June 5, 2013

Sooners lift softball title for their 'HOME'

Adam Troxtell
The Express-Star


The scene that many in college softball have been predicting played out in front of a crowd of 8,500-plus at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium Tuesday night when Oklahoma University lifted its second ever national title in the sport.

With signs shaped like Oklahoma emblazoned with the word "HOME" as they celebrated on the field, the Sooners made it very clear to whom they were dedicating the historic win.

"We had a lot of people we wanted to give pride to and make happy," head coach Patty Gasso said. 

After a 12-inning marathon game against opponents Tennessee on Monday night, during which Oklahoma came from behind to win 5-3, Tuesday's game two in the best-of-three series was more mild mannered as OU took the crown 4-0. Both teams made changes to their lineups to compensate for tired arms and legs. 

The Sooners opted to switch starting pitcher and ASA Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts out for fellow senior Michelle Gascoigne, which turned out to be perfect. In what has to be considered the biggest performance of her career, Gascoigne struck out 12 batters, let up only three hits and did not record a single walk.

"I only found out about three hours before the game," Gascoigne said. "I was just excited. Knowing Keilani was all for it and was supporting me brought me all of the confidence in the world. I know my teammates trust me, and that has carried me forward all year."

The lack of Ricketts' influence on the mound was made up for by her performance at the plate. Staying true to their theme of magic third innings, the Sooners exploded in the third frame that started with a Lauren Chamberlain single after 

Brianna Turang was walked by Lady Vols starting pitcher Ivy Renfroe. 

While she struck out in the first inning, Ricketts made her second opportunity count and blasted the ball into far right-center for her 50th career home run. 

"I think it was coincidental that Keilani hit the home run to allow Michelle a little breathing room," Gasso said.

The three-run shot was a hammer blow to Tennessee and prompted a pitching change, as Ellen Renfroe, still feeling the effects of the previous night's extra-innings game, replaced her sister Ivy. 

Despite letting up only one more run and striking out five batters, Ellen could not produce the form that had left the Sooners scoreless for ten innings on Monday night.

"I was a little fatigued from yesterday, but nothing that's out of the ordinary," Ellen Renfroe said. "I felt confident coming into the game. I knew we had a shot, since we played them pretty close last night. I was just trying to give my team a shot by keeping the game close."

Tennessee head coach Ralph Weekly commended the Sooners on their all-around performance, saying they could even find success on the international stage.

"I spent 9 years with our national team, and I think that Oklahoma team would have beat most of the other countries we played," Weekly said. 

Weekly also admitted the Sooners' pitching change to Gascoigne threw off his team.

"It definitely impacted our plans. We knew it was a possibility, but we had never faced that pitcher," Weekly said. "We knew how good she was, but it's hard to find information on her. We tried, and it looks like we just weren't hitting, but our kids were trying and we made in game adjustments. She just pitched a great game."

For Gascoigne, Ricketts, catcher Jessica Shults and outfielder Brianna Turang, the title winning game was their last one for the Sooners program. That thought was even enough to bring a few tears during the joyous occasion. But, it was not at the level of pain the players felt when they reached this same stage last year, only to lose at the hands of Alabama.

"It definitely gave us one of the most painful feelings we have ever felt, Ricketts said. "That just gave us so much drive and determination to get back to this moment. We knew we were the favorite all year, and it's cool that we weren't able to feel any of that pressure, because we were able to just go out there and have fun with each other."

Gasso said her decision to leave Ricketts off the mound was based on her pitching 188 times on Monday night and her decision to support Gascoigne's start.

"Michelle [Gascoigne] has been such a huge part of getting our team to this point," she said. "To give her this opportunity was a big moment for her. Keilani has had a ton of big moments, and the fact she was wanting to share this with Michelle probably helped her get on the mound and say 'I've got this.' It couldn't have been on a bigger stage."