By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY — Coach Patty Gasso first landed at the University of Oklahoma in 1995 after five seasons in Long Beach Community College. She took over a struggling softball program that was an afterthought on its campus. Six years later, Gasso led the Sooners to not only its first appearance in the Womens’ College World Series, but also the program’s first national championship. Since then, Gasso and the Sooners have won two more titles and become a mainstay at WCWS. Being one of the perennial powers in college softball is a position Gasso never imagined possible when she first arrived. That mindset changed after that first trip to the Womens College World Series
“In a weird way, it’s like taking a drug, and once you have it and you feel the euphoria of it, you want to keep going,” Gasso says. “You want more. You want to feel that again. You want to reach that pinnacle again because it is the highest pinnacle you can reach. I think in 2000 when people got a taste of that, it wasn’t a dream anymore. We had been there. We know what it felt like. Once you do it, you know how to get there.”
From 1969 to 1979, the WCWS was in held in Omaha, Nebraska. It was then played in Norman until 1982 when it moved permanently to Oklahoma City. But it was eight years later when the American Softball Association Hall of Fame Stadium (2801 NE. 50th St.) was completed that the Womens’ College World Series finally had a home.
Since then the stadium has become mecca of softball in the United States and the WCWS an event softball players of all ages aspire to be a part of at some point. That includes OU junior Kelsey Arnold, who grew up playing for Holland Hall in Tulsa. Her first time playing for the title was an unforgettable experience.
“It is really special. You can’t describe the feeling,” Arnold says. “It is something you have worked on, and you are finally there and you just want to do the best you can and help your team out and do whatever you can.”
Gasso says the Womens’ College World Series has grown by leaps and bounds since the first time she attended a game in 1994, when the attendance at Hall of Fame Stadium neared 3,000. These days, the stadium has standing room capacity of 10,000 and sells out most games during the tournament.
The NCAA also holds a fan fest in the parking lot of the stadium throughout the event. It includes batting cages, autograph sessions, face painting booths, music and prize giveaways. It’s free to the public.
From the moment the regular season starts, the goal for every team and fan base is to be part of the WCWS festivities.
“The journey is to Oklahoma City,” Brent Colborne, Director of Programming for ESPN. “One destination that all collegiate athletes want to be at. Not only the local fan base in Oklahoma, making it their Super Bowl. I think nationally it’s caught on to where the expectation is, the journey is to Oklahoma City. When people talk about Oklahoma City and softball, they know you’re talking about the Womens’ College World Series.”
The WCWS will be held June 1-7. The field will consists of eight teams from around the country who earned a spot in the tournament after making their way through the regional and Super Regional rounds of the NCAA postseason. The first four days of the tournament is made up of pool play to decide the final two teams, who will play a best of three series to decide the national champion.
ESPN has been covering the WCWS since the 1980s. But according to Colborne, they didn’t start broadcasting every game of the event until 2000 as the event became more popular. ESPN, Oklahoma City, and the stadium officials have now made the WCWS one of the premier championship venues, whether fans are there in person, watching it on television, or streaming it live.
Just a few feet away from the stadium is the Softball Hall of Fame and Museum, which is free to the public. It opened its doors in 1973 It has more than 370 inductees and gives visitors a chance to see
those who made their marks on the game such as Oklahoma City’s Kermit Lynch, John L. Lawson of Edmond and 2016 inductee Jennie Finch.
“One thing that is so great about the museum is that we tell the story of how our sport came to be what it is today,” said Codi Warren, USA Softball Managing Director of Communications. “Not many people are familiar or know how softball was founded, and to be able to tell that story and share some of the great moments that our sport has seen with the new generation of athletes is something we take great pride in. It gives softball players, coaches, umpires and administrators something to strive for, and it’s a great way to honor those who have made an everlasting impact on our game.”
For more information on the stadium or museum, call 405-424-5266 or go to teamusa.org. Tickets for the Womens’ College World Series can purchased at NCAA.com/WCWS or by calling 866-208-0048.
Michael Kinney is a freelance writer with Eyeamtruth.com