OU makes strong case for best ever
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The best team doesn't always win in Oklahoma City. The best team isn't always this good.
Come to think of it, the best team may never have been this good.
A night after Oklahoma rallied from a three-run deficit in the bottom of the 11th inning and finished off an epic win with a walk-off home run one inning later, the prohibitive favorite spared another record crowd similar heart palpitations. Three runs in the third inning were all the Sooners ultimately needed to beat Tennessee 4-0 in Game 2 of the Women's College World Series championship round and win the program's second national championship.
And a year to the day after they beat Alabama in the opening game of last season's championship series, only to then lose the next two games and the championship, the Sooners celebrated one of college softball's greatest seasons.
"One year ago, we watched another team celebrate right in front of us," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "We, as a team, prayed together and thanked God for the opportunity to be in a national championship and knew that this was something we needed to learn from. When that last out was recorded, all of a sudden, the Sooners were supposed to be the team to beat. And it's very difficult to live that way. But this team is resilient."
How good was the first team in more than a decade to win a title with fewer than five losses?
Good enough that the Sooners didn't even need the college game's most dominant pitcher to throw a pitch Tuesday, turning instead to senior Michelle Gascoigne. All Gascoigne, herself one of the final 10 players in the running for national player of the year, did in her first postseason start was throw the first shutout in a clinching game since 2008.
Depth? Oklahoma is the first winner to start two pitchers in the championship round for non-injury reasons since the inception of the best-of-three series.
Two-time reigning national player of the year Keilani Ricketts was good enough to help win the game anyway, driving in all four runs.
The All-American finished her time at Oklahoma ranked ninth in NCAA history in career pitching wins. Only two of the pitchers ahead of her won a national championship. She also finished as one of just 11 pitchers with at least 1,600 career strikeouts, and one of only four pitchers in that group to win a national championship.
And yet as she proved again Tuesday night with her 50th career home run, she doesn't need to pitch to change games.
As her three-run home run sailed over the fence in the third inning, Ricketts reached her hand up to adjust the face mask on her batting helmet, knocked askew by the force of the swing just completed. She picked up the flight of the ball and almost unobtrusively pumped her fist a couple of times. She waited a long time for this.
Gasso said after the game there was now no doubt Ricketts had earned a place among the best of all time, a sentiment that left the senior almost perpetually stoic in public to wipe away tears.
"It means the world to be able to have that national championship for our senior year," Ricketts said. "Just because we've had a lot of high points throughout our career, but this is definitely the highest."
The other coach who has the luxury of penciling in Ricketts on his lineup card, U.S. national team coach Ken Eriksen, has seen the best softball had to offer for three decades. The list of comparable two-way talents he could come up with was short and started with Joan Joyce, whom many who saw her play well before there was NCAA softball consider the best player of all time, and former UCLA and Team USA star Lisa Fernandez.
"Keilani is in that company at this point in her career," Eriksen said this week. "Where you can say those three in their eras were the players and the faces of softball who would go to the mound, throw the no-hitter and hit the home run to win the ball game. Those three are the only ones who come to mind on a dominating basis -- and Michele Smith, who was up in that category. Those four right there? Tough to deny that [Ricketts] belongs in that company."
The win also opens the conversation as to the team's place among the greatest of all time. Not surprisingly, the competition consists mostly of teams from Arizona and UCLA, 19 NCAA championships between them.
There was the 1992 UCLA team that went 54-2, outscored opponents 39-3 in seven postseason games and was led by Fernandez, who went 29-0 with a 0.14 EA and hit .401 to earn national player of the year honors. The 1999 Bruins went 63-6 and were powered both by a lineup that included Stacey Nuveman, who hit .446 with 31 home runs, and two pitchers in Courtney Dale and Amanda Freed, who won at least 27 games with ERAs of less than 1.00.
While it's sure to start an argument among the respective fan bases, Arizona's 1994 team might be the best of the bunch. That team's .380 team batting average was a single-season NCAA record at the time and remains the best mark by any team that won a national championship. All of that, and it had national player of the year Susie Parra in the circle.
The 2013 Sooners can make a strong case. They led the nation in ERA, runs and slugging percentage, among other statistics. In so doing, they became the first champion to lead the nation in ERA and scoring, a combination that does make it rather difficult to lose. They had the best player in Ricketts, the best hitter in Lauren Chamberlain, the Big 12 player of the year in Shelby Pendley, the best No. 9 hitter in Brianna Turang, and on and on and on.
They won 25 games, almost half of their total wins, by the run rule in five or six innings. They were just better than everyone else this season. And most seasons.
Maybe it's an unsatisfying answer, but the fact that Oklahoma undeniably earned a place in the conversation is enough.
"They're an amazing team," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "I spent nine years with our national team. and I think that Oklahoma team would have beat most of the other countries we played, even the great ones. I don't know if they would have beat the U.S., but I tell you what, they're a great team."
And yet what mattered more to the Sooners in recent weeks than their place in history, and what made their postseason run unique, was their place in the community that hosted the championship this year, just as it hosted it when those Arizona and UCLA teams won titles.
Central Oklahoma has been college softball's unofficial home for one week a year for the better part of 25 years. But it's always home for the Sooners. They saw the devastation in Moore, Okla., after a tornado hit a community that sits between Norman and Oklahoma City. They welcomed Casey Angle, the sister of tornado victim Sydney Angle, into their midst.
There are eight Californians on Oklahoma's roster (not to mention an Australian), but the "Home" logos they wore on their helmets were more than a gesture, whether it sat on the head of someone from Yukon, Okla., or Corona, Calif.
"There's a lot of California girls on this team, but as soon as we get here, it really becomes home," Chamberlain said. "This place has really become home for me. I'm staying here for the summer; I don't know how much I'm going to be at home, just because I want to be here. It's interesting because tornadoes were always something where it's like, 'Oh, I hope I'm in Oklahoma when they get a tornado so they can experience it.' It's always something that never really affects you. And then when you see what happened in Moore and even the past couple of days, it's an eye opener.
"Oklahoma is my home now, so it's kind of just doing what we can for this state and using softball as a tool to almost bring hope to a really dark time in our state."
It turns out the best team was here all along. Oklahoma strong.