By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — Oklahoma now returns to the scene of the crime.
In the rain, well after midnight, Alabama did what nobody thought it might do only two nights earlier. Almost a year later, the Sooners have earned another chance.
Another a dominant run-rule victory, their fourth in five postseason games, this one an 8-0 whitewashing of Texas A&M that included a pair of home runs from Shelby Pendley, because somebody has to hit them in so bruising a lineup, has OU headed back to Hall of Fame Stadium and the Women’s College World Series.
The Sooners are the nation’s No. 1 team, the big bracket’s No. 1 seed and losers of only four games in 56 tries.
Now, pressure is sure to arrive. It’s better to be best, yes, but it’s no picnic. Anything can go wrong and everything can crater, right?
Not so fast.
Their super-regional clinching victory in the bag, the Sooners, after playing in front of another packed house at Marita Hynes Field, spoke about it (and other things).
Pendley, who hit like the conference player of the year she was recently named, explained that she’d been in Moore when the Tornado struck.
Coach Patty Gasso, a press conference no-show the night before when she rushed off to watch her son graduate from Norman North, explained that she’d seen a change in Ricketts beginning Thursday night, when the team sat down with the softball team of Sydney Angle, a 9-year-old who died Monday at Plaza Towers Elementary.
Ricketts, who had just tossed a three-hit shutout while going 2 for 3 at the plate with a pair of RBIs, who often speaks so quickly you wonder how she can follow her own train of thought, slowed down long enough to say something profound.
“Usually we say that we play for the name on the front of the jersey,” she said, “and that name has a different meaning to it now after this past week.”
The day before, it seemed and felt apparent, that there was more going on than a mere postseason softball game between Sooners and Aggies. Saturday, the connection was made more clear.
Gasso was asked if there’s more gravity to her team’s season than there was even a week ago.
“There is, there’s no question,” she said. “We’ve been moved quite a bit by a lot of people and all we want to do is move them back.”
Only, there’s a twist, for the season is now heavier and lighter at the same time.
“I saw Keilani Ricketts change over the rain out (Thursday) when we were able to spend some time with that ‘Bring it’ team,” Gasso said, signifying Angle’s team. “I saw Keilani just in a different place and just recognizing that people are just so excited to see her and that kids who probably haven’t had much joy the last couple of days were feeling it around her and that’s something important to her and I think it just took a lot of pressure off.”
Gasso reported that Angle’s family had been “desperately looking for a picture that Sydney took with Keilani at the World (Cup) game, to try to bring it to show Keilani that they had met.”
Also, Sydney’s sister, Casey, had received instruction from Sooner catcher Jessica Shults.
It’s a beautiful thing.
They’re the best team in the country and have been all season long, clearly more imposing and with better pitching than the 2000 Sooners, who claimed the program’s only national championship.
Pressure should be intense. But spend some time with a group of children who love softball, that have recently had their hearts broken but that nonetheless reveled in meeting their favorite softball team, and it can be a freeing life lesson.
It’s easy to say it made a difference for Pendley after she hit two home runs, but she was chasing pitches Friday and found patience Saturday. Maybe getting a big picture lesson made that an easier transition.
As for Ricketts, who’s been terrific all season, look at what she’s done at the plate, where she went 4 for 6 with a home run and six RBIs in two games against the Aggies.
It’s also interesting how OU committed no errors in two games against A&M.
For a team that should feel the weight of the world on its shoulders, it’s playing loose as a goose.
Up to now, the Sooner story has been about the dominance, about the nation’s best pitcher and a lineup that offers not a breath of rest.
The story is changing.
It’s becoming bigger, better and lighter, too. How can so dominant a team play with the joy of a group just happy to be here, there, anywhere, together?
OU had help.
Another team taught it how to play.