By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY– When the film Gladiator hit the movie screen in 2000, most of the members of the Oklahoma softball team had yet to be born. Yet, it is that academy award winning that that has come to inspire the Sooners as they make their way through the 2021 Women’s College World Series.
After a 10-3 comeback victory over UCLA in Saturday night’s elimination game, OU pitcher Giselle Juarez explained the significance of the film to her team.
“I think just understanding that you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to do what it takes,” Juarez said. “There’s a part in that movie, I believe, where they are like get back-to-back, and it’s hard to like break them up. And that’s what we are doing right now is we are standing back-to-back, protecting each other and we are all around each other and we have each other’s backs and just going after it and trusting that we have each other.”
That mentality has the top-ranked Sooners in Sunday’s semifinals of the WCWS. At Noon they will face James Madison, the same team that beat them Thursday in the tournament opener.
For a while Saturday, it didn’t look like the Sooners would even make it the semis. After run-ruling Georgia 8-0 in the afternoon, they were on the verge of being knocked out by No. UCLA at USA Hall of Fame Stadium.
In the second inning, the Bruins had runners on second and third with one out. It was a chance for UCLA to strike first. However, Nicole May pitched her way out of the jam. That included striking out Bubba Nickles to end the inning.
However, the Bruins were back at it in the third putting pressure on May. They had two runners on base and no outs when Rachel Garcia, a two-time player of the year, smashed a 3-run homer to right field.
After giving up a double to the next batter, May was pulled and Juarez was brought in for relief. Juarez pitched earlier in the day to keep the Sooner’s postseason hopes alive. They now needed her to keep the Bruins at bay until the offense can heat up.
“I just wanted to have Nicole May’s back. I went out there and that’s what I told her is “I’m going to have your back.” And I think the team was just going to have her back,” Juarez said. “I took it one pitch at a time. My team came back and answered. So I think knowing that they are answering, so I’ve got to answer for them, as well, and just having their back throughout the entire game.”
It looked like the game was about to get away from OU when a blooper was hit into center field with two runners on. However, centerfielder Jayda Coleman made a diving catch before throwing out the runner at second.
The play, which was initially not called an out, prevented a run from scoring. Juarez struck out the next batter to preserve the 3-0 deficit.
Oklahoma took advantage in the bottom of the inning when Nicole Mendez was hit by a pitch. This brought Jocelyn Alo to the plate, who clubbed an RBI triple to cut the deficit to 3-1. It was Alo’s first triple of the season for the 2021 Player of the Year.
Kinzie Hansen knocked in Alo on a single off Garcia’s glove to close the gap to 3-2 before getting out of the inning.
“Our plan against Garcia was mostly to trust our training,” Hansen said. “We went out there and a lot of times when we struggle, it’s only when everyone is trying to hit home runs every single at-bat, and we get out of our game plan. But today we weren’t trying to do too much. We were trying to stick to our game plan, stay on top of the ball and take good hacks.”
The Sooners came back in the fourth and picked up where they left off. With two runners on Tiare Jennings smashed a double to right to knock in a pair of runs and give OU the 4-3 advantage. It was the freshman’s 23rd double of the year.
Mackenzie Donohoo put the game away for Oklahoma when she blasted homers in the fifth and sixth inning. On the day, the Mustang (Ok.) native tallied three homers and 5 RBI in two elimination games.
“She’s my roommate and I’m so proud of her and all the work she’s put in,” Hansen said. “You don’t see a lot of girls that size hitting monster bombs three times a day. So my heart is super proud of her and I’m just so happy for her.”
Oklahoma still finds themselves with their backs against the wall when they take on Odicci Alexander the Dukes today. They have to beat them twice to get back to the WCWS Championship Series.
“I think they know what’s at stake. They know it will allow them to almost start the tournament all over if we can get through these two games, it’s like a new beginning where it’s like 0-0, you start all over with whoever it is that you’re playing,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. “But the matchups that we have (Sunday) are going to be a big challenge.”
The other semifinal game will feature Florida State and Alabama. The Seminoles knocked out Oklahoma State 4-2 in Saturday’s nightcap, which didn’t start until 11:50 p.m.
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