In an effort to win the longest Women's College World Series game in history, Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso chose to turn the Paige not once, but twice.
After five hours, 28 minutes, 495 pitches (333 strikes), 122 at-bats, 40 strikeouts, 31 players and 17 innings, the Sooners managed to outlast Florida with a 7-5 victory in Game One on Monday night before an appreciative crowd of 8,337 at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.
Gasso threw a curve before the first pitch was even thrown by opting to start Paige Lowary rather than two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Paige Parker. Lowary pitched the first five innings before being relieved by Parker. Fellow left-handed junior, Parker went 6.2 innings before being relieved by a re-entering Lowary, who wound up getting the victory after throwing 10.1 total innings.
"It was an emotional, emotional rollercoaster of a game and one that I will never, ever, ever, ever forget."
– OU Head Coach Patty Gasso
"Epic, epic battle," Gasso said at the outset of her team's midnight postgame interview session. "It was like two heavyweight fighters throwing punch after punch. I will never forget the pitching duo here (Lowary and Parker) and how they tag-teamed. It was an emotional, emotional rollercoaster of a game and one that I will never, ever, ever, ever forget."
Though the contest was nearly the equivalent of 2½ seven-inning games, the Sooners only lead the best-of-three championship series 1-0 heading into Game Two on Tuesday night at 7.
With one more victory, OU Athletics will claim its fourth national title in the last eight weeks, joining the school's NCAA championship teams in women's gymnastics, men's gymnastics and men's golf. Oklahoma has never won four national crowns in the same semester.
It was Lowary's first start since April 28 at Texas Tech. Since that time, she had become the team's closer after replacing Parker or freshman Mariah Lopez.
Gasso said it was a mutual decision to go with the opposite Paige after discussing the matter earlier in the day with her coaching staff, Lowary and Parker. The team then was informed and they were in full support.
"I thought, 'What the heck. Let's try it,'" Gasso said. "We felt like (national player of the year Kelly) Barnhill was going to come out for them."
Barnhill threw several pitches 66 miles per hour and Lowary pitched in the mid-70s.
"It was just two flame-throwers going at it," Gasso said. "It was good, old-fashioned softball. It was good to see them go against each other. That's kind of what we felt might happen. I think they may have really been planning (to face) Paige Parker, so it was just throwing a wrench in there."
The 10th-seeded Sooners (60-9) have shown remarkable resiliency throughout the entire NCAA Tournament, but it often has come in a walk-off manner. OU was the visiting team in Game One, however, and had to hold off the No. 1-seeded Gators (58-9) in their final at-bat to seal the deal.
Leading 2-1 thanks to a solo home run to right field from Big 12 Freshman of the Year Nicole Mendes in the sixth inning, the Sooners were one strike away from victory in the bottom of the seventh.
On a full count with two outs, Florida shortstop Sophia Reynoso hit a lazy fly ball that fell between diving defensive efforts from OU leftfielder Macey Hatfield and centerfielder Nicole Pendley, who were both positioned near the warning track. Had they been playing at normal depth, Hatfield would have had a chance at making a routine catch. Because of the 3-2 count with two outs, Gators third baseman Aleshia Ocasio was running on the pitch, which allowed her to score all the way from first base to tie the score at 2 and force extra innings. Had there been less than two outs, Ocasio wouldn't have gotten a head start and likely would have had to stop at third.
"It was a game of will, a game of team, a game of character."
– Patty Gasso
OU took a 4-2 lead in the top of the 12th inning thanks to a two-run homer to right field from designated player Fale Aviu, but Florida once again battled back to tie the score in the bottom half on a two-out, two-run double from standout leadoff hitter Amanda Lorenz.
"Florida just kept answering everything we put out there," Gasso said. "We tried to answer back. It was a game of will, a game of team, a game of character. We were running out of gas a little bit. They just kept fighting."
With two outs in the top of the decisive 17th inning, Big 12 Player of the Year Shay Knighten hit a towering three-run homer into the left-field bleachers to give OU a 7-4 edge.
Asked if she thought her homer was a back-breaker for the Gators, Knighten said, "Well, you can never think anything is a backbreaker or any kind of thing with a team like Florida because like they did all game, they came back."
The Gators narrowed the deficit to 7-5 in the bottom half of the inning before Lowary ended the game with a strikeout.
"Although our backs aren't against the wall for our season to be over, it started to feel like that," Gasso said. "Just survive, survive, survive. Just keep surviving. It was crazy ... Both teams just kept going, kept playing hard."
The game was so long, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was sung an unprecedented three times - in the bottom of the fifth, 10th and 15th innings. Delirious fans sang "Y-M-C-A" in the top of the 17th inning at the five-hour mark.
OU went the first 16 innings without a two-out hit. "We just kind of came up there with the mindset that we weren't going to be denied, that we were going to have the will to win, that there was no way we were going to walk off that field with any ounce of regret," said Mendes, who ended the skid by reaching on a two-out single in the 17th.
The Sooners struck out 26 times, and still won.
Like Lowary, Gators starter Barnhill also was called in to relieve Delanie Gourley, returning in the 16th inning. Barnhill and Gourley had 13 strikeouts each.
"We knew that they were going to punch and it was up to us to kind of punch back and want to fight back and not back down," Knighten said.