Top-seeded Florida against defending champion Oklahoma in best-of-three Division I softball World Series finals that starts Monday night
From a field of 64, two schools that have won the last four NCAA championships meet at ASA Stadium in Oklahoma City after going 3-0 to reach the finals
By Arnie Leshin
The yellow ball carried into the front row of the fence in right field, just inside the foul line, and Oregon’s softball team celebrated at home plate and into the dugout.
Except that it celebrated too soon. it was only the top of the 5th inning and it did bring the Ducks a 2-0 lead over Oklahoma’s defending national champions in Sunday’s semifinals of the NCAA Division World Series at ASA Stadium in Oklahoma City.
But it sure didn’t take the Sooners long to respond in their half of the inning.
Junior Lea Woorach laid down a surprise bunt just inside the first base line, the catcher threw it past the first baseman, and Woorach settled into second base. Next, No. 9 batter, junior Kelsey Arnold. lined a single into right field and it was first and third.
Lead-off hitter, junior Nichole Mendez, took a 2-0 pitch and hit it down the line in right to score Woorach. Sophomore Caleigh Clifton then bunted to the left of the circle and Oregon had no play as Arnold scored with the tying run.
After sophomore Shay Knighten singled to center, up stepped junior Nicole Pendley and she sent a 1-2 pitch to the fence in right, two more runs crossed the plate, and the Ducks were no longer celebrating.
And that’s the way it ended, a 4-2 comeback to send Oklahoma into Monday’s game one of the best-of-three finals against top-seeded Florida. Surprisingly, the Sooners were given the 10th seed and now it becomes a match-up of the last four national champions.
In 2012, Oklahoma won its second title. The next two years had the Gators winning for the first and second times. And last season, after top-seed Florida was eliminated by SEC rival Georgia in the region it hosted, it was the Sooners winning again at their home away from home, something like a short drive from Norman.
The Gators (57-7) didn’t have close calls like Oklahoma did. They began their region in Gainesville with the one-two pitching duo of Kelly Barnhill and Delanie Gourey and had enough offense to win close games, if you call 9-0, 6-0, 5-2 close.
Now they have added more of an attack, have hit some over the fences, can run the bases and field well, and mixed with that kind of hurling have been rolling along.
They did have a best-of-three tussle with 16th seeded SEC foe Alabama in the region, losing the first game, 1-0, and then coming back to win the next two behind Player of the Year, sophomore Barnhill. She will probably start game one versus Oklahoma.
As for the Sooners (59-9), they were on the brink of elimination in their own region, losing the opening contest to North Dakota State, than having to win four in a row to win the region. Traveling to the Super Regions at Auburn, they extended their road winning streak to 28 by sweeping the Tigers.
They opened in the Elite Eight by turning in a 6-3 win over Big 12 rival Baylor, while the Gators were shutting down Texas A & M, 9-0. Florida than blanked LSU, 5-0, and Oklahoma defeated Washington, 5-1.
Against 3rd seeded Oregon (52-7), the Sooners sent their ace, left-handed junior Paige Parker to the circle. It was scoreless when she surrendered a 2-run home run to Mia Camuso in the fifth. Jenna Lilley had singled to left prior to it, and gave starting righty Megan Kleist the lead.
But after Oklahoma answered back with those four quick runs of its own, head coach Patti Gasso brought in her relief specialist, southpaw Paige Lowary, who retired six of the seven batters she faced.
The Sooner defense was a huge improvement over the Baylor game in which it committed an unusual four errors. This time, there were few mistakes, only the desire and the will to win after falling behind. It played errorless ball and outhit the Ducks, who committed a pair of miscues, 6-5. They had also won 16 of their last 17 games, losing only to conference rival Washington.
Lowary, a transfer from Missouri, has made a number of starts, but her role is coming on in relief, so it will again be Parker, now 8-0 in the national tournament. They also have freshman right-hander Mariah Flores and right-fielder Mendez to come on if needed.
But these Gators can be a tough task. They also run the bases well, are solid in the field, and have begun putting together some hits. After not getting here last year, they are no doubt on a mission.
While Florida waited on Sunday’s game two of the semis after disposing of 6th seeded Washington, 6-0, Oklahoma didn’t look forward to a second game on Sunday. That would have made for a pitching problem, meaning how many times can you start Parker in one day? The Ducks might have had the same problem, but they would have had the momentum coming off a big win.
Even though they did lose to Mississippi State in the first game of the SEC tournament, no problem with the Gators being the top seed. The confusion is with the NCAA selection committee planting such a low seed on the Sooners.
Both have been streaking, that’s for sure. Oklahoma has won 9-straight and Florida five in a row. In this span, the Sooners have outscored their opponents 42-15. The Gators have scored 23 runs and yielded three.
The Crimson & Cream versus the Blue & Orange. Just tune in to ESPN.