By Arnie Leshin
Boomer Sooners and all that stuff, and how fitting it was for Giselle Juarez to catch the final out in the circle. Then she was mobbed by her teammates, and that was also good. Not long after, she was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Division I Softball World Series, and that was great.
To put it mildly, this senior southpaw was simply what the top-seeded Oklahoma team needed. Yes, just like Florida State, the Sooners came through the loser’s bracket with four-straight wins, but in game one of the best-of-three championship series, it was FSU within one win of hoisting its second national title trophy.
Enter Juarez. Last season she was sidelined with a groin injury and missed some time. This season, it was her injured shoulder that left in the dugout cheering her teammates on.
Fortunately for long-time head coach Patty Gasso and her teammates, she got the word that she was all healed, throwing great in practice, and so she started three games in the tournament and won them all.
So Gasso didn’t hesitate to start her in game two knowing it was win that or go home as the runner-up. She came through in Crimson and Cream colors with a super route-going performance, baffling the Seminoles with a mixture of serves to strike out 10, walk one, and gave up only four hits.
In game two, it resulted in a 5-2 success that evened things for the program that never losses back-to-back games. The deciding game was Thursday afternoonbefore another huge turnout at Oklahoma City’s Hall of Fame Stadium, and there she was, the first time on this stage that she was going to start in the circle, and she did it again.
It ended in a 5-1 Oklahoma victory and was its third championship in the last five years. Gasso could have used senior Shannon Saile or freshman Nicole May, but it was Juarez she choose.
“She was our savior,” Gasso said while hoisting the championship trophy before the many Sooner fans who packed the place that is only 30 miles south of their Norman campus. “I asked her last night how she felt, can she throw again, and she didn’t pause, just told me she wanted the ball again.”
And there she was. Backed by solo home runs by junior Jocelyn Alo in the first and by freshman Jayda Coleman in the second, she again foiled 10-seeded FSU’s plans to celebrate by allowing only two hits, striking out seven, and walking two.
Again, she brought her rise ball, her curve, her change-up, and her fastball. As the Seminoles (47-13-1) did in the first two games with home runs in the first innings, this time red-hot freshman Katey Mudge led off with a double into the gap in left center. But she was stranded there whem Juarez got the next two hitters out on a fly ball to senior Nicole Mendes in short right field, a pop-up caught by senior Jana Johns at third base, and then fanned the final batter on a swinging rise ball.
The only other hit she yielded brought in the only FSU run in the top of the third when, with with a runner on second base with two down, freshman Tiare Jennings fought the sun, and couldn’t find the ball as it dropped in front of her and the run crossed the plate.
Then in the bottom of the third against Seminole junior right handed starter Danielle Watson, the game one winner, the Oklahoma lead increased with three more runs.
Jennings began the frame with a single to left field, and Alo walked on four pitches and gave way to sophomore pinch-runner Rylie Boone, and following a pair of infield ground outs, Jennings dashed home on a wild pitch, sophomore Kenzie Hansen walked, and up came Coleman to send a first pitch off the fence in left and both runners scored.
Now it was 5-1 and Watson was replaced by senior righty Caylan Arnold after she fanned two, walked one, and gave up four of the Sooners eight hits. Arnold last an inning and in came usual starter, sophomore right hander Kathryn Sandercock, who went on to blank Oklahoma by allowing only one hit.
But the damage was done. Juarez was constantly smiling and not letting FSU roam the bases. It usually plays the short ball hit, as in singles turning into doubles and taking the extra base, but Juarez did not allow this, whiffing one in the fourth inning to go with a fly ball caught by Coleman in center and a pop-up to junior Grace Lyons at short.
In the fifth, she sandwiched a strikeout in between a fly out to right and another one to left. In the sixth, there was a first-out lined to senior Taylon Snow at first base. Next, there was a fly ball to left and brought another stellar catch by sophomore MacKenzie Doonihoo to haul in a ball that appeared to be going over her head, the second straight game this occurred., and followed by a pop-up caught by Hansen in foul territory.
In the seventh, Juarez was still in command. She struck out the first two hitters, walked the next batter on four pitches followed by the pop-up that she camped right under on her 105th pitch, and then came the celebration for a program that went 56-4, belted a Division I season record 161 home runs, and scored more times than any other school in the land.
This was game number 60 for the Sooners, who bounced back after losing 4-3 in the opening game of the World Series to unseeded James Madison by blanking unseeded Georgia, 8-0, coming from 3-0 down to wallop 2nd-seeded, defending champion UCLA, and then won two-straight over James Madison.
Juarez hurled the shutout over the Bulldogs and was the winner of the deciding contest versus the Dukes. As for Alo, it was her nation-leading 34th home run and she now returns next year with 88 for her career. The Sooners had won their first 34 games before losing 7-6 in nine innings at Georgia, and they were close to setting a record for consecutive wins.
But that’s all right, they will gladly settle for their fifth national championship in eight appearances in the World Series.
The World Series totaled 120,000 fans, and one that had numerous weather delays on Friday and Saturday, and on Thursday, it was blazing hot and was 101 degrees on the field. And after 730 days, this was the season finale.
When Juarez was later interviewed while holding the MOP trophy, she said that with her many setback injuries and other adversity, she was just oh so happy to finish like this.
“My teammates always had my back,” she added, “and they did their part with
their bats, their gloves, and their keeping me relaxed and also having a good time in the circle and in the dugout. And I thank Coach Gasso for sticking with me.”
And a Boomer Sooner to them.