NORMAN — Opening weekend in the NCAA Division I Softball Championship often can be a mere formality. The 16 Regional hosts routinely dispose of their visitors, reserving intrigue for the following weekend at Super Regionals.
For two-time defending national champion Oklahoma, however, this week’s Norman Regional at Marita Hynes Field potentially could resemble drama class one week after final exams.
The Sooners romped through the regular season with a 50-3 record, assembled an unblemished 18-0 mark in Big 12 Conference play to win their seventh straight regular-season crown and then claimed their sixth Big 12 Tournament title. As a result, OU was tabbed the tournament’s No. 4 overall seed and chosen as a regional host for the eighth straight year.
Though it’s difficult to find suspense after this year’s dominance, the softball selection committee went out of its way to create intrigue for the Sooners:
- To help curtail travel costs, the tournament committee places great importance on proximity. This is why Tulsa predictably was sent to the Norman Regional for the third straight year and the seventh time overall. During the last two regular seasons, TU lost a pair of 1-0 decisions to OU. The Golden Hurricane lost on Caleigh Clifton’s walk-off single in the 10th inning last year in Norman and on a third-inning solo home run from freshman Sooners sensation Jocelyn Alo last month in Tulsa. OU also beat Tulsa 1-0 in 2014. The pesky Hurricane nearly eliminated the Sooners in last year’s Norman Regional after OU lost its opening-round game against North Dakota State. Tulsa took a 4-2 lead in the top of the 10th inning. Three outs away from elimination, the Sooners rallied for a 6-4 victory behind two-run homers from Clifton and Sydney Romero. OU then followed up with a 3-0 victory over Tulsa to advance to the Super Regional at Auburn. The Sooners never lost again throughout the tournament to capture their second straight national title and their fourth crown overall.
- Two OU pitchers – senior lefthander Paige Lowary and sophomore righthander Parker Conrad – began their collegiate careers at Missouri before transferring to OU. Lowary arrived after her sophomore season and has since become one of the nation’s most overpowering pitchers. She was the No. 1 overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch League Draft by the Chicago Bandits last month. A two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, Lowary has a 24-4 overall record and a 1.38 ERA since joining the Sooners. Conrad transferred after her freshman year and is 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA in 16 appearances this season. In addition, Sooners ace and senior lefthander Paige Parker hails from Independence, Mo., where she was selected as 2010-11 and 2012-13 Gatorade Missouri High School Player of the Year and chose OU over Missouri in the recruiting process.
- OU’s three losses this season came against NCAA tournament teams – a 5-0 loss at No. 1-seeded Oregon on April 19; a 2-0 loss against No. 14-seeded Arizona in Palm Springs, Calif., on Feb. 24; and a stunning 4-3 loss one week earlier against Boston University at the Troy Cox Classic in Las Cruces, N.M. So, guess who the Sooners face in the opening round of the Norman Regional? OU opens against the Patriot League champion Terriers (39-18, 15-3) on Friday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2. The Regional will commence with Missouri (28-27, 6-17 SEC) facing Tulsa (33-23, 10-11 American Athletic) at 3:30 p.m.
“Every team in our regional kind of has a story behind it,” Lowary said. “I think it’ll be interesting and exciting, but I also think it gives us something to play for.”
"Every team in our regional kind of has a story behind it. I think it’ll be interesting and exciting, but I also think it gives us something to play for."
– Senior Paige Lowary
Asked for her thoughts on the tournament selection committee’s storyline pairings, Gasso smiled and said, “No comment. I don’t ask. I used to get really nervous or tight about who we’re going to get or where we’re going to go. I don’t care anymore. There’s always something behind it, it feels like. Whether there is or not, I don’t know. I just can’t let it bother me or stay on me because it affects them (my players). Ultimately, if you can’t get through what they’re giving you, you probably don’t deserve to be in the (Women’s College) World Series anyway. You deal with what it is, whether or it’s fair or not. Whatever it is, get it done. That’s how I look at it.”
Gasso said more than half her squad and staff was suffering from flu-like symptoms, including herself, when the Terriers shocked the Sooners two months ago. “It was a mess,” Gasso said, shaking her head.
