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Hard and heavy, but champions again as OU softball earns fourth title in a row

Bob Przybyloby:Bob Przybylo06/07/24

BPrzybylo

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s just always said for OU softball. No qualifiers to the statement. No hint of just how ridiculous it really sounds.

Just go win another, go win another national championship. Do it, no excuses.

Yet somehow, the Sooners keep actually accomplishing that. Year after year, make it four in a row. OU completed one more journey with a championship, taking out No. 1 Texas 8-4 in Game 2 of the Women’s College World Series championship series Thursday night at OGE Field at Devon Park.

The second-ranked Sooners swept the Longhorns to claim their fourth straight national championship, a feat no program has ever done.

OU can make it look easy. But make no mistake about it – it’s hard. It was hard.

“It’s probably the hardest coaching season that I’ve had in a while because of a lot of the naysayers, a lot of — I don’t know,” head coach Patty Gasso said. “It’s heavy, just I don’t know how to explain how heavy.

“Heavy is a head that wears the crown is the one thing that really stuck out. That really has felt true. It’s been exhausting. These players are exhausted, but they keep going. It’s the love for each other, the love for the game. It’s the love for the university. But they’re elite athletes who have extreme passion.”

Gasso knew it would be. She said it back in February. In order to accomplish history that no program has ever done, it was going to require the sacrifice. This season? There was no record-setting winning streak as the weight of the world on their back.

This season was about was OU good enough? Because, frankly, there were times when the Sooners weren’t. They know it, admit it, but they never gave in. Losing regular season series at Texas, vs. Oklahoma State. Being taken to the absolute brink in the WCWS semifinals against Florida.

The path was far from easy.

“For me personally, I know I had very high expectations,” senior Jayda Coleman said. “Even right off the bat playing our first game, I felt the pressure. I felt the expectations. As we went on, if we lost one game, two games, lost to Texas, everyone had an opinion about us.

“It was frustrating just to see everyone on Twitter, TikTok hoping anybody else but us. Well… That didn’t happen, so… We’re blessed.”

A team that had to dig deep to reach this point. But on this particular night? A night of fun. A game plan that seemed a little odd, at first, but worked out exactly the way Gasso planned.

Kelly Maxwell had done the heavy lifting to put the Sooners in this position. Throwing 267 pitches in 15 innings in two pressure-packed wins, it didn’t need to be about her Thursday.

But about the team, the army of 21. And when you break it down further to pitching, a five-person rotation that was ready whenever their number was called.

“I tell you, this is one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever been a part of because of that,” Gasso said. “We have not done this this season. We knew we couldn’t throw Kelly, just can’t. I did that one time with a girl named Paige Parker. I’d never do it again. It wasn’t worth it.

“It was exactly planned out, and it worked exactly how it was supposed to, to a T, to a T. Jen would say, It’s time. Are you sure? Yes. Are you sure now? It was new to us. What I loved is every pitcher had a part in this, for the most part. Even if it’s one batter.

“It was really, really cool. That’s one thing I’ll always remember, is just what this felt like. It was probably the least tense I’ve ever been. I mean, I’m looking around like, this is the national championship. We could be winning this right now. Usually your heart is doing that (beating fast) all the time. But I’m laughing. Having a wonderful time with them because it just felt easy. It just felt, I don’t know, so real.”

Five pitchers (Karlie Keeney, Paytn Monticelli, Kierston Deal, Nicole May, Maxwell), but when it came to slam the door, it was time for Maxwell. She made one of the toughest decisions maybe in softball history by transferring from Oklahoma State to Bedlam rival OU.

She carried that weight all summer, fall, winter and into the season. Carried that well into the season and maybe even the postseason until she let it go.

The criticism, the skepticism, just let it go.

Maxwell came in to record the final four to punctuate an amazing five-game stretch in Oklahoma City. She threw 27 innings, allowing 12 hits, seven earned runs, 16 walks and 32 strikeouts. In that stretch? Maxwell went 3-0 and earned the championship-clinching save, named the WCWS Most Outstanding Player.

“I think just through hard work, staying true to myself,” Maxwell said. “Just kind of keeping my head down. Even though, like, you don’t want to see it, you still see it, it still kind of gets to you. Not being able to, you know, say something back, just being able to go to work every day.

“I received a lot of hate, a lot of doubt. But I’m just thankful for these girls and this team and this staff, just to pick me up and have my back. Everything that I’ve been through, to have God right by my side working in my life. I’m grateful that I’m here.”

Again, a team thing, everybody playing their part.

Texas took a 1-0 lead before Kasidi Pickering came through with a two-run home run in the bottom of the second. The Longhorns kept coming, but so did OU.

With Texas up 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth, the tide changed once and for all. Bases loaded, one out, and it was Cydney Sanders with, perhaps, the biggest hit of the game. Sanders smoked a double in the gap, scoring all three runs.

A one-run deficit into a two-run advantage. UT mounted one last stand in the sixth inning before OU posted a three-run bottom of the sixth to hammer it home – the crown stays in Norman.

“This one, to me, I definitely felt a little bit more sentimental,” senior co-captain Kinzie Hansen said. “We grew up together. I came in at 17 with (Rylie) Boone, then they came in freshman year after COVID. Kelly transferred.

“I’m so, so proud of this team, and everyone had their hand in it. It was never one hero at the plate or on the mound or anything like that. This was a team effort. We fought all season.”

All season, all their careers. During this incredible four-season run, OU is 235-15 (winning 94 percent). The Sooners close 2024 at 59-7.

Only one team gets to end on a victory. And Gasso really let the point hit home. This senior class? Never left on a loss.

“What’s really weird for me is in four years, I’ve never had a cry up here,” Gasso said. “But I did anyway. Because they were all sitting here. When they’re out, it’s easier. It’s like I haven’t felt the hurt of the last loss. That is just incomprehensible at this level. It’s crazy. But it’s an honor.”

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