BY JOHN ROHDE
June 7, 2017
Before her team began its quest to defend its 2016 NCAA crown, Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso knew she potentially had the deepest pitching staff in her 23 seasons at OU.
Final proof came Tuesday night when the Sooners edged Florida, 5-4, to sweep the best-of-three Championship Series at the Women’s College World Series, capturing their second straight national title and their third crown in the last five seasons.
OU’s Hall of Fame coach began smiling last summer when left-handed flame-thrower Paige Lowary decided to transfer from Missouri and would have two years of eligibility with the powerhouse Sooners.
Also arriving at OU for the 2017 season were freshmen pitchers Mariah Lopez, Nicole Mendes and Melanie Olmos. With the arrival of this foursome, Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Paige Parker, who worked 59.0 percent (252.1) of her team’s total innings in 2016, instantaneously had some teammates to lean on, which explains why her workload this season dipped to 43.6 percent (210.1 of 482.2 total innings).
How apropos the Sooners claimed their fourth NCAA title under Gasso by outdueling a Gators pitching staff that led the nation with a miniscule team ERA of 0.74 this season and featured the national player of the year in Kelly Barnhill.
Both pitching staffs were thinned out considerably the previous night in Game One, a 7-5 Sooners victory that required 17 innings, five hours and 28 minutes and 495 total pitches.
Under these trying circumstances, Gasso knew there was a good chance her team might be able to clinch the title pitching by committee, and that’s precisely what happened.
Parker got the start, but was off the mark and lasted just 1.2 innings. She was replaced by Lopez, who went 2.1 innings. Then came Mendes who went 1.0 inning, which set up Lowary. who slammed the door by retiring the final six batters in order with three strikeouts.
The smile Gasso flashed long before the season began was there for all to see in her team’s championship post-game interview session.
“To see four pitchers pull this off is a dream come true for a coach, because every one of them had a piece of this,” Gasso said.
It was only the second time all season Gasso used four pitchers in the same game. The previous time came against Arkansas in an elimination game at the Norman Regional on May 20, which the Sooners won 5-3 while using (in order) Lopez, Parker, Mendes and Lowary. Parker got the win that night and Lowary the save.
Before a crowd of 8,507 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Tuesday night, OU took a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the second inning thanks to Shay Knighten’s three-run double with two outs. The Sooners and their staff then hung on for dear life.
Here’s Gasso’s play-by-play of her pitchers:
“I started with Paige (Parker), and she wanted the ball,” Gasso began. “I think Paige would tell you she didn’t have her best stuff, but she is the reason we’re sitting here (as defending champions) right now. She knows that. I know she knows that.
“To be able to give Mariah the ball – a freshman who’s been waiting patiently – and for her to step and do what we asked her to do in that setting, was another reason why we’re sitting here with a trophy. It’s another reason why we’re here, period.
“Then we bring in Nicole Mendes thinking this would be a good matchup. She can keep the ball down. She can mix her pitches. We can keep them off-balance. So everybody had a game plan and needed to execute it, even if it was for one inning.
“Nicole Mendes did exactly what we asked her to do to set it up for Paige Lowary. And Paige Lowary came in and she was hot. She was ready. I don’t know how hard she was throwing, but it looked like 100 miles-an-hour. Adrenaline was there and she was hitting her spots and was so confident.”
In the end, as talented and as gallant as the No. 1 seeded Gators (58-10) were, they couldn’t quite match the 10th-seeded Sooners (61-9).
It was last August when Gasso and Lowary worked out the details of her transfer. Lowary was overcoming physical and emotional strain in her career having been struck in the face by a line drive playing for the Tigers the previous February. Lowary said she had memory and concentration problems for 6-8 months after getting hit.
“It is unbelievable that this kid right here was on the bottom of that (celebration) dog pile,” Gasso said of Lowary. “She was broken (when we met). She didn’t love softball, didn’t want to pitch and wanted a change. To see her growth as a pitcher and as a person has been so rewarding. I’m glad we got her. I’m glad she’s loving pitching again and I don’t know how much sweeter it could be than it is right now.”
Three seats away from Gasso, a somewhat embarrassed Lowary tried to share her feelings.
“I can’t believe it,” Lowary explained. “I’m still very speechless and it hasn’t really set in yet. I’m just forever grateful I got the opportunity to come here. I can’t believe how close and tight this team is. I’m just so blessed and humbled and thankful and grateful and I don’t have enough words to describe how I feel.”
Lowary’s self-synopsis sufficed just fine, just as her Game Two performance did that helped OU’s athletic program clinch its fourth NCAA crown in the last 52 days – joining team titles claimed in women’s gymnastics, men’s gymnastics and men’s golf.