NORMAN – After assembling a Division I single-season record 41-game winning streak, the top-ranked Oklahoma softball team suddenly found itself just seven innings away from NCAA Tournament elimination on Sunday afternoon.
Head coach Patty Gasso admitted the Sooners having their backs against the wall was precisely what her team needed after going three full months without a loss.
Wisconsin pushed OU to the brink of elimination by dealing the nation’s top-ranked, top-seeded regional hosts a 2-1 setback in Sunday’s opening game to force a Game 7 in the Norman Regional at Marita Hynes Field.
In one fell swoop, the Badgers not only ended OU’s 41-game winning streak, they also halted the Sooners’ 49-game winning streak at home and handed left-handed ace Giselle Juarez her first loss of the season after building a 24-0 record.
“Not that we planned it that way, but I think it worked out well for us because we’ve just been kind of flat,” Gasso said of her team, which hadn’t lost since Feb. 22 against No. 2-ranked UCLA. “When you have your back against the wall, it’s a character-builder. Either you’re going to be there or you’re not. You’re going to be afraid to lose, or you’re going to play to win.”
OU (52-3) responded with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Wisconsin (43-14) in the winner-take-all regional final to advance to next weekend’s Super Regional in Norman against the Louisville-Northwestern winner from the Evanston Regional.
“I thought Wisconsin taught us a very valuable lesson on how to play free and how to play to win,” Gasso said afterward. “Anybody who can teach us a lesson, we’ll take it. We’re humble enough to know there’s things we need to learn about the game.”
The only way to challenge the Sooners’ resilience was to deliver a loss, which meant a pair of eye-popping streaks both ended.
“We’re happy that we don’t have to talk about this winning streak anymore,” Gasso said. “Having our backs against the wall, right now, is probably the most valuable thing that’s happened to us all season.”
The Sooners took a 1-0 lead in the top of third inning when catcher Lynnsie Elam opened with a double to right-center. Raegan Rogers pinch-ran for Elam and eventually scored on Big 12 Player of the Year Sydney Romero’s sacrifice fly in foul territory that was caught along the fence down the third-base line.
OU made it 2-0 in the fourth on first baseman Grace Green’s solo home run to left.
Badgers junior right-hander Kaitlyn Menz (21-9) pitched two complete games against the Sooners on Sunday, allowing just nine hits and three runs and striking out eight in 14 innings and 193 pitches.
“She was phenomenal,” Green said of Menz, who consistently kept OU hitters off-balance by mixing in a drop ball and change-up with her fastball. “Pitching two games like that blows my mind.”
There was a 40-minute break between games and the Sooners did their best to lift their spirits by turning on some music, dancing around and eating sandwiches inside their locker room. “We were just trying to get in a good mood to get prepared for this game,” Green said. “Just having fun and shooting all our arrows, working as hard as we can and not pressing. Playing to win and not fearing anything.”
The Sooners are making their 10th straight Super Regional appearance and seeking their 13th WCWS appearance in this millennium.
OU has advanced to the NCAA Tournament in all 25 seasons under Gasso, plus the season before her arrival. Only Arizona has a longer streak at 32 straight and the Sooners are tied with Washington for second-longest run.
This marks the second time OU has been the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The previous time came in 2013 when the Sooners claimed their second national title.
OU entered the tournament leading the nation in batting average (.365), earned run average (1.15), fielding percentage (.986), home runs per game (1.90), on-base percentage (.456), shutouts (23), slugging percentage (.675), strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.87) and win-loss percentage (.961).