OKLAHOMA CITY — The defending champions were teetering, if only for a moment.
On Wednesday night, during the opening game of the best-of-three Women’s College World Series championship set, the Oklahoma bats that had come to signify dominance in college softball, leading the country in batting average, on-base percentage and home runs, fell noticeably silent against Florida State with only one hit and no runs through three innings.
The Sooners’ gloves weren’t working, either. The top fielding team in the country committed its 17th error of the season when third baseman Alyssa Brito was eaten up by a sharp ground ball in the third inning. In the following inning, pitcher Jordy Bahl couldn’t field a harmless tapper back to the mound for the team’s 18th error — her first this season.
But after each miscue, Bahl dug in and delivered, throwing inning-ending strikeouts that culminated with explosive displays of emotion. The fiery Bahl ripped off her face mask each time and screamed. Catcher Kinzie Hansen spiked the ball in celebration.
How’s that for being unapologetically energetic? When designated player Haley Lee led off the fourth inning being hit by pitch, she turned to the pro-Sooner crowd and waved her arms wildly, encouraging them to cheer louder. Hansen promptly drilled a double to the center-field fence and Bahl, who had come on as a pinch runner for Lee, scored all the way from first base.
The Sooner fans at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, who had been restlessly waiting for a breakthrough, erupted. And from there, the rout was on as Oklahoma scored two more runs in the inning and went on to win 5-0, setting up an elimination game Thursday night.
Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso later said her team was uncharacteristically anxious to start the game. She said that maybe the two weather delays had something to do with it.
Which is why she summoned the players into an area behind the dugout in the fourth inning. Away from prying eyes, she said, they had a “little conversation.”
“Who are we right now?” Gasso asked her players. “This is not how we play the game.”
She hit reset.
“We don’t try hard,” she said, “we just play.”
And that might be the secret to Oklahoma’s 52-game winning streak. Aside from having a dizzying array of talent, it is a team that plays with a style that’s unflinching, uncompromising and absolutely unrelenting.
They’re a team, Hansen said, that thrives on chaos.
They’re a team that dances in the dugout and eggs on their head coach until she gives them a little shimmy.
When center fielder Jayda Coleman threw out Kalie Harding trying to stretch a single into a double to end the top of the sixth inning, a party broke out in short left field.
When the game ended, the bench players came onto the field waving towels in the air.
If Wednesday night proved anything, it’s that getting in a jam doesn’t bother these Sooners. It might actually wake them up. Ask Clemson and Stanford and any other team that dared to get tangled up in a close game with Gasso’s squad this season.
She’s the one encouraging every fist-bump and high-five. She’s OK with her players throwing their bats after a walk — as long as they’re not thrown toward the opposing dugout.
She needs them playing loose. She needs them creating their own energy.
In theory, Oklahoma entered this WCWS with all the pressure. It was the budding dynasty with a never-ending win streak. It was the wire-to-wire favorite to win a third consecutive national championship and a sixth title in 10 years.
It was the team with five All-Americans, four batters hitting .400 or better and three pitchers with a sub-1.00 ERA.
But that wealth of talent — which doesn’t include so many quality transfers and high school recruits — is exactly why the Sooners can smile through harrowing moments. At least that’s how Liberty coach Dot Richardson sees it. And she ought to know. She helped UCLA take home the first of seven championships from 1982 to 1992. She won gold medals with Team USA in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics.
“Competitive athletes compete,” she said, “they don’t bicker. Everyone, when they’re really good, they want to play the game. They might get jealous, they might say stuff, but they want to play the game and compete at the highest level.”
Richardson saw it up close earlier in the season when Liberty and Oklahoma played to a 0-0 tie through seven innings. Then the Sooners cobbled together the winning run in the eighth when Bahl scored from second base on a walk-off bunt that resulted in a throwing error.
They always seem to find a way.
“They’re loud and they’re cheering and they’re lit,” Richardson said. “They’re on top of the world and they believe they’re invincible. And you have to feel that way. When you want to be more than good — when you want to be great — you have to play with freedom.”
Richardson has kept an eye on them ever since.
“And every time I have met them as players or that we’ve talked to them … they don’t want to just be good, they want to be great,” she said. “And to build this huge legacy.”
On Wednesday night, they took yet another step toward making history.
UCLA was the last team to three-peat.
Oklahoma is eager to join the Bruins.