When you consider the American culture, sports is probably as deeply ingrained as any other single ingredient. Pick up a magazine or newspaper, turn on the television or radio, log on to the Internet via computer, cell phone, or any other device, and you are sure to encounter a story about sports – be it football, tennis, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, soccer, track, gymnastics, baseball, golf, softball, hockey, boxing, or horse racing. It’s as American as…well, baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.
Baseball may be the only sport that is losing popularity in America, primarily because the nature of the game is slower, and we sports fans are all less patient. Instant news, run-and-gun basketball, fast food, and high-speed Internet service have conditioned us to expect results post haste! Researchers tell us that the average time a user will spend waiting for a webpage to load is about four seconds. Yes, FOUR SECONDS! And ten seconds is about the limit for keeping a user’s attention once he/she interacts with the information there.
So even though baseball still has its rabid fans, fewer and fewer are 20-years-olds looking for instant gratification, so the fan base is dying off. Though I’m much older, and though I played league softball well into my 50s, I am not a baseball fan. The tools and rules of the two games are different, but the general play is the same. I care almost nothing about watching baseball games which move at a snail’s pace. It’s not quite that slow with fast-pitch softball, so I tune in when the stakes are high.
Last week, I watched a softball game that went on for more than FIVE and a HALF HOURS, and I was engaged and intrigued for at least the last three hours. That 17-INNING game was riveting because each team kept one-upping each other, making the outcome a surprise.
The University of Oklahoma was playing against the University of Florida. OU has a tradition of winning teams – football, basketball, baseball, and women’s softball. In fact the OU Sooners have won the NCAA Women College World Series (WCWS) three out of the last five years. The winning tradition includes 14 Big Twelve Conference titles, 11 appearances at the WCWS, and four national championships under the excellent coaching of Patty Gasso. The first WCWS title for OU was in 2000, when Gasso’s team went 88-6 enroute to the national championship. They’ve been very competitive and consistent ever since, winning three more national titles.
Despite their great 61-9 record in 2017, OU women were seeded #10 in the standings at the beginning of the tournament. They played three tough games defeating #7 Auburn, #8 Washington, and #3 Oregon to reach the final. In the final they faced the #1 Florida Gators in a best–of-three contest. Number 10 against number 1 is David and Goliath seeding!
Florida, with a 58-10 record, had eliminated team after team with the excellent pitching of Kelly Barnhill, Aleshia Ocasio, and Delanie Gourley. Barnhill won National Player of the Year as a sophomore.
Back during regionals, teammate Amanda Lorenz sent Gourley a challenge via text promising, “You keep us in the game, and I promise somehow, some say, we’re going to get you a run.” Lorenz made good on that promise as she went 5-for-8 (.625) with two runs scored, two RBIs, one home run and three walks., and the Gators were on their way to the WCWS.
Fast forward to Oklahoma City where the senior Gourley really came to life retiring batter after batter as the Gators chomped up opponents on their way to the final game.
But OU also has an excellent pitching squad. With freshmen Mariah Lopez and Nicole Mendes and the two-paige threat – Paige Parker and Paige Lowary – it took all styles of pitching to complement one another and to compete with the Florida pitchers. Parker has been the stabilizing influence that gave OU the victory in 2016. Lowary’s comeback has been stellar since being hit in the face with a line drive that nearly cost her an eye and a career. Wearing a face mask to prevent another injury, she pitched two perfect innings with three strikeouts, and pitched at least one 75 mph zinger, almost unheard of among the college ranks.
The lead was up and down several times in the first game between the two teams. Each time one team scored, the other rallied and came back to tie the score. On and on it went, through a wild series of extra innings – eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen innings! At that point, ESPN commentators were making jokes about their empty stomachs, and wondering how the girls, who probably ate their last meal six or seven hours earlier, could continue to compete at the necessary energy level. Going into the seventeenth inning the score was tied at 4-4. With OU up to bat at the top, first baseman Shay Knighten hit a home run with two players on base and OU went ahead by three. Florida got one more run in the 17th, but was unable to do more before the outstanding pitching of Paige Lowary ended the marathon game with OU over Florida 7 –5.
The game was so exceptional that you hated to see either team lose. The pressure those girls must have felt for hour after hour was enough to give them, as well as their parents and fans in the stands, a migraine. If you’re thinking, “It’s only a game!” then you haven’t felt the fear of letting down your teammates in such a high profile setting. The pitcher always feels a great responsibility for how the game progresses, but on this occasion, it was truly magnified.
The pitching by both teams was amazing, but Shay Knighten was named the WCWS’ Most Outstanding Player after hitting .350 (7-for-20) with four runs scored, two doubles, a home run and eight runs batted in. She hit the home run that sealed the deal in the 17-inning game that took so much energy and intensity out of the players on both teams.
The second game was anti-climatic, and only lasted seven innings, as we usually expect. In the seventh, Lowary threw back-to-back strikeouts before fielding a chopper and firing to first for the final out. The dugout emptied as the team piled on at the pitcher’s mound in celebration of the 5-4 victory.
Knighten joined Lowary, Parker and Mendes on the All-Tournament Team after the final game. What a game it was to finish off the season, but it didn’t compare in excitement to the previous game that was definitely one for the WCWS record books:
Lowest-seeded team to ever win the WCWS
Most innings in a final series – 17 innings
Longest final game in WCWS history (nearly 5 hours and 45 minutes)
Only team to clinch the WCWS National Title four times
Only team to win the WCWS National Title in consecutive years
But Coach Patty Gasso’s style isn’t bragging about accomplishments. After such a stunning win, she spoke about the struggle the team experienced at the beginning of this season and the turnaround that came from sheer determination and a disciplined work ethic. Gasso said, “I think if you looked at us in February, March, and even part of April, you would never have imagined us sitting here with trophies in front of us.”
Gasso said her goal was to make the team as good as they could be. She said they focused not just on winning but on doing their best and trying to lift each other up. “We’re a humble group. We just play hard and try to win for the university. If you aren’t winning championships for OU, you’d better get moving. That’s our job and we’re proud to do it.”
Here are some of the staggering stats from ESPN’s website:
17: Innings played
2: Times Florida was down to its last strike before it extended the game
2: # of starting pitchers (Kelly Barnhill & Paige Lowary) who re-entered the game
3: RBIs on Shay Knighten’s homer in the 17th that won it for Oklahoma
6: Runners stranded by OU in the 15th and 16th innings before winning in the 17th
31: Players involved in Game 1
496: Combined pitches thrown by two Gators and two Sooners
40: Combined strikeouts by the four pitchers
22: Combined hits by the Gators and Sooners
102: Total outs recorded
6:07: The official start time – Central Daylight Time
11:35: Time in Oklahoma City when the final out was recorded.
5 hours, 28 minutes: Elapsed time between the first pitch and the final out
Well, if Patty Gasso won’t brag, I will do it for her. All I can add is “BOOMER SOONER!”
It’s definitely one for the record book and maybe one for the ages.