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Sunday, May 25, 2014
Sooners find their way home

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- Of course it was more difficult this time.

Of course it took three days and around 15 hours of real time to complete, two games interrupted by torrential rain, lightning and flood warnings. Of course Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, along with her Tennessee counterparts Karen and Ralph Weekly, had to lobby just to avoid starting the final game a few minutes shy of midnight local time.

Of course Oklahoma fell behind without giving up a hit when the final game did get underway Sunday afternoon.

Lauren Chamberlain
Lauren Chamberlain's presence -- and her absence -- made a difference for Oklahoma this season.

Of course one of the nation's premier power hitters dropped down a picture-perfect squeeze bunt of her own volition, just as a senior whose best offensive attribute is her ability to lay down a quality bunt instead hit a ball over the fence.

And of course one of the best hitters who ever swung a bat in college softball saved herself the stress of sprinting on a partially torn knee ligament by trotting around the bases after two home runs hit far enough to count for three.

So Oklahoma is going back to the Women's College World Series for the fourth year in a row after an 8-2 win against Tennessee in the third game of the Norman super regional.

Of course? Hardly. This was anything but a sure thing.

"It's really been a blast to see these guys just piece things together," Gasso said. "I will never forget this group as long as I live. They definitely have left a legacy here with what they've gone through and how they've accomplished it."

Last season was the storybook season for the Sooners. First in the nation in offense. First in the nation in defense. Unbeaten in the Women's College World Series by a combined 32-8 score in five games. Unbeaten in the NCAA tournament by a 91-16 margin in 10 games. Quite possibly the greatest college team of all time.

This season, by contrast, was a slog. As March turned to April, the Sooners had exceeded last season's loss total and tumbled to the cusp of unranked status in one of two major polls.

Where they are now has everything to do with Lauren Chamberlain, both by her presence and her absence.

Oklahoma found its identity when it played a month without the All-American who remains on pace to break Stacey Nuveman's NCAA career record for home runs. They were 17-6 when she went down with a back injury and faced two tough series out of conference against Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU before they began Big 12 play.

They were 36-10 and firmly in control of the Big 12 title race when she returned. "I can specifically remember watching them against Baylor and seeing a different vibe, a different team," Chamberlain said of watching a road game from her couch. "It looked free, it really did."

That was the team that showed up this weekend. Not perfect or something close to it, undone by Tennessee ace Ellen Renfroe in Saturday's second game, but very much the sum of its parts.

Curiously omitted from what was admittedly a crowded field of 10 finalists for national player of the year, junior Shelby Pendley has done everything short of literally putting the team on her back. Her stock in trade is run production at the plate and run prevention with a great glove at third base, but when the Sooners needed a second arm in the circle, she stepped up and provided quality innings despite a respite from pitching that dated back to her high school days.

I was in my own head at the beginning of the season, and I wasn't being a selfless leader. I think my injury helped me be there for my team a little bit more.

-- Lauren Chamberlain

And when a player who will enter next season behind only Chamberlain among the NCAA's active home run leaders felt like she wasn't getting the contact she wanted against Renfroe on Sunday, she suggested to Gasso that they try a squeeze bunt with runners on first and third and the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the fourth inning. The five-foot squib was executed every bit as well as any of her 250-foot home run blasts and the Sooners moved on leading 3-2.

"I'm very confident in my bunting, even though I don't do it too much," Pendley said. "That time I was just feeling the squeeze."

The ace of a team that wasn't supposed to have one, Kelsey Stevens was terrific in her third quality start in as many days. Far from looking worn down by a heavy workload this season, she kept Tennessee at bay all weekend.

Known more for her bunts, senior Javen Henson hit her fifth home run of the season to add to the lead in the fifth inning. Protection behind Chamberlain and Pendley, Brittany Williams hit a home run as part of a sixth-inning barrage, two days after leaving the field with assistance after a rough landing on a play in the outfield. Erin Miller and Callie Parsons, in-state products who were spare parts a season ago, each had two hits in the finale.

They found out who they were without Chamberlain. But she is the final piece of the puzzle. It was her home run in the bottom of the third that tied the game and settled nerves in Norman after Tennessee scored on an error an inning earlier. And it was her blast off the video board high above a secondary fence in left field that set off the sixth-inning barrage that broke the game wide open.

"Those two shots she hit today were moon shots, just fantastic shots," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "Lauren Chamberlain is not just a great softball player, but she's a really good ... I mean, she's a really good kid."

After back-to-back 30-homer seasons to begin her college career, her junior season was a struggle from the start. Without Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults in the middle of the lineup, she saw even fewer pitches to hit early. And without all of the seniors from a season ago, the captain's "C" on her jersey sat heavy, too.

"I was in myself a little bit, I'm going to admit that," Chamberlain said. "I was in my own head at the beginning of the season, and I wasn't being a selfless leader. I think my injury helped me be there for my team a little bit more."

She could call the back injury a blessing in disguise for the opportunity it gave her to take a step back and for her teammates to take a collective step forward, but it seemed difficult to find purpose in the partially torn PCL she suffered in the final weekend of the regular season. Still, she put a brace on the knee and went about trying to figure out what she could still do.

And what Chamberlain has done the past two weeks can't be undersold. She had to if not completely redo her approach at the plate than significantly tweak it, hitting more off her healthy front leg to protect the injured back leg.

She still hit the ball as well as anyone in the country, not just Sunday's two home runs but the double she reached out and lined into the gap Saturday on a pitch few right-handed hitters could have done anything with. Even Sunday, she found herself testing out how much of her old approach her body could countenance.

"It was tough off of Renfroe because on that high ball," Chamberlain said. "When I'm standing straight up, it feels like it's coming right at me; it doesn't feel like it's going to tail up. It was important for me today to get back into my legs and kind of get back into that low stance so I could zone the ball in. It's [a matter of] managing my pain."

She ran better this week than a week earlier. She played the field this week. She will tell you she feels better by the day. But she isn't healthy. Not even close.

There are other great hitters in the sport. There is no other hitter for whom a home run seems as realistic a possibility in every at-bat as a strikeout does for a pitching ace. It would still be borderline criminal to miss one of her at-bats if she was an introvert, a hitting savant who preferred to live her life in batting cages. But she isn't that. She has every bit as much personality as power.

She made the point in a tweet during her first absence. Hitting is her creative outlet. The bat is her brush or her pen.

"I feel like it's like writing, it's like singing," Chamberlain said. "I don't know, it's beautiful to me. It's kind of hard to explain, but when you hit the right way -- and I see this when Shelby is hitting, I just love watching her hit -- it's so cool to me. Same with Georgia [Casey] on some of her at-bats. It's literally so beautiful when it's done right, and the feeling that you get when you hit the ball, it's priceless. "That's why I enjoy hitting so much, and that's why I'll talk hitting 24-7."

The team needs her both for her bat and her spirit. It needed her this weekend and will need her next week. But both she and it also benefited from seeing how much more they can be than that.

"They saved me," Chamberlain said. "Really, they kept me in this season."

A season that continues next week in Oklahoma City.