Three formative weekends in the life of Oklahoma's Paige Parker
NORMAN, Okla. -- She was one out from safety and four outs from the Women's College World Series when she threw the pitch. Paige Parker watched the ball sail into the Alabama night. Her head turned to follow its flight. Her shoulders sagged. She knew where it was about to land.
The Oklahoma freshman knew the implications. Everyone knew this Oklahoma loss, in the greatest super regional ever played, ended the career of Lauren Chamberlain, the NCAA's all-time home run champion. What no one knew in that moment on May 23, 2015, was that it was also in many ways the starting point for the losing pitcher to become arguably the greatest winner in college softball history.
"You either say, 'This isn't going to break me; it's going to make me better,'" Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said, "or you say, 'I let this team down, I'm not good enough.' ... And then Paige Parker becomes a no-name."
In the softball world, she instead became one of those names.
Parker owns more NCAA championships than Monica Abbott, Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman combined. As her final postseason begins Friday against Boston University, she has as many titles as Lisa Fernandez.
It is, of course, impossible to say definitively that she is the greatest winner, which is itself separate from the best ever. Arizona's Nancy Evans had a better winning percentage and won two championships. Arizona's Susie Parra and UCLA's Lisa Longaker were each part of three titles. UCLA's Keira Goerl deserves a shout, too. Even within her own program's record book, Parker won't match the wins or player of the year awards Keilani Ricketts accumulated.
Yet she is in the debate. With a career record of 118-17, she might become the second pitcher in NCAA history to win as many as 120 games and lose fewer than 20. Her .874 winning percentage is 10th all time. Wins are an imperfect individual statistic, dependent on factors beyond a pitcher's control, but that is at least less true in softball than baseball because of a pitcher's workload -- Parker has completed 77 of 128 starts.
What no ace has done is win three titles in a row while responsible for a majority of World Series innings. Not yet.
At first glance, it's difficult to make sense of how all of this came to be. Parker doesn't pile up strikeouts like Abbott, or even a contemporary like Florida's Kelly Barnhill, the reigning national player of the year. Parker is tall -- seemingly taller in person than her listed 5-foot-11 -- but she doesn't come at batters with arms and legs that all but brush the plate like Osterman. Like the rest of humanity, she isn't as intimidating as Fernandez. She just wins. And wins.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy recalls the first time he saw Parker pitch in travel ball. She was a lefty, sure. That was helpful. She was good. But she didn't stop him in his tracks. Except he kept coming across her that week. Her team kept winning. She was already committed to Oklahoma by then, so he wasn't scouting. He just grew to appreciate whatever it is that you come to appreciate about Parker. What you can't quite put a finger on.
"If you've ever met Paige, she's very sweet," former Oklahoma outfielder Erin Miller said. "She's very soft and wouldn't hurt a soul. ... Like a grandma, she loves to bake and loves to read. She's just very different than she is on the field. When she's on the field, she's such a fierce competitor."
Fierce enough, it turns out, to face her own vulnerabilities. In each of the past three postseasons, there came a time when Parker stared down her own limitations. When she couldn't hide behind her strengths.
Understand those moments and you understand the wins.
2015: Freshman falls short
The super regional never should have happened. Alabama was ranked No. 4 and Oklahoma No. 5 in the final regular-season poll in 2015, but the selection committee seeded them No. 8 and No. 9, respectively. Alabama was not far removed from beating Oklahoma to win the title in 2012. The Sooners, champions a year later in 2013, still had Chamberlain in 2015, fresh off breaking the career home run record, and All-American Shelby Pendley.
Both teams also had freshman aces, Parker for Oklahoma and Alexis Osorio for Alabama, a made-for-debate matchup that only added to a degree of hype that lent the super regional between premier programs much the same atmosphere as a championship series.
"I was thinking, 'Man, the future of softball is really, really great,'" Murphy said of those games. "To have these two kids going at it like they did, against two really good offenses, pressure-packed situation, 94 degrees, 4,000 people there, national television. The list of outside pressures was long."
