Sooners, Tide send Pac-12 packing
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The rest of college softball searched for years for a way to dethrone the Pac-12. Alabama and Oklahoma used power and pitching to do just that Sunday afternoon.
All that remains is to figure out which method of collecting talent will bring home a trophy when first-generation Sooners and homegrown Crimson Tide meet in a best-of-three championship series beginning Monday.
For the first time since 1986 and just the second time in 31 years of the Women's College World Series, no Pac-12 team will be on the field when college softball's championship is decided. And for the first time ever, the championship will play out without at least one dugout occupied by a team from either the Pac-12 or the state of California.
"First of all, you've got to give the Pac-12 credit because they've done it so many years," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said after his program reached its first championship series. "There are athletes everywhere now. If you find them, you're going to put together a good team. It doesn't matter who it is, where you're at, cold weather, warm weather, East Coast, West Coast; if you can put them together and you can coach them up, you're going to have a good team. And I think it's great for the sport."
Oklahoma advanced to the championship round with a 5-3 win Sunday against defending champion Arizona State; this is OU's first trip to finals since winning its only national title in 2000 . It wasn't easy -- in fact, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso called it one of the toughest games she had been a part of -- but the Sooners avoided the drama of a winner-take-all second game on semifinal Sunday.
Extraordinary in her first two World Series starts and throughout a postseason run in which Oklahoma has rarely been challenged, Keilani Ricketts was merely better than most Sunday. She struggled to find the strike zone early and left the circle trailing by two runs after the top of the first inning. She walked four and allowed three earned runs on the day, a good outing for most against a lineup the caliber of Arizona State, but a departure for someone who walked eight and allowed just one earned run in 45 postseason innings prior to Sunday.
She was hardly helpless in striking out 13, including the final three batters in the seventh inning with a crowd of more than 9,000 on its feet in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, but this wasn't her game to win.
Oklahoma didn't need a perfect performance from its ace because it was the better team, not the team with the better pitcher. Gasso, as she often has, built her roster in large part by matching players from the most talent-rich region of the country, the same region responsible for all those Pac-12 championships, with a state eager to embrace a winner in any sport.
Seven of the nine players who started in the field for Oklahoma were Californians. There were as many starters on defense from Australia (second baseman Georgia Casey) as from Oklahoma (third baseman Javen Henson).
Gasso, a Southern California native who went to Long Beach State and coached at Long Beach City College before coming to Oklahoma in 1995, never lost touch with her old home or its thriving, competitive youth softball scene -- even as she, husband Jim and their two sons put down new roots in the middle of the country.
"California has been very, very good to me," Gasso said. "I'm from there, so I have roots there and I understand the recruiting aspects of it."
The architect of Oklahoma's success is not solely dependent on imports. Jennifer Stewart, the pitcher who guided the team to its first national title, is one notable Oklahoman among a lineage of standout players from the region. Even Sunday against Arizona State, Stillwater, Okla., native Katie Norris provided the first run for the Sooners with a home run in the second inning that brought the crowd to life and stymied any momentum claimed by the Sun Devils.
But the Sooners are playing Monday night because the pipeline from the Golden State has never pumped in more talent than in the past three years, including Ricketts, Jessica Shults, Lauren Chamberlain and Destinee Martinez, the four hitters in the heart of the order.
Shults, the All-American catcher whose two-run double put her team ahead to stay in the third inning, had her pick of colleges as a standout in Southern California. Oklahoma wasn't on her radar until Gasso reached out to the high school junior, but what she found amidst the red dirt stoked her competitive instincts.
"I came out for a visit, and right when they get you on campus, you just fall in love with the school," Shults said. "Compared to California, everything is just so big-time here because you're it in Oklahoma. There's no Lakers, there's no Dodgers; you're kind of like their team when you play for Oklahoma."
Shults was neither the first nor the last to feel that way. Bringing in one top-tier recruit from out of region helps for four years, but the steady flow heading to Norman made Oklahoma a known commodity in California. It's easier to pitch the idea of going to school in the heart of Big 12 country to players when people they grew up playing against are already wearing the uniform.
That was the case with Martinez, a sophomore who chose Oklahoma in part because of the potential she saw in familiar faces.
"I came up here on my trip and I really enjoyed it," Martinez said. "I loved that it's pretty much all about OU. The fans are just all about the Sooners. I knew Keilani was coming in ahead of me and I knew [Shults] was, and I knew this program was going to build and continue to get better. I planned to be where we are today."
By contrast, the Alabama team that eliminated the Pac-12's last hope when it beat top seed California 5-2 doesn't have a single player from California on its roster -- and just one, Oregon native Kayla Braud, from west of the Rockies.
An Iowa native with a baseball background who learned fast-pitch softball as an assistant coach under Yvette Girouard at what is now Louisiana-Lafayette, Patrick Murphy didn't try to get his foot in a crowded West Coast door when he took over as the head coach at Alabama in 1999, the program's third season of softball.
"When we started, we wanted 'GRITS' -- girls raised in the South," Murphy said. "Because they knew all the rivalries in the SEC, and at the time, the SEC was brand-new in softball. People didn't realize what Alabama-Auburn was all about or Alabama-LSU or Alabama-Tennessee or Alabama-Florida. And the kids in the South, they knew the SEC; they knew it because of football. When softball started, it was very easy to stay regional. It was Texas, Alabama and Florida for us for a long time. Those three states really helped us."
The same region carried the Crimson Tide on Sunday, as it has all season. Floridian Jackie Traina limited Cal to two hits, none after a long home run from Danielle Henderson, and supplied some of her own run support with one of the longest home runs of the week.
Kaila Hunt, whose use of "ya'll" in the postgame press conference gave away her Georgia roots, padded the lead with her 21st home run of the season, second in program history to former Olympian Kelly Kretschman, a Florida native.
Alabama is not the first SEC team to play for a title, but it is the most Southern. And in a sport whose epicenter remains closer to the Pacific than Atlantic, that is significant. Its place among the sport's elite programs is as much the effect of the sport's growth in the South as the cause of that growth.
"I just remember whenever we would go out to California or Colorado to play, it was a big deal to play a California team," Alabama senior Jennifer Fenton said of travel ball. "But I thought as a team from Georgia, we were still able to compete with the teams from California. It was a big deal, but I thought we could still compete with them. I thought the talent from the South was still as good as the talent anywhere else."
Both methods for building a team put an end, if only temporary, to the Pac-12's hold on Hall of Fame Stadium. But only one will win a championship.