Pitching Perfect in Run-Rule Victory
NORMAN – For the top-ranked Oklahoma softball team, this postseason began Friday night as a convincing continuation of the regular season.
The Sooners pushed their Division I single-season-record winning streak to 40 straight with a 12-0 no-hitter against Maryland-Baltimore County in five innings before a sellout crowd of 1,905 at Marita Hynes Field in their opening-round game of the NCAA Norman Regional.
OU has now won a program-record 48 straight home games.
Three pitchers combined for a perfect game, the first combined perfect effort in program history, and 12 strikeouts for the Sooners and three batters hit home runs.
Junior left-hander Giselle Juarez (23-0) struck out the first five batters she faced and finished with six strikeouts in three innings of work. Junior right-hander Mariah Lopez replaced Juarez in the top of the fourth inning and struck out the side. Junior right-hander Shannon Saile closed out the game, pitching in the top of the fifth, and also struck out the side.
“There’s nothing else you could ask for,” OU head coach Patty Gasso said of her team’s dominating pitching combination. “Any one of those pitchers could come in at any time the rest of the way (for us). Giselle said it very eloquently, ‘These pitchers, all of them, could be the No. 1 pitcher on any program.’ But they understand that this connection is important to get what they want and they surrender their ego for it, and I love that about them.”
Gasso said she wanted to have a chance to use a pitching rotation in the opener.
“That’s what we were hoping for, not knowing how many runs we were going to get,” Gasso said. “We wanted to keep Giselle in until we felt comfortable to make a change. I didn’t want to pull her if we weren’t in a comfortable position.”
The Sooners have run-ruled 25 opponents and shut out 24 team this season. They have won 39 games by at least five runs and have hit multiple home runs in 31 games. (OU swept last year’s NCAA Norman Regional with three shutouts by a combined score of 24-0.)
“Oklahoma’s a great ball club and we knew we had to play a perfect game, make perfect pitches, play perfect defense and do a great job on offense to be able to have a shot at it.” said first-year UMBC head coach Chris Kuhlmeyer, a former assistant at Baylor.
The four-team, three-day Norman Regional continues Saturday with the No. 1-seeded Sooners (50-2) facing Wisconsin (41-12) at 3 p.m. The Badgers advanced with a 4-2 victory over Notre Dame (36-17) in Friday night’s opener.
The Fighting Irish will face UMBC (30-23) in Saturday’s second game.
The winner of the OU-Wisconsin game will advance to Sunday’s championship round at 1 p.m. as the regional’s lone remaining unbeaten in the double-elimination competition while the loser will play in Saturday’s final elimination game.
In a game that didn’t start until 9:15 p.m., OU took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning when Jocelyn Alo’s pop fly behind first base was misjudged in a steady wind, which scored Big 12 Player of the Year Sydney Romero, who had reached on a bunt single.
Freshman shortstop Grace Lyons, the Sooners’ No. 9 hitter, made the score 3-0 in the bottom of the second when she drilled a two-run home run to left-center, scoring Shay Knighten, who reached on a walk.
Senior left fielder Fale Aviu opened the third inning with a double to right-center and promptly scored on a line-drive home run to left-center by senior second baseman Caleigh Clifton. Junior centerfielder Nicole Mendez launched a two-run homer down the right-field line to push OU’s lead to 7-0.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Sooners set the final margin on a bases-loaded walk to Alo, a two-run single to right from pinch-hitting senior Kylie Lundberg, a bloop single to right from Mendez that chased UMBC lefty starter Courtney Coppersmith (21-13) and a ground-out RBI that scored Lundberg.
OU entered the tournament leading the nation in batting average (.365), earned run average (1.15), fielding percentage (.986), home runs per game (1.90), on-base percentage (.456), shutouts (23), slugging percentage (.675), strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.87) and win-loss percentage (.961).
“They’re No. 1 for a reason,” Coppersmith said of the Sooners. “They can hit the ball. It doesn’t matter what pitch you throw them, they’re going to hit it.”
Hosting an NCAA Regional for the ninth straight year, OU is now 72-19 (.791) in regional play and has 17 regional championships in 25 appearances.
The winner of the Norman Regional will advance to the NCAA Super Regional round against the winner of the Evanston Regional, hosted by Northwestern. The winner of that Super Regional advances to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
OU has advanced to the NCAA Tournament in all 25 seasons under Gasso, plus the season before her arrival. Only Arizona has a longer streak at 32 straight and the Sooners are tied with Washington for second-longest run.
The Sooners are looking for their 10th straight Super Regional appearance and their 13th WCWS appearance.
This marks the second time OU has been the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The previous time came in 2013 when the Sooners claimed their second national title.