The view from the opposite dugout was less sanguine. After all, Oklahoma expected it would host a super regional. Instead, it ended up in arguably the sport's most daunting road venue.
"When I saw the stadium, and the way [the fans] were," Gasso recalled, "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this could be rough.'"
Her freshman pitcher looked, in the coach's words, like a deer in the headlights. Vulnerable. The staff tried, not all that successfully, to get her to relax. But on the strength of a Chamberlain home run, and Parker's stranding eight runners, Oklahoma won the opening game of the best-of-three series.
Both freshmen started again in the second game. Parker allowed just two hits. But Osorio allowed one as Alabama leveled the series. The final game followed half an hour later, and for the third time in barely 24 hours, the two freshmen pitchers squared off.
On the strength of two more Chamberlain home runs, Oklahoma led 4-1 into the sixth inning, which is where our story began. Standing in right field, Miller recalled seeing Marisa Runyon come to the plate with the bases loaded and knowing the left-handed hitter was hitless in the series against the left-handed pitcher.
Then the ball sailed over her head and over the fence.
"It wasn't a bad pitch," Gasso lamented of a rise ball out of the strike zone. "[Runyon] went up there to get it."
Parker doesn't remember much of anything in the immediate aftermath. Miller recalled the team standing in a huddle in the outfield, teammates trying to reassure Parker that they wouldn't have come that close to the World Series in the first place without her.
The Sooners returned to Norman. Days later, Parker endured the banquet that precedes the World Series each year in Oklahoma City, appreciative of receiving freshman of the year honors but reminded anew by her surroundings of what she and the Sooners missed out on.
Then she went home to Missouri and tried not to think about the super regional.
"If I was going to dwell on that forever, then there's no way I could have moved on," Parker said.
Gasso's recollections of a pitcher still deflated into the fall suggest it wasn't quite so easy. What all agree is that the experience shaped how she approached her offseason and all that followed.
"I never want to feel like that again," Parker recalled thinking. "I never want that to happen again, and I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen again."
2016: Sophomore does it all
Without Chamberlain and Pendley and with a large freshman class, Oklahoma was supposed to take a step back the next season. But the incoming class that included Caleigh Clifton, Shay Knighten and Sydney Romero developed quickly. And Parker lived her offseason mantra. She started 36 games. She completed 32 of them. Both remain career highs. She threw nearly 60 percent of the team's innings that year.
By the time Oklahoma faced LSU in a World Series semifinal in 2016, Parker had thrown every pitch in Oklahoma's first seven postseason games, nearly 750 in all. That included a postseason-high 142 pitches against Michigan the day before.
The good news was there wasn't much room for ghosts in Hall of Fame Stadium. Only the expectations of OU fans.
"I just remember they laid down a bunt on the first pitch of the game and 10,000 people went crazy," LSU coach Beth Torina said. "I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be a very different kind of game than what I've ever been in before.'"
She overestimated the full house but not by much.
LSU beat Parker the previous season and felt it could get to her again. The Tigers had to win twice to advance, but there was a blueprint. To get to the World Series in 2012, LSU had forced a Missouri team that depended on one pitcher to expend all of her energy in the first game of a super regional doubleheader. If the Tigers could just get the first win against Parker, the workload, heat and pressure of a second game might finish her off.
That was probably the most challenging week of softball that I've ever had. But also one of the most fun weeks of softball I've ever had.Paige Parker
But granted a reprieve and a lead after LSU tied the score in the third inning, Parker allowed just one batter to reach base over the final three innings. Another win and 121 more pitches.
She won again the next night in the opening game of the championship series against Auburn, her fourth start in four days. But working on a shutout in that game, she allowed two runs in the final inning of a 3-2 win. That she was exhausted was hardly a state secret.
Still, the most telling moment in a postseason run in which she hadn't relinquished the ball came when Gasso called her into a room the next morning and asked her how she felt.
Parker said she didn't have much of anything left in the tank. She didn't fear the vulnerability of that answer.
