Coming back from an overall successful weekend at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, the Oklahoma Sooners are now 9-1 at this early stage of the season. Though the record comes with a blemish, Patty Gasso’s team is far from off-track and far from a finished product.
On Thursday, the Sooners took care of nationally ranked Kentucky and Notre Dame by scores of 9-1 and 6-2, respectively. Then on Friday morning it was Florida Atlantic’s turn to get thumped, this time in a 4-0 shut out. However, the tournament field was composed of numerous quality softball squads. In fact, I’d argue there won’t be a stronger collection of teams until postseason play begins, namely in Oklahoma City at the Women’s College World Series. Of that group, while Oklahoma was one of the top contenders, so too was reigning national champion Florida State, who soundly bested OU, 7-4.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Sooners, but it wasn’t a total loss. One of the positives was how competitive Oklahoma was throughout the contest, from trailing 3-0 in the second inning to coming back and eventually taking a one-run lead by the end of the third. FSU’s bats certainly deserve a lot of credit for this one, however. Sending five balls out of the park is tough to overcome for any team, and OU is no exception to that.
Another positive is that for a team with so many newcomers making regular contributions, the experience of going toe-to-toe with the reigning champs is incredibly invaluable. Going forward, Gasso can point to this game as a reference when the going gets tough. The players can and will remember the feeling of battling for seven innings, only to ultimately come up short against one of the nation’s elite.
Speaking of newcomers, junior Shannon Saile, the former FIU pitcher, started in the circle for just the second time in a Sooners uniform. Though she did not finish the game, the loss unfortunately goes on her record. Yet even in defeat, she is now and will forever be able to call upon this experience no matter where she’s pitching or who she’s pitching against.
Now don’t let anyone else try to tell you differently, because a win is always better than a loss, but championship teams understand how to turn past losses into future victories, while others often let one defeat become two, if not more.
Last season, after getting walloped 5-0 by Oregon (an eventual WCWS quarterfinalist), Oklahoma went on to win its next 16 games and earned that coveted trip to OKC. Much of that core group of players is still around today, such as seniors Caleigh Clifton, Sydney Romero, Fale Aviu and Shay Knighten. Of course, Patty Gasso is also still running the show at the top, and if anybody knows how to bounce back from a loss and use it as a galvanizing focal point of motivation, it’s this staff and these vets.
And perhaps one of the more underrated storylines coming out of the weekend in Florida, is how sophomore Jocelyn Alo came alive again at the plate. After turning in a sensational freshman campaign that saw her lead Division 1 in home runs (30) and become an All-American, Alo has had a relatively quiet start to the 2019 season. If her performance in this latest invitational was any indication, it’s clear her bat has finally woken up and then some.
Coming into the weekend, Alo had one RBI on eight hits through the first five games of the season. Five games later, she added eight more hits, but recorded a total of five RBI, not to mention she finally blasted a pair of homers in Oklahoma’s 17-3 blowout win over Hofstra. When Alo is going yard, the Sooners are at their absolute best, plain and simple.
And while Alo swings back into form, pitcher Mariah Lopez (4-0) continues to cement herself as the Sooners’ ace in the circle. Against FAU, the junior recorded the second solo no-hitter of her career, and on the season, she has only allowed one earned run in four games while amassing 39 strikeouts in 24.1 innings pitched. As the year progresses, look for the reliable Lopez to carry this team when it’s needed most.
Now the timing of what’s next couldn’t be more opportune, because Oklahoma is quickly coming up on yet another chance to test itself against top-tier competition. The Sooners are going to need Alo, Lopez and company firing on all cylinders at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this weekend as a pair of top-10 opponents are on the docket. On the back end of Friday’s double-header, it’s a showdown versus the UCLA Bruins. Then on Saturday, things don’t get any easier with the Arizona Wildcats on deck.
Even for how young the 2019 college softball season is, it cannot be overstated how important winning those two games would be for the development of this team. It would serve as a bit of redemption for dropping the heartbreaker against the Seminoles, and it would also validate the Sooners’ place among the nation’s elite.
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