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The social institution that is the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry in the Lone Star State took longer to hit its stride in softball than it did in most sports, but it doesn't take Aggies and Longhorns much time to make any competition meaningful.
Which is one more reason the mood will be decidedly bittersweet when two teams with 25 native Texans between them square off for the final time before Texas A&M departs for the SEC and the hottest of rivalries sinks into a cold war. After Thursday's game in College Station (ESPN2/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) and two more in Austin over the weekend, the programs will go their separate ways, the prospects for any short-term reunions likely limited to postseason play.
It's a refrain now familiar, having played out across a host of sports this academic year, but the result will split a state.
"Most of us have grown up with some of the players that are on [the other team], and after the game, it's a little more friendly, but before and during the game, we don't talk -- we wouldn't talk to them until the game was over," former Texas All-American and Olympian Cat Osterman recalled. "I have memories of winning at home, I have memories of losing at A&M; their fans have the historical reputation of being rather obnoxious. But it was a huge rivalry. It was something we prided ourselves on; we never wanted to end the season not having a winning record against them. It's sad to see it coming to an end."
It wasn't so long ago that it was just beginning. While the rivalry between the two most recognizable schools in the state dates back longer than the lifespan of the average fan in sports such as baseball, basketball and football, Texas and Texas A&M played for the first time in softball in 1997. That was the first year the Longhorns fielded a varsity team, ironically mirroring the late advent of the sport at many of the SEC schools the Aggies will play next season. It was in the growth of power programs such as Texas and Florida in the past decade-plus that the sport fully flourished nationally.
But 1997 also marked the 10-year anniversary of Texas A&M's second NCAA national championship in softball. It remains the only program outside the Pac-12 to win multiple NCAA titles (it also has three second-place finishes in the NCAA era and an AIAW title). And from 1983, when Texas A&M won for the first time, until fellow Big 12 side Oklahoma won in 2000, it was the only school outside of Arizona or California to be crowned champion. The players on the field the first time the Aggies and Longhorns met hadn't yet been born when Texas A&M played its first game in 1972.
"The first year [in 1997], the teams weren't equal, and we had an advantage," said Texas A&M coach Jo Evans, who took over that program a year prior to rival Texas going varsity. "But that didn't last. It's the University of Texas, and they do a great job recruiting and funding their sports, and so it didn't take any time for Texas to really get competitive and compete with everyone else in the conference, including us. Once you get that pitcher on the mound, you've got a shot, and when they got Christa Williams and then they got Cat Osterman, things really elevated for them."
The contrast between a program with one of the sport's richest histories and the newcomer that needed just two seasons to make the first of four trips to the Women's College World Series only added to the rivalry.
While a player at Utah, Evans faced Texas A&M's Lori Stoll, still the only four-time All-American for the Aggies and the ace of the school's first championship team. A few years later, Evans was the novice coach at her alma mater when she sent her team out to face Shawn Andaya, the ace of Texas A&M's second championship team and a pitcher whose World Series single-game record 25 innings pitched in 1984 is a mark unlikely to fall anytime soon. It's easy to think that some of that history, some of that success, played a role in creating a culture of softball in the state strong enough to provide Texas coach Connie Clark with talents to build a program around, such as Williams and Osterman.
Like most her age, Texas A&M senior outfielder Kelsea Orsak might not be fluent in the history of her program, at least that beyond the point at which she started going to games in College Station middle school, but that doesn't diminish the hold the rivalry has on her. For those of her generation, the softball rivalry has effectively always been there as part of the larger Texas-Texas A&M narrative. Orsak didn't grow up on one side of the divide -- her most immediate connection was to the University of Houston, where her father played on the Phi Slama Jama basketball teams and her older sister played volleyball. But even those who aren't on one side or the other are surrounded by it.
"Being from Texas, you hear about it since you're a little girl," Orsak said. "And then growing up, you come to school, and it's everything and more of what you imagined. Getting out there on the field, I'm a senior now, but as a freshman, my first game against Texas, there's no feeling like that at all. You just have, always, this absolutely amazing atmosphere out there."
In the past 17 meetings in softball, dating back to the 2005 season, only four games were decided by more than three runs. Five of those games were decided by a single run. Even with the head start Texas A&M had on its rival in the sport, 12 of 37 all-time games between the two ended on the margin of a single run. The games routinely play out as if both teams believe it's the last chance they'll ever get for bragging rights. The difference this time is they're right.
"It's crazy to me that this is the last time that's going to happen," Orsak said. "And nobody else, for awhile, is going to be able to feel that feeling of getting out there in that atmosphere of the rivalry between Texas and A&M. For me, it's going to be that last hurrah. All the other times we played Texas were great and unforgettable experiences, but I can't imagine how this is going to be -- with the coaches, with every single person on both teams, all the fans, everything. Nothing is going to be left on the field at the end of the game."
Texas and Texas A&M enter the series second and third, respectively, in the Big 12 standings behind Oklahoma. A conference title is still very much in play for both, in addition to important NCAA tournament seeding (the top eight seeds in the field of 64 earn the right to potentially host a super regional, one round shy of the Women's College World Series). But the number that matters most this week might be this: Texas A&M leads the all-time series 19-18.
The Big 12 and the NCAA tournament can wait. For one final time, this is about Lone Star bragging rights.