"It was a little bit difficult to be that honest in that situation," Parker said. "But I knew if I had gone out there, I wasn't putting my team in the best position to win, because I wasn't at my best. I had to keep the team in mind and know that where I was probably wasn't good enough to win."
Gasso told her to prepare -- just in case -- but mostly to rest.
It looked for all the world like a mistake when Auburn erased a 7-0 deficit in the second game and evened the series on a walk-off grand slam. But with that day of rest, Parker limited the Tigers to five hits and one run the next night to win the championship.
She started 10 games in the postseason. She threw 10 complete games.
"That was probably the most challenging week of softball that I've ever had," Parker said. "But also one of the most fun weeks of softball I've ever had.
"Just to remain grounded through it all. It was a lot. It was a lot to be throwing that much. With those late games that we're playing, we don't get back to the hotel until really, really late. So not running on a ton of sleep because our adrenaline is just so high. It was just a lot of physical and mental challenges during that entire week and just trying to remain locked in through it all."
She would face elimination one more time, and one more time faced down her vulnerability.
2017: Junior gets a jump-start
Gasso said the 2016 NCAA tournament was one of the most difficult experiences of her coaching career, that putting Parker through all those innings made the coach almost physically ill. She promised herself she wouldn't do it again, a promise made easier by the expected arrival of freshman Mariah Lopez and the unexpected arrival of transfer Paige Lowary for the 2017 season.
When Lowary, an ace at Missouri, said she wanted to come to Oklahoma, one of the first calls Gasso made was to Parker. She needed to know Parker wasn't threatened. More than that, she needed Parker's help to rehabilitate a pitcher who wasn't sure she loved the sport anymore.
Which is how Parker and the Sooners got the chance to defend their title.
Instead of a march to back-to-back championships, Oklahoma ended up on the brink of elimination after just one postseason game in 2017. Perennial spoiler North Dakota State beat the Sooners in nine innings. Parker wasn't exactly bad -- she didn't even get charged with the loss -- but she wasn't the pitcher who owned the postseason.
"Everyone is just so used to Paige Parker complete dominance -- not like she gets a million strikeouts, but she has control over a game," Gasso said. "But there are times, any pitcher will tell you, that maybe they are just not on their game."
I saw her go from kind of a quiet kid to a boss, the one that gets the big strikeout and points at her catcher.Patty Gasso
The opening loss meant Oklahoma had to play four consecutive elimination games to advance. Parker was modestly effective in relief in the first, unused in the second and ineffective in a start in the third. It was Lowary -- whom Parker welcomed to the program as friend instead of foe -- who saved Oklahoma for much of that weekend. Only in the finale did Parker's shutout take the lead.
"I don't think that regionals probably went exactly how I would have liked -- or how any of us would have liked," Parker said. "But looking back, I felt like our team at that moment got so close and so connected and so bonded because of the challenges that we went through. I especially feel like our pitching staff got extremely close that weekend. We were already close headed up to that weekend, but I feel like we got even stronger as a team within a team."
She told herself she owed those teammates. They had her back. She had to return the favor. With Oklahoma again on the road for a super regional the following week, Parker shut out Auburn and struck out 14 batters, a personal tournament best, to win the opener. She beat Baylor, Washington and Oregon in succession in the World Series to again reach the final round, getting some help each time from Lowary but allowing just three earned runs.
That Oklahoma needed both Parker and Lowary to win the 17-inning epic in the championship series was every bit as fitting as Parker throwing every pitch to win the previous season.
She never wanted to feel the way she felt that night in Alabama.
So she did all she could to avoid it. And understood that was all she could do.
There are 27 teams in the NCAA tournament this year that lost more games in the regular season than Parker has lost in nearly four complete seasons. Playing a position that in softball has much to do with winning as almost any position in any team sport, few have ever done it more consistently.
"She became a leader, became a phenomenal role model," Gasso said. "She's one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen. I saw her go from kind of a quiet kid to a boss, the one that gets the big strikeout and points at her catcher.
"She's got this confidence that's not cocky but is very confident."
It comes of accepting your vulnerabilities. It comes in understanding one person can do only so much.
And then doing every bit of it.