OKLAHOMA CITY — Life isn’t always easy at the top. Just ask the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma softball team.
OU began the Women’s College World Series with an opening-round loss and was forced to endure a gauntlet of four elimination games to qualify for the championship series.
In their final hurdle to advance, the Sooners found themselves trailing 1-0 after the game’s first pitch.
Despite this intimidating degree of difficulty, OU managed to endure and its hopes for a fifth national championship remain alive.
With their 7-1 victory over James Madison on Monday afternoon, the top-seeded Sooners (54-3) will face Florida State in a best-of-three championship series that runs Tuesday through Thursday at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. Game one results from that series were not available by print deadline.
After being held to a season low in runs in an opening-game 4-3 loss to JMU (41-4), the Sooners returned to their familiar, dominating ways despite being on the brink.
In four elimination games, OU outscored its opponents 31-7, collected 37 hits, pounded out eight home runs and hit .313 as a team.
“You can’t be afraid to lose,” Sooners head coach Patty Gasso said afterward. “You’ve got to play to win. You can’t think about, ‘Oh, my gosh. What could happen? You’ve got to stay in the moment. That’s really hard to do at this tournament because you start thinking about, ‘Oh, well, the time is ticking on us. We’re already in the fourth. Oh, my gosh.’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to really stay locked in and keep your minds right where they’re at, and the team did a really good job of that.”
JMU’s Kate Gordon sent Giselle Juarez’ first pitch of the game over the left-field wall. But after her inauspicious first toss, Juarez (21-1) allowed just three hits, struck out 11 and walked one in going the distance.
“Attacking the zone and trying to keep them off balance,” Juarez said of keeping her composure. “They were coming out swinging and they’re a good hitting team, so respecting them and attacking the zone, but really staying within myself and going at my pace and knowing that every time I get three outs, our hitters are back up there. Just giving them (my teammates) the opportunity to get back in the dugout and get hits.”
“Exceptional,” Gasso said of Juarez’s effort. “On the big stage, exceptional. … It was nice that maybe it did happen in the first (inning) so it gave us more time to kind of get ourselves in order.”
JMU workhorse Odicci Alexander threw three innings of no-hit ball before Nicole Mendes tripled to right-center to lead off the fourth. Mendes scored two batters later on a wild pitch when Mackinzie Donihoo walked to tie the score.
The Sooners took a 2-1 lead when catcher Lynnsie Elam scored on an RBI single to left from third baseman Jana Johns.
OU erupted for four runs on four hits in the fifth, which began with singles from Kinzie Hansen and Grace Lyons and was followed by doubles from Donihoo and Jayda Coleman.
The Sooners led 6-1 despite their two most powerful hitters – Tiare Jennings (27 home runs; 92 RBI) and Jocelyn Alo (31 homers; 85 RBI) – going a combined 0 for 6 against Alexander.
In the sixth, Alo hit a towering homer to left off reliever Alissa Humphrey that was five rows shy of clearing the outfield bleachers. It was Alo’s school-record 32nd homer of the season and now puts OU three home runs shy of Hawaii’s record of 158 hit in 2010.
Alexander, who threw a total of 434 pitches (279 strikes) in the tournament, was pulled after 4 2/3 innings and left to a thunderous standing ovation from the near-sellout crowd.
“It was amazing,” Alexander said of the moment. “I mean, it’s more than just a game. To see them all clapping for me and cheering me on, I mean, it was a great moment, and it warmed my heart.”
The understandably fatigued senior righthander exited after surrendering seven hits, six runs (all earned), four walks, three strikeouts, two hit batters and a wild pitch that resulted in OU’s first run.
Juarez on Alexander: “Game recognizes game, and she is a baller. I have mad respect for her, and she gave everything she had and I think it’s really awesome that they did give her that standing ovation. She earned it. She deserves it.”
Gasso: “Wow. Just wow. We didn’t know a lot about JMU. We haven’t ever played them, not that I can remember in my years here at OU. What a competitor. She made us better. She made us work. She is outstanding.”
Coleman: “You have to give her all that respect. She worked her butt off this whole week and she’s been grinding and grinding and grinding and we see the plays that she’s been making. She had an amazing season.”
Asked her thoughts on OU, Alexander said: “They’re a great team. I’ll give them that. They weren’t the No. 1 seed for anything. They had a great lineup, great pitching staff, and I mean, I hope they take it all the way.”
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