An ailing Lowary took her only loss of the season that day and admits her memory is a bit hazy
“I was really sick,” Lowary said. “A lot of us had the flu pretty bad. I honestly don’t remember a lot of it. They beat us fair and square.”
Asked if she was too sick to feel angry, Lowary said, “I don’t think it was anger. I think we just realized we had a lot to work on. I think we were kind of overlooking that team, and we shouldn’t have. We’re definitely not now.”
Senior shortstop Kelsey Arnold, a two-time team captain who twice was voted Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, echoed her emotions about the loss.
“I wouldn’t even say it was anger,” Arnold said. “It was just a learning experience. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t happy with the outcome, but you learn from it and move on. If you dwell on the past, nothing’s going change for you. It wasn’t a typical game for us, but I think it has helped us grow into the team that we are today and we’re thankful for having the lesson taught early.”
Friday offers a shot at redemption for the Sooners.
“Anytime you lose a game to somebody, it’s like you just can’t wait to get them back on the field again and play it out,” Gasso said. “And if they beat you again, then they’re better than you.”
Clifton said, “I remember a tough, fighting Boston team that was coming out to give us a run for our money. I remember them being really aggressive. It was a tough game for us, I know that. I think they’re a tough team. They play with a lot of confidence, but that definitely wasn’t the type of game we wanted to have against them, and they got us. I’m glad we get another shot at them.”
Gasso stressed the importance of not getting distracted by your opponent.
“If you make anything out here bigger than it is, it’s gonna to get you,” Gasso said. “That’s why it’s important that we don’t get caught up in these storylines. We can’t go, ‘Gosh, we can’t wait until Boston gets here,’ because there’s so much more waiting, or it’ll get you. We’ve experienced that in the past. You’ve got to get lost in competition and not in who you’re playing. I don’t feel any bad blood or anything like that. The key to loving to win is not being afraid to lose.”
"The key to loving to win is not being afraid to lose."
– Head Coach Patty Gasso
As for potentially facing her previous collegiate team in Missouri, Lowary said, “There’s a narrative with it, but I don’t really feel like vengeance or any type of feeling toward it. I feel disassociated with it, actually. I just don’t really feel connected with them anymore. I’m just treating them like any other team.”
If the Sooners indeed face the Tigers, Gasso said a simple message will be relayed to Lowary and Conrad.
“Really the only thing we say to them is, ‘Don’t worry, we got your back.’ And that’s all we need to say,” Gasso said.
Mixed in all this drama is the fact the Sooners are going for a three-peat. OU has advanced to the NCAA Tournament every year in 24 seasons under Gasso and 25 straight seasons overall. Last season, the Sooners became the fourth program ever to win back-to-back national titles. With four national crowns, OU trails only UCLA (11) and Arizona (8) for most in NCAA history. No other team has won more than two.
Since starting the season 9-2, the Sooners have since gone 41-1, which included a 30-game winning streak and a 21-0 mark against Big 12 teams in the regular season and conference tournament.
OU players admitted losing in just their sixth start of the season came as a shock.
“It (the Boston loss) was an early wake-up call,” Clifton said. “Too early.”
Gasso said running the table for the entire season was never discussed, but her team believes it can win every game.
“We all have the same mentality of, ‘What would we remember most (from this season)?’ And we remember three losses more than any win that we’ve had, and that’s the level where this team is at,” Gasso said. “They just expect they should win each game. We’re not talking about any kind of streaks or anything like that. They go out and play every game to win. They’re good enough that the number (of wins) doesn’t really surprise me, but we don’t get caught up in it. If they could take those three games back and play them over … That’s why Boston is a big deal to them. Arizona and Oregon are two other teams that we wish we could make that right. If we do things right, we might able to meet the other two down the line.”
Friday's Norman Regional winners will meet at 4 p.m. Saturday, followed by an elimination game between Friday's losing teams at 6:30. The loser of Saturday's first game will take on the winner of the Saturday's second game in an elimination game at 9. The winner of Saturday's final game will take on the winner of Saturday's first game on Sunday at 4 p.m. with an if-necessary rematch to follow at 6:30.
The winner of this weekend's regional will advance to the NCAA Super Regional round the following weekend against the winner of the Fayetteville Regional, hosted by Arkansas. The eight Super Regional winners (best two-of-three) will advance to the WCWS at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City (May 31-June 6).