NORMAN — It was eight years ago and it was an education. Or so, perhaps, I thought.
Oklahoma, having gone six seasons without returning to the Women’s College World Series, finally made it back, riding both the bat and left arm of sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts. It was where those Sooners ventured to advance that made it so impressive.
Ricketts hit a home run in each game and didn’t give up a run in the circle until surrendering two in the seventh inning of the second game. Yet, before Arizona’s Lini Koria unleashed her two-run shot, OU already led 5-0.
More memorable to me, however, than the Sooners finally returning to Hall of Fame Stadium — and forcing Arizona to miss it for just the second time in 24 seasons — was how poorly Arizona coach Mike Candrea took it.
He accused his team of carrying “dead weight.” He took no solace in having reached Oklahoma City so many previous seasons and in winning the whole thing eight times.
The impression left?
That’s what it takes to attain meteoric success. It takes being miserably insufferable every time you don’t.
I decided it was a world known only to Pat Summit, Geno Auriemma and Mike Candrea and what it took to enjoy — or stomach — that kind of long-term uber-dominance must be the utter non-acceptance of anything less.
It all made sense.
It was also wrong.
• • •
These days, there is one softball coach in America enjoying the kind of success Candrea once enjoyed.
OU’s Patty Gasso.
Since that 2011 season when her Sooners bounced the Wildcats and returned to the World Series, OU has missed it just once, in 2015.
Over that span, Gasso has coached OU to four best-two-of-three WCWS championship series and three national championships in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
And, right now, having lost two games all season and having posted an NCAA record 39 straight wins, the Sooners enter NCAA regional play Friday as the No. 1 seed in the entire national draw.
Also, guess what?
Neither Gasso nor her team suffer for their success. For the Sooners, it’s about the joy.
Of course, Gasso’s all about winning, too. Just look at her record.
Nonetheless, the ultimate success OU has enjoyed three times the last six seasons, and the rest of the Sooners’ success — 12 WCWS trips in 19 seasons, countless Big 12 championships — has been more incidental to what Gasso’s program’s about than it’s been specific.
Just ask her players.
“She talks a lot about having joy in the journey and just being free to play and free to have fun and just having the freedom to be able to say what you want and being yourself on the field and getting out of your comfort zone,” said Sydney Romero, who’s enjoyed that freedom all the way to a .427 batting average, 17 home runs and an .848 slugging percentage this season. “She just makes it real easy to be comfortable out here on the field with everyone.”
Jocelyn Alo, last year’s freshman phenom, who came back from early season plate struggles to hit .400, bash 14 more home runs and lead OU with a .500 on-base percentage, went a different direction, yet still one that underlined her coach’s humanity rather than her iron will.
“She’s kind of like our mom on the field,” she said. “She really makes sure that we’re good, more off the field as a person than as a player.
“As a coach, she’s obviously going to push us to be the best that we can, and she’s helped me come very far.”
Sophomore catcher Lynnsie Elam, an in-state product from Chickasha, took the question and ran with it and, just maybe, offered the best endorsement of Gasso’s coaching philosophy and style.
“She always reminds us that we are people. We are not only players, but we are people. We are more than what we do out there in the dirt,” she said. “So, if we’re having issues at home, she is asking us before practice, ‘Hey, is everything OK? Do you need me for anything? What can I do?’ Not, ‘Hey, you’re not hitting on the field, you need to be better.’
“So that’s something, to me personally, with my situation, that has made me feel like, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter what I do out there, she’s going to love me either way. She’s going to do what she can for me to help me as a person either way.’”
• • •
It’s refreshing, it’s right, it’s the kind of thing that puts the fans on your side without reservation, and it’s the kind of approach that brings more fans on board.
Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach like that is a self-answering question. And, given that sellouts have become the norm in the seats and bleachers surrounding Marita Hynes Field, who wouldn’t want to cheer for a team playing for a coach like that appears to be a self-answering one, too.
Perhaps I was too hard on Candrea in the opening. I mean, the guy’s a legend, no question.
Also, despite six more super regionals, he hasn’t been back to the World Series since that 2011 loss. Perhaps now, he takes some solace in past success. Or, maybe, come the final step of the process to return to the sport’s biggest stage, his team’s had enough and stops there.
What’s knowable is that, should the Sooners fail to get back to Oklahoma City this time, or next time, or the time after that, it will be disappointing to players, coaches and fans, but it will not negate the journey.
Would you believe when Elam offered that long fantastic quote about her coach, she wasn’t even finished?
I cut her off.
Here’s the rest.
“She’s always preaching to us, have joy in this journey, every season is going to be different,” she said. “Every year is going to be different, everybody doesn’t get to do this.”
Funny thing, but when you love your journey, you don’t want it to end.
Eventually, probably, it will end early again for Gasso and the Sooners. However, probably not this season, the next one or the one after that.
“She’s an awesome lady,” Alo said.
Pretty good coach, too.
NCAA Regional Schedule
Game 1: Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: UMBC vs. Oklahoma, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 3: Game Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 3 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 5:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 8 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7: If necessary, 3:30 p.m.