OU, Alabama advance to softball championship series

Alabama College Softball

OU, Alabama advance to softball championship series

OKLAHOMA CITY – A year ago the Oklahoma women’s softball team qualified for the NCAA Women’s College World Series. Their stay there was brief, however, being eliminated in two games. The goal is to end up playing on Monday, which is the first of a possible three games to decide the NCAA National championship.

Patty Gasso, the OU head coach, knew there would be better days ahead for her Sooner team. And Sunday was one of those good days as OU eliminated the defending national champion Arizona State 5-3, before 9,167 people inside the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

From the outset, this year the Sooners’ mission has been to make it the World Series and play for the national championship. They swept through the regionals and super regionals and won three consecutive games in the 31st annual WCWS to extend their winning streak to 11 in advancing to the championship series Monday night.

This year marks just the third time in the 31-year history of the WCWS that a Pac-10/12 school did not make the championship finals. The other two years were 1983 and 1986 (Cal State Fullerton vs. Texas A&M each time).

For the first time since 2002, both teams that advanced to the championship finals did so without a loss through the first four days of play. In 2002, both Arizona and California won three straight games to advance to the championship game. This marks just the second time in WCWS history that a team from California or Arizona failed to make the championship finals.  The only other time was in 2009 when Washington defeated Florida for the title.

OU will be seeking its second NCAA softball championship, having won in 2000. OU’s opponent, Alabama, will be seeking its first and the first for an SEC team after reaching the semi-finals twice. The Crimson Tide eliminated the University of California, 5-2, in the second game Sunday with Alabama scoring three of its run on home runs.

“I just love the tenacity of this team and to find a way to play for national championship has been our ultimate dream, our ultimate goal and to know that is a chance for reality is unbelievable,” said Gasso.” And the hard work and effort they put in, there’s not another team that deserves it more than my Sooners, I’d guess I say.”

Gasso, who called Sunday’s game “one of the toughest I’ve ever been a part of,” knew it wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t against one of the top hitting teams in the country as the Sun Devils went right after OU ace Keilani Ricketts, scoring a pair of runs in the first inning on Annie Lockwood’s double to right center. But all year OU has not wavered even when it fell behind and had confidence in an offense that is certainly one of the best in college softball and isn’t to be denied.

OU cut the deficit to one in the second inning when, with one out, Katie Norris homered to center field off losing pitcher Dallas Escobedo, who allowed nine hits in the game and finished the year 24-8. This year, however, she gave up more homers with Norris’ being number 28.

Norris has been hitting so Gasso moved her up in the lineup from eighth to sixth and Norris has been seeing better pitches. “I honestly was just looking for a ball up in the zone and she laid it there,” Norris said about her fifth homer of the season and third in eight postseason games. The third inning however, was when the game turned in OU’s favor as the Sooners scored four times on four hits to take a 5-2 lead. The Sooners have erupted for at least four runs in an inning in nine of their last 13 games.

Catcher Jessica Shults doubled home a pair of runs in the inning as her liner to right fielder Aliz Johnson glanced off her glove as she laid-out trying to make the catch. Shultz later scored on a pop-up by Norris, which the Sun Devil third baseman Haley Steele lost in the sun and never touched, dropping to the left side of her. It would have been the third out of the inning so Shults was running and continued on to home after the costly error and the gift run. Ricketts also had an RBI single in the inning to account for a run.

The Sun Devils kept the pressure on OU and Ricketts throughout the game, stranding nine runners to OU’s five. The third and final ASU run came in the fourth inning when Elizabeth Caporuscio singled to right after one out and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Ricketts. Talor Haro got aboard on an infield single before Katelyn Body hit into a fielder’s choice to scored Caporuscio.

The Sun Devils stranded runners in every inning in keeping the pressure on Ricketts who more than earned her 36th win of the season, throwing 156 pitches on a humid day. For the 25th time this season, Ricketts fanned ten or more batters in a game and had 13 Sunday. She struck out five of the last Sun Devil batters in the sixth and seventh inning as they tried desperately to bring across runs. With her 13 strikeouts, Ricketts now has 1,231 for her career, which is second behind Cat Osterman, former Texas standout, who had 3,365 strikeouts.

Ricketts didn’t take anything for granted and she knew the Sun Devils would keep the pressure on her. She admitted it was more difficult for her Sunday. “So everybody wants it out there, and it’s going to be more of a battle as we get closer to that (championship series).”

The Sun Devils made Ricketts work hard every inning and it showed. “Honestly, I was getting behind because they weren’t chasing after my stuff. They were making me throw more pitches. They were battling off my pitches in the strike zone and I kept falling behind in counts because they were just battling.”

While OU battled its way to the championship series, Alabama used the home run ball to dispose of No. 1 ranked California. The three homers in a game set a school record for homers in a WCWS game. The Crimson Tide’s previous high was two homers against Florida on June 5, 2011. It also was Alabama’s 11th consecutive win this season.

Alabama (58-7) scored runs in the second inning, fifth inning and sixth inning and all came on solo homers by Jackie Traina, (10th), the winning pitcher, Kalia Hunt (21st) and Jazlyn Lunceford (8th). All were hit off losing pitcher Jolene Henderson, who finished the year 38-4, and allowed nine hits while striking out eight and walking two. Four of the five runs she allowed were earned. This was the first time this season that she allowed three home runs. Alabama has scored five or more runs in 45 of its 64 games this season, including five of its eight postseason contests.

California, which finished 58-7, had only two hits and scored its two runs on Danielle Henderson’s two-run homer to left field in the fourth inning. After the Henderson homer, Alabama answered back in the bottom of the fourth with another run. Senior  Jazlyn Lunceford led off with a walk and advanced to third on a single by Traina. Senior Kendall Dawson followed up with a single up the middle, scoring Lunceford and putting the Crimson Tide ahead, 3-2.

With the win, Traina became the first 40-game winner in Alabama softball. She also had a single in the fourth and was one of three Alabama players with two or more hits. Hunt and Braud also had two hits apiece.