Oklahoma's seniors won WCWS every year. Can Patty Gasso and Freshmen Keep the Dynasty?

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Fans in the outfield turned their gaze to left field as Oklahoma's Kelly Maxwell jogged out of the bullpen. The Sooners were four outs away from a national championship, and Maxwell's entrance was met with enthusiasm and a collective sigh.

The Sooners felt like they were already in control of their destiny, but coach Patty Gasso used her ace to close out this championship series against No. 1 Texas. Maxwell, later named the Most Outstanding Player of the Women's College World Series, did just that, completing the Sooners' 8-4 victory, clinching the championship series and making Oklahoma the first team to four-peat as national champions in college softball history.

Oklahoma is familiar with this phase, but the players and Gasso will be sure to point out the challenges that come with reaching this level of success time and time again. This season in particular, the pressure has increased, senior outfielder Jayda Coleman said.

“As we went along, if we lost one game, two games, lost to Texas, everyone had an opinion about us,” Coleman said. “It was frustrating to see everyone on Twitter, while TikTok was hoping there was someone else there besides us.”

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She shrugged her shoulders. “Well…that didn't happen, so…”

With eight national titles and seventeen WCWS appearances since 2000, Oklahoma's dynasty has been building for some time. Over the past four national championship seasons, OU has compiled a 235-15 record.

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Coach Patty Gasso and Kelly Maxwell led Oklahoma to a fourth straight national title. (US today)

As the victories piled up, skepticism followed. Oklahoma lost more games this season (seven) than it has since 2017. Texas dethroned the Sooners as the top seed in this year's NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. Doubters called these signs of vulnerability, while comments about the home crowd advantage OU enjoys by playing the WCWS 20 miles away from campus sparked frustration and talk of switching the event.

“It's probably the hardest coaching season I've had in a while because of a lot of naysayers,” Gasso said. “Heavy is a head that wears the crown, that's the only thing that really stood out. I heard someone say that. That really felt true. It's been exhausting.”

But as the noise around the team increased, Oklahoma maintained its identity on the field.

“Love us or hate us, I feel like there has to be some level of respect for what we've done for softball and for women's sports,” senior pitcher Nicole May said. “It's just crazy to see the growth of this sport, and I just hope it continues to grow.”

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Texas coach Mike White pointed to Oklahoma's ability to “reload and continue to bring premier players into their program” as one of the factors that continually puts the Sooners at the top. Freshman outfielder Kayden Henry and sophomore infielder Viviana Martinez pointed to the Sooners' veteran roster as the biggest difference: Oklahoma's 10-player senior class has anchored every championship round.

That class includes Coleman, Tiare Jennings, Rylie Boone, Alyssa Brito and Kinzie Hansen, all of whom rank in the top 10 in program history in career batting average. The trio of Maxwell – who transferred from rival Oklahoma State to OU this season – May and Karlie Keeney make up the pitching staff. Infielder Alynah Torres and utility player Riley Ludlam round out that dynastic senior class. The five who have been at OU since the beginning of their careers – Coleman, Jennings, Boone, Hansen and May – never had a postseason without a national title.

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“They will go down in history – not just at OU – but I would personally say they are one of the best classes in the country that softball has ever seen. I am proud of that,” said Gasso. “It would be easy to say we've had enough. This is hard and we've had enough of it. But they are top athletes. Whether they like it or not, they grind, they work hard.”

But what Gasso has built in Norman will not end with their departure. That's where the freshmen come in. Ella Parker and Kasidi Pickering were the two rookies who jumped into the starting lineup this season, and neither shied away from the spotlight in the postseason.

Parker went 3-for-4 in the Sooners' elimination game against Florida and hit the tying RBI that sent the game to overtime. She finished the season with a .415 batting average, best on the team. Pickering hit a home run in every game in the championship series. Both freshmen were named to the WCWS All-Tournament team.

“I give all the credit to the seniors,” Pickering said. “Every at-bat a senior would come up and talk to me before and help me with my mentality for the next at-bats, so I'm giving everything to them.”

When asked if she feels any pressure in taking over what the seniors leave behind, Pickering quickly said no.

A move to the SEC is on the horizon for Oklahoma, which just sent all thirteen teams competing in softball to the NCAA tournament. The realignment will introduce a new level of competition. The Sooners also welcome an eight-player class in the 2024 recruiting cycle that ranks first in the nation in Extra Innings Softball. Of course, an unprecedented five-peat will also be top of mind.

“We need (the freshmen). They are doing great things offensively,” Gasso said. “There are a lot of young pitchers who are watching and learning and waiting for their number to be called. The future will look bright even without these ten seniors.”

Hansen, Keeney and Jennings will return next year as graduate assistants, Gasso said. But even as the players who shaped the dynasty move on, the figure behind every championship run remains in Gasso.

“I'm ready to get back into coaching because I don't have to coach this,” Gasso said, gesturing to the seniors next to her. “They know. They have it. They coach each other. I am very excited about what is to come.”

Oklahoma's parade to the outfield Thursday night to celebrate with teary eyes and championship trophies in hand felt both familiar and exciting. Like an ace entering a game at a crucial moment, the last hurray finally arrived. This chapter in OU history closed with a sense of satisfaction and relief that we had made history again.

“This one definitely felt a little more sentimental to me. We grew up together,” Hansen said. “It was never one hero at the plate or on the mound or anything like that. This was a team effort. We fought all season. Everyone had something to say about us all the time. People counted us out. It was just a routine. Everything mentally, physically. We fought all year. It was all so worth it in the moment.”

(Top photo: Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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