearance in the last seven years and its 11th trip overall.
The 2016 Sooners entered the World Series riding a 27-game winning streak and had won 34 of their last 35. The 2017 Sooners enter this week's WCWS having won 33 of their last 35.
Following a double-header sweep on March 31 that was capped by a 20-0 victory over Iowa State, the Sooners' beloved white cleats made their return on April 1.
The crimson charm bracelets were handed out in the locker room following the team's series-opening, 3-2, 10-inning victory over Baylor in Norman on April 22.
As No. 10-seeded OU (56-9) prepares to open the WCWS with an 8:30 p.m. contest against No. 15-seeded Baylor (48-13) on Thursday, last year's champs are healthier and hotter than they've been all season.
“I feel this team is very much the same (as last year's team) going into this tournament – loose, relaxed and playing the best they've played all season,” Gasso said. “We're just going to go for it. That's all we can do with it.”
The Sooners are armed with arguably the deepest pitching staff in the program's storied history with junior lefthander Paige Parker (23-5; 1.29 ERA), junior lefthander and Missouri transfer Paige Lowary (15-3, 1.61 ERA; eight saves) and freshman righthander Mariah Lopez (17-1, 2.06 ERA).
Each has her own repertoire of pitches, resulting in a lethal combination that constantly keeps opponents off-balance. “Having a deeper pitching staff is another form of comfort for all of us,” Gasso admitted.
Parker carried the bulk of the workload with 252.1 innings last season, but she's worked a career-low 184.2 innings this season and has retained her impeccable control with 243 strikeouts and just 40 walks.
“We all have different looks,” Parker said. “From the beginning of the year, we knew the staff was going to be strong. I'm just so proud of the way we have worked so hard all year, and how well we worked together and how much fun we had with each other.”
The hard-throwing Lowary is a former starter who has evolved into the team closer thanks to Lopez' steady development. Lopez is a bit of a double-whammy, an off-speed specialist who throws from the opposite side as OU's pair of lefty Paiges.
With the pitching staff serving as the team's security blanket, OU's early season woes could be found inside the batter's box.
“We didn't have the power,” Gasso explained. “We were undisciplined. I was very frustrated with the amount of strikeouts to walks. Normally our walks are 50 or more than our strikeouts (currently it's 203 walks to 183 strikeouts). The numbers didn't match up to focus and discipline. It showed the opposite. It showed pressing, frustration and surrender.”
Sophomore second baseman Caleigh Clifton said, “I think those moments that we struggled with in the beginning helped us (get) to where we are now.
"We didn't like it at the time, but we learned from it. They were lessons. I think it helped bring us together as a team. We were more frustrated with ourselves because we knew the potential that we had. We weren't performing the way we wanted to. Sometimes we would push and not play free like we should have been. Now I think we're back to that. It's a lot more fun now than it was in the beginning.”
Early injuries to sophomore first baseman Shay Knighten (knee) and sophomore third baseman Sydney Romero (thumb) also played a role. “They were dealing with injuries that weren't allowing them to swing the way they are capable,” Gasso said.
In the end, the Sooners stabilized and wound up capturing many of the same conference awards as a year ago.
Once again, Gasso was tabbed Big 12 Coach of the Year, an honor she has now won 10 times.
Last season, Parker was named Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. Ditto for this season.
Last season, Knighten was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year. This season, that honor went to rightfielder Nicole Mendes, who leads OU with a .438 batting average and is tied with junior centerfielder Nicole Pendley for the team lead with a .617 slugging percentage.
Last season, Erin Miller was Big 12 Co-Player of the Year. This season, that honor went to Knighten, who didn't have to share it with anyone.
The Norman Regional began with persistent rain and the Sooners had to sleep on a 2-0 deficit to North Dakota State when play was postponed in the bottom of the first inning. The Bison went on to post a 3-2 victory in nine innings the next day to put OU on the brink of elimination.
“Honestly, I thank North Dakota State for that,” Clifton said of receiving the wake-up call. “I think our style of play was different after that. We knew our back was against the wall. (Every game) could potentially be our last game. The way we played was a little bit different and we wanted it a lot more, I think.”
Gasso said losing the regional opener “was either going to make us or break us. It was like, ‘If this team is going to surrender now, then we have no business going forward.' North Dakota State caught us. They had a very good pitcher (starter Jacquelyn Sertic) that we weren't anticipating and we weren't ready for it.”
The Sooners reeled off four straight victories to survive their own regional and, according to ESPN, became just the eighth team out of 416 since 2005 to advance to the Super Regionals after losing their opening game of the postseason. “The way we fought back is what is going to allow us to go into this tournament (WCWS) with confidence because we had that fight to get to it,” Gasso said.
OU indeed then traveled to the Auburn Super Regional, where it swept the Tigers behind the superb pitching of Parker, Lowary and Lopez.
“I really look up to them,” Lopez said of Parker and Lowary. “They both have had such great success ... They were talking to me (before the Super Regional start) like this is just another game. ‘Go into it and just throw the way that you do and it'll be all right.' They're always there for me, no matter what the circumstances are and they always have the best advice for me. It's been something that I've been really lucky to be a part of with both of them.”
Asked if she sought advice from older players, Lopez said she learned from listening and observing throughout the season.
“I think the biggest thing is we just have to play free and be relaxed,” Lopez said. “I know they kind of preach on that kind of stuff and let us know that it's the game and you just have to do what you do. It's the World Series, yeah, but we play a whole bunch of games before this.”
For the 10th time since winning the 2000 NCAA championship, the Sooners will travel just 27.6 miles one-way to reach the college softball mecca that is ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and the WCWS.
“It's a great venue and it's great to have our fans so close,” Parker said.
Is there added pressure having the championship venue so close to home? Is not taking advantage of the unique circumstance something you constantly think about? Is it in the back of your mind throughout the season?
Parker shook her head to all these questions before flatly answering, “No.”
Meanwhile, a first-timer seemingly tried to calm herself about what awaits.
“It's something I've looked forward to for a really long time,” Lopez said of playing in the WCWS. “It's something that's really going to be exciting for me. Last year, I was watching (it) on TV. Now I'm going to be in the middle of it. It's just something that's going to be super exciting and a really good experience.”