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Oklahoma to chase record 4th straight national title at Women’s College World Series

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma is chasing history again.

The Sooners head into the Women’s College World Series with the opportunity to win an unprecedented fourth straight national title. They open double-elimination bracket play Thursday against No. 10 seed Duke.

Last year’s team dominated to become the first team since UCLA from 1988 to 1990 to win three straight titles. But right after the win, star pitcher Jordy Bahl transferred to Nebraska, leaving a giant hole. Oklahoma added Oklahoma State pitcher Kelly Maxwell from the transfer portal, and the Sooners started the season favored to win another championship.

They felt the weight of high expectations.

“The past three years, it’s been a blessing,” Oklahoma catcher Kinzie Hansen said. “But living up there — it’s really hard to get there, but living up there I would say is even harder.”

It hasn’t gone as smoothly as some years. Texas won the Big 12 regular-season title and Oklahoma entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed. The Sooners had to get through a tough Florida State team in super regionals to qualify for the World Series.

The Sooners made it through, largely due to a strong senior class that Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso calls the best ever.

Hansen, Tiare Jennings, Jayda Coleman, Rylie Boone and Nicole May have been on all three championship teams. Alyssa Brito joins Jennings as National Fastpitch Coaches Association first-team All-America selections. Maxwell has a 20-2 record. Transfer pitcher Karlie Keeney has been strong when called upon and Alynah Torres and Riley Ludlam have been steady at the plate.

“We’re not here to prove (to) anybody anything,” Gasso said. “We’re going to do the best we can to win it as a team and not to prove to the world there’s no doubt we are the best. We’ve got to earn this.”

In other matchups on Thursday, No. 1 Texas faces No. 8 Stanford, No. 6 UCLA faces No. 14 Alabama and No. 4 Florida plays No. 5 Oklahoma State.

ACHIEVING FIRSTS

The NFCA and Duke Sports Information believe Duke coach Marissa Young is the first Black coach to reach the Women’s College World Series.

“It means a lot,” Young said. “I didn’t have that as something to see growing up. Obviously in taking the job here at Duke, I understood that I had an opportunity to do something that’s never been done.”

Black coaches are rare in softball. According to the NCAA’s demographics database, there were just 19 Black head coaches among the nation’s 297 Division I schools in 2023.

Young also has led the Blue Devils to their first World Series. Veteran UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, an Asian American, said she is a fan of Young and said the achievement by a fellow woman of color should be celebrated.

“She’s a quality coach, but a better person,” she said. “I’m excited that she’s been able to build such a strong program and get to this stage so quickly. Says a lot.”

PAC-12 LEGACY

UCLA and Stanford are the final Pac-12 teams to make the World Series.

The league is breaking apart, with UCLA heading to the Big Ten and Stanford to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Current members of the conference have dominated the sport for most of its existence. UCLA has won 12 World Series titles and Arizona has won eight. Arizona State won in 2008 and 2011, Washington won in 2009 and has three runner-up finishes and California was runner-up in 2003 and 2004. Oregon has been a national power for the past decade and Oregon State qualified for the World Series in 2022.

“When you think about the greatest that have played in history, the championships — it is the Pac-12,” Inouye-Perez said.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Stanford pitcher NiJaree Canady has been named the USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year.

The sophomore enters the World Series leading the nation with 310 strikeouts and a 0.66 earned run average.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “Honestly, it’s a dream come true to be here, to play in Oklahoma City, and to get that honor. It’s almost everything I could have dreamt up. Next thing is the national championship.”

She’ll be tested. Texas leads the nation with a team .379 batting average.

ROAD WARRIORS

Texas will be a virtual road team the whole time in Oklahoma City.

Devon Field is about a half-hour drive from Oklahoma’s campus and about an hour drive from Oklahoma State’s. Both are longtime Big 12 rivals.

That’s not even including the fans from the teams Texas will play against.

Reese Atwood, a top-three finalist for player of the year, said the Longhorns will handle it fine.

“I think as a team, we’ve learned to be able to take that energy and use it to benefit us,” Atwood said. “A lot of people are going to be cheering against us, but we also have our family in the stands. We have each other. So that’s all we really need.”

RELUCTANT ACE

Lexi Kilfoyl emerged as the clear ace for Oklahoma State after Maxwell left for Oklahoma.

She has responded with a 26-3 record and a 1.06 ERA and was a top-three finalist for player of the year.

She said her approach never changed.

“I kind of had that conversation over the summer where (coach Kenny Gajewski) was, ‘Hey, you’re going to be our ace this year. I know you don’t want to be called that.’ You don’t even have to be called that to be an ace. You just have to go out there and do your job.”

TOUGH SLEDDING

Florida coach Tim Walton expects the Southeastern Conference to be rough next year.

A league that qualified every team for the NCAA Tournament will add Oklahoma and Texas next year. Florida will host both.

“I’m excited that they’re coming to the SEC,” Walton said. “I think they’re going to expand recruiting bases for their programs, our programs, the television coverage, popularity.

“It’s going to be a challenge. We’re in for a challenge. They’re in for a challenge.”

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AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer

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