Greatness is rarely realized in a single moment. Some teams achieve success on the playing field like a shooting star: a flash of brilliance, streaking into our line of vision for one captivating moment before fading away and leaving only a faint memory behind.
But true, sustained greatness is like a steady light, shining over the landscape of the sport itself and illuminating everything around it. It is the culmination of many moments: moments in the lives of players and coaches and teams and administrators, moments in which they stood at a crossroads and turned away from the path of least resistance.
The decision to forgo graduate school for the chance to coach a young collegiate softball team. The chance to leave the West Coast for a coaching job in Norman, Okla. The commitment to building a state-of-the-art softball complex for a team on the rise.
Moments like these have formed the foundation of the University of Oklahoma softball program, shaping a small team under the leadership of a doggedly determined head coach into one of the country's elite contenders.
Consider the numbers: Eight Women's College World Series appearances. Ten conference titles. Forty-one All-Americans. One national championship. One NFCA Hall of Fame head coach.
Making the program's third consecutive WCWS appearance this week, Head Coach Patty Gasso has continually coaxed her Sooners into achieving far more than anyone could have expected when OU adopted softball as a varsity sport in 1975. Anyone, that is, except for Marita Hynes.
When I first came to OU as a coach in the fall of 1976, my budget for travel, equipment and so on was $1,200," Marita Hynes said. "We traveled in cars, we traveled in vans and we didn't have any equipment. It was unbelievable how little we had offered to us in those days."
A former high school coach, Hynes inherited a softball team that had gone 18-16 in its first two seasons of competition, including a 4-10 mark in 1976. Besides the normal challenges that any first-year head coach would encounter, Hynes also faced an uphill battle for resources in a collegiate athletics landscape that looked vastly different than today's.
The odds for achieving success did not look to be stacked in Hynes' favor. Still, she persevered, in no small part because of her love for her native state.
"I had faith that we were going to build a very nice program, and I wanted to be here," said Hynes. "Oklahoma is my home. It's a great institution... you just can't beat it around the country."
Oklahoma is my home. It's a great institution... you just can't beat it around the country.
It was under the provision of Title IX that the University of Oklahoma Athletics Department set out to bring women's sports into the fold in the mid-70s. Part of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX was passed to establish gender equity in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding. It is mostly commonly known as the precedent that established competitive and recreational sports for women in schools and universities across the nation.
When the school's softball coach left after two seasons, OU chose an ambitious young coach from Okemah, Okla., to take leadership of the program. Hynes had recently resigned from her job as a secondary educator in Putnam City, Okla., to attend graduate school at Arizona State, but the administration at Oklahoma offered her a challenge she couldn't refuse.
"When I came to be a coach here, that was the reason I was able to coach: because of Title IX," Hynes said. "That's what really started me in my 30-year career here at Oklahoma, so I have a lot to be thankful for."
Hynes laid the groundwork for the successes that have followed OU softball to this day. In her 11 seasons at the helm of the program, she compiled a .578 winning percentage while working to establish Oklahoma as a national contender.
Hynes' squads qualified for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) College World Series three times while posting eight winning seasons.
Following the 1984 season, Hynes retired from coaching to join the athletic administration team at OU. Her legacy would endure far beyond the arena of the playing field, however. It was Hynes' efforts that proved instrumental in bringing the current NCAA WCWS to Oklahoma City, establishing the state of Oklahoma as a focal point in the world of collegiate softball. Later, as an OU associate athletics director, Hynes also played a major role in bringing a young coach from Long Beach City College to OU in 1995 - a softball coach by the name of Patty Gasso.
When our coach resigned (after the 1994 season), I got on the phone and called people from the East Coast, the West Coast and spent all weekend developing a long list," Hynes said. "I brought some coaches in and I had a student-athlete as a representative on the search committee because I thought that was very important. Of course, it was unanimous: Patty."
Patty Gasso was not always an NFCA Hall of Fame collegiate softball coach at the helm of one of the nation's top programs. When Hynes and her search committee pegged Gasso as their pick to lead the OU softball team, Gasso was fresh off her fifth season as a junior college coach in California.
"Marita took a huge risk on me," Gasso said. "I think she felt my vision in my interviews and Marita fought for me to get this position."
Gasso inherited a floundering program with a 284-245 record in 10 seasons and only one NCAA Regional berth in that span of time. The team lacked a dedicated softball facility, instead playing on a field owned by the City of Norman with no dressing rooms and only one batting cage. OU shared Reaves Park with slow-pitch leagues in the community, meaning practice times were limited and playing surfaces were often torn up and sometimes littered with trash.
We've got to do something different. I feel like they are women and we're girls. What are we going to do different?
Tasked with building a program from the ground up, Gasso faced battles at every turn. Her first Sooner squad was handed an early test in 1995, coming up against traditional softball powerhouse Arizona on the road. The Wildcats hammered OU by a score of 19-1 and went on to finish second in the nation that season behind Pac-10 foe UCLA.
"I will never forget (that game), looking at my coaches and saying, 'We've got to do something different. I feel like they are women and we're girls. What are we going to do different?'" Gasso recalled.
Gasso and her staff looked at the loss and made the choice not just to get better, but to become the very best. Many pieces of the puzzle needed to be put together - starting with a championship-grade facility in 1998. The playing field and amenities that came along with it would mark the first of many additions that pointed to Oklahoma's commitment to its softball team. Appropriately, the playing surface at this facility is known as Marita Hynes Field.
"Getting a new facility I would equate to going from a blacktop basketball court to an indoor gymnasium," Gasso said. "There was still more to do, but the main ingredient that we needed was the stadium, stands to call our own with a great playing surface, and that's what we got. That's how everything really started to move."
