When the two best pitching staffs in the Women’s College World Series face each other then you’ve got to be patient. Things certainly didn’t come easy Monday night in the Championship Series opener as the Oklahoma Sooners and Florida Gators made history.
Paige Lowary, not Oklahoma’s Ace but certainly worthy of starting at any program in the country, finally gave up a hit to the ninth batter she faced in the game.
The Gators’ first hit game on a bunt single from Justine McLean but Lowary forced Amanda Lorenz to pop out to the third base side and leave McLean stranded. An inning later their second hit of the game came off the bat of Nicole DeWitt who hit a one-out double to right field. Florida wouldn’t waste this opportunity as, two batters later, Aleshia Ocasio brought her home for the game’s first run on a single to shallow left-center field.
Oklahoma would have to wait until the top of the fifth inning to get their first hit of the day but it would lead to a tie game. Nicole Pendley delivered a double to right-center field, breaking up a no-hit bid by Florida’s Kelly Barnhill. Sydney Romero knocked Pendley in, with the next at bat, on a single to center field and even the game at 1-1.
Nicole Mendes broke the tie in the top of the sixth when she crushed a Barnhill pitch over the fence in right-center field. It marked the second time in as many games that the Sooners battled back from a deficit to take the lead, and just as they did against Oregon on Sunday they weren’t going to relinquish it.
“We just kind of came up there with a mindset that we weren’t going to be denied,” Mendes said, “that we were going to have the will to win, that there was no way that we were going to walk off that field with any ounce of regret, and we just kind of left blood, sweat and tears out there on the field.”
In a reversal of roles, Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso used Paige Parker in relief for Lowary. Parker entered in the top of the sixth and immediately equaled Lowary’s strikeout total by fanning the first two batters she faced. She ran into some trouble in the seventh though.
Florida’s Aleshia Ocasio reached on a fielder’s choice and then was able to round the bases on a two-out RBI single, to deep center, from Sophia Reynoso, tying the game and ultimately sending it to extras.
A game that began as a matchup between Oklahoma’s Paige Lowary and Florida’s Kelly Barnhill morphed into a tension-filled duel between Paige Parker and Delanie Gourley as the game moved from regulation to extra innings.
“I will never forget the pitching duo here and how they tag-teamed,” Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso said. “It was an emotional, emotional roller coaster of a game and one that I will never, ever, ever, ever forget.”
With each strikeout and each put out the record crowd at USA Softball Stadium grew more and more hushed. The stadium came back to life in the top of the twelfth when Fale Aviu left the yard to right field, giving the defending national champs a 4-2 lead. Florida answered back though by plating Jordan Roberts and Sophia Reynoso in the bottom half to keep the game gridlocked.
“Epic, epic battle,” Gasso said. “I don’t know what else — that was it. This is one of the greatest games I think in College World Series history, I would guess. It was like two heavyweight fighters throwing punch after punch. Florida just kept answering everything that we put out there, and we tried to answer back, and it was a game of will, a game of team, a game of character. We were running out of gas a little bit, but they just kept fighting.”
With relief pitchers topping one hundred pitches (there were a total of 495 pitches thrown) both coaches returned to their starters to close out a game that would ultimately set a Women’s College World Series Championship record for innings.
The crowd would erupt one more time, five innings later, when Shay Knighten sent a three-run homer out to left field in the top of the seventeenth inning. With two outs Nicole Mendes hit a single through the right side. Caleigh Clifton followed her by getting hit by a pitch to put two runners on for the Sooners. That’s when Knighten delivered her shot into the left-field stands to give OU their largest lead of the night.
“We were going to fight for whatever we could, and in my at-bat, I was just looking to find a pitch in the zone that I could hit hard,” Knighten said. “I wasn’t looking for really a particular pitch. It was just something — I knew she was throwing hard, so it’s just get there, just get there, and if it was in the zone, I was going to swing.”
The Gators weren’t going quietly though. Back-to-Back singles to lead off the bottom of the seventeenth brought the tying run to the plate. Lowary wasn’t backing down though as she forced a fielder’s choice and two strikeouts among the next four batters to end the game and secure the win. Florida would plate one more run in the bottom of the frame but for the first time on the night a lead seemed to be insurmountable.
Lowary gets credit for the win, improving her season record to 16-3, and the Sooners are in the driver’s seat for the championship. Barnhill walked off the field with a loss for just the fourth time this season, owing twenty-six wins.
One more win and Oklahoma will be holding the championship trophy for the second consecutive season. Meanwhile, Florida must win two in a row now.