NORMAN – Two-time defending softball national champion Oklahoma finally allowed an opponent to score in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Sooners still had ample breathing room on a sweltering Friday afternoon while posting a 7-2 victory over Arkansas in game one of the Norman Super Regional at Marita Hynes Field.
OU (54-3) now can advance to its 12th Women’s College World Series this millennium by winning Saturday’s noon contest against the Razorbacks (42-16). If Arkansas wins game two, the decisive game three will be played at noon on Sunday.
In last weekend’s Norman Regional, the fourth-seeded Sooners outscored their three opponents by a combined score of 24-0. OU pushed that total to 29-0 over a 23-inning span before the 13th-seeded Razorbacks found the scoreboard with a run in the top of the fifth.
The Sooners are now 29-0 at home this season.
“Oklahoma was just better than us today,” said Razorbacks third-year head coach Courtney Deifel. “I thought it was a combination of them manufacturing some runs, taking advantage of some of our mistakes and us giving them a little bit (of help), and you just can’t do that at this time of the year. Credit to them for capitalizing on that and we will be ready to roll tomorrow.”
OU senior lefthander Paige Lowary (10-1) made just her fifth start of the year and earned the win by scattering three hits and striking out six over six innings and 70 pitches.
“I thought Paige Lowary was exceptional,” said Sooners head coach Patty Gasso, who picked up her 1,200th victory in 24 seasons at OU. “It’s important to really go after this first game. It (winning) really puts you in the driver’s seat, which is where you want to be going forward … It’s a good way to get started.”
Sophomore righthander Mariah Lopez pitched one inning of relief for OU. Senior lefthanded ace Paige Parker did not play Friday and Gasso refused to confirm whether Parker will start game two.
With top-seeded Oregon’s stunning 9-6 home loss against Kentucky on Thursday night, the Sooners’ pitching staff entered Friday’s game as the national leader with a team ERA of 1.13.
Asked what went into her decision to start Lowary rather than Parker, Gasso said, “Having the luxury of three starters – and she (Lowary) has shown that she is a starter – and being able to mix it up however you want, and (you are) wondering if they are preparing for Paige Parker. I mean, if you’re preparing for Paige Parker and you’re facing Paige Lowary, you’re going, ‘What?' – and vice versa. The beauty is, in the postseason, we have a lot to work with. We’re not afraid of it. They’re not afraid of it. We understand. They’re a really tight-knit, supportive pitching staff, and that’s the key. It’s team, team, team.”
The Razorbacks knew they would have to face Lowary at some point in the game.
“We were a little surprised to see her (start),” Deifel said with a shrug, “but she had some big starts last weekend in the regional so it didn’t throw us too much. We knew we’d see one of the Paiges and if not Lowary (as the starter), we knew we’d see her at the end of the game … We got her a little earlier than we thought.”
Playing in their ninth straight NCAA Super Regional and 12th overall since the format was introduced in 2005, the Sooners took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second on a fielder’s choice that scored Nicole Pendley. Nicole Mendes later scored on a wild pitch.
National freshman of the year finalist Jocelyn Alo, who leads the nation in home runs, clobbered No. 27 with a towering blow just inside the left-field foul pole to lead off the third inning.
First baseman Shay Knighten followed with a line drive to left for back-to-back home runs that gave the Sooners a 4-0 lead.
Knighten’s solo shot chased Arkansas righthander and national freshman of the year finalist Mary Haff after she faced just 12 batters and surrendered four earned runs. Deifel said Haff will start again in Game Two.
Mendes, who went 3-for-3 and scored three runs, tripled and was then knocked in on a single to right from Fale Aviu to make the score 5-1.
The Sooners pushed their advantage to 6-1 when Kelsey Arnold scored Mendes on a fielder’s choice in the fifth. Aviu scored to make it 7-1 on a squeeze bunt attempt from Lea Wodach that resulted in a throwing error. The Razorbacks added a run off Lopez in the seventh to set the final margin.