With a vision and a stadium to sell, Gasso and her staff set out to recruit the "women-type" of athletes they needed to challenge elite programs in the Pac-10. Gasso's aggressive coaching style would fit well with these players, who she characterized as "offensive and explosive." Every step of the way, the goal was the same: become a national contender, and then go even farther.
"It was 'Win, but let's keep bringing in athletes to help us get to a level where we're untouchable,'" Gasso said.
In Gasso's first five seasons at the helm of the OU program, the Sooners reached the NCAA Regional finals four times and won their first-ever conference title. Something big was happening in Norman, even if the rest of the country had yet to notice.
On the West Coast, the Pac-10 had dominated the world of collegiate softball. The conference's reputation primarily stemmed from the efforts of a pair of juggernauts in UCLA and Arizona. From 1982 to 1999, either the Bruins or the Wildcats took home the national title a combined 14 times, including a streak of 10 consecutive titles from 1988 to 1997.
In Gasso's first five seasons, OU posted a record of 1-12 against those two programs. The Sooners had every reason to be intimidated by UCLA and Arizona.
But after five seasons under Gasso's tenacious leadership, they weren't.
"I had a team that was absolutely fearless, and that's what was fun about it," Gasso recalled of her 2000 Sooners. "They had zero panic in them. They were afraid of no one."
The squad stormed to a 55-6 record in the regular season and put the softball world on notice with a win over Oregon State in the NCAA Region 3 championship. Gasso's team reached the NCAA Women's College World Series for the first time in program history. But the head coach sensed that few expected them to advance any farther.
I had a team that was absolutely fearless... They had zero panic in them. They were afraid of no one.
"We just started by taking it slow, game-by-game. The crowd started to build slowly," Gasso said. "I think people thought we'd be out in two and 'good job, great season.'"
Gasso and her team knew better, but to prove it would be no easy task. OU faced a daunting WCWS lineup that included four Pac-10 teams: Arizona, California, UCLA and Washington. History said the Sooners didn't stand a chance.
"Any big challenge that came in front of them, they accepted it, they loved it," Gasso said. "That's what was so rewarding. It was really an attitude of, 'Let's go for it, we've got everything to gain and nothing to lose.'"
OU started with a 2-1 win over California in the opening round of WCWS play. Two days later, they followed with a 3-1 triumph against Southern Miss. The buzz continued to build around the Sooners, but their focus couldn't be shaken as they prepared to face a giant that had long cast a shadow over the Oklahoma softball program: Arizona.
It was a game between titans, matching Arizona's nation-leading offense against Oklahoma's stellar pitching staff and defense. The Sooners put on a defensive clinic, shutting down UA's in a 1-0 statement victory to advance to the national championship.
The next day, the journey was completed. In front of a record crowd of more than 8,000 at Hall of Fame Stadium, the Sooners defeated UCLA 3-1 in a poetic finish that gave the University of Oklahoma its first NCAA title in any women's sport.
"It's pretty amazing to think that we did it in five years," Gasso reflected. "It was a lot of hard work and extremely fulfilling, because athletes came into this program believing we were going to do this. (In 2000), they were a team that was so together, and those are dynamics that are so important in winning."
In a sport so dominated by a handful of teams in one conference, the Sooners caused every softball team in the nation to stop and take notice. In just five years, Gasso and her coaching staff had taken a struggling program and transformed it into an elite competitor. If they could do that, who else might be able to?
"I think we honestly changed the dimension of college softball," Gasso said. "We really gave a hope across the country, and I think that also created new programs and new funding."
More than 13 years would pass before the Sooners would hoist the NCAA trophy again, and the Oklahoma softball program was in a much different place when the time came. Equipped with a championship-grade softball complex and all the tools needed for success, Gasso kept her second championship squad grounded by reminding them of the program’s humble roots.
"Any time we have alums nearby or out to watch, I always bring them to the locker room," Gasso said. "They're speaking to our athletes and sharing some of those stories. History is very important and our athletes currently know that."
The team Gasso assembled in 2013 provided one of the best examples of what her vision was when she took over the Oklahoma program in 1995. Stocked with skilled and talented athletes from top to bottom, OU's squad was a high-character group that entered the 2013 Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City hungry for the program’s second national title.
There would be no letdowns from the 2013 Sooners, a team chasing redemption from a loss in the 2012 championship series and playing inspired for a state that had been ravaged by tornadoes in the previous weeks. OU was nearly untouchable in the WCWS, using explosive bats and an airtight defense to outscore their opponents 23-5 and reach the championship round against Tennessee.
No single player could or would carry the Sooners past the Lady Vols, and OU relied on outstanding play defensively, in the circle and on the plate. Oklahoma needed 12 innings to grind out a 5-3 win in game one before downing UT 4-0 in game two, becoming only the fifth NCAA Division I softball program to win multiple national titles. When all was said and done in Oklahoma City, it was an appropriate finish for a team that had dominated the sport so completely all season.
The rise of Sooner softball cannot be measured by any one coach, player, team or victory. Again and again, OU has defied the odds to become a national contender, an elite softball powerhouse in the heart of the United States. Though the victories on the way to the top have been sweet, Gasso and her staff have never lost sight of their true purpose at OU.
"We are a program that is hard-working, and I push, but at the same time I love these players like they're my own kids. I'll do anything for them. My goals and my job as a coach are not just to win games but to prepare these young women for the future," Gasso said. "I take a lot of pride in that."
A Special Presentation of SoonersSports.com // University of Oklahoma Intercollegiate Athletics
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