Women's College World Series 2019: Oklahoma seniors digging deep for a triple
With softball history within her grasp, Oklahoma senior Sydney Romero unleashed a towering home run over the left-field fence. As Romero rounded third to meet her teammates at home plate, she mimicked the flight of the ball and spread her arms like an airplane.
That day at Cowgirl Stadium against rival Oklahoma State, the top-ranked Sooners not only completed their second consecutive undefeated season in Big 12 play, but they also tied an NCAA record with 38 straight victories.
The winning streak is gone -- stopped at 41 -- but the lofty goals are the same. Back in the Women's College World Series yet again, Romero and her fellow Oklahoma seniors are aiming to bring their spectacular careers in for a landing with a third national championship in four years, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by any NCAA softball program since the turn of the millennium.
"What we've done so far," Romero said, "it's kind of crazy."
Let's review. Romero, Shay Knighten, Caleigh Clifton and Fale Aviu, all four-year starters, have been key cogs since they were underclassmen, particularly in the bright lights of Oklahoma City.
Flashback to the 2016 Women's College World Series and the championship series against Auburn. Romero's three-run home run in the third inning gave the Sooners all the runs they would need in a 3-2 win in Game 1. Two days later in the championship clincher, fellow freshmen Clifton and Knighten scored the Sooners' runs in a 2-1 win.
And who could forget the 2017 championship series against Florida? Then sophomores, Knighten, Clifton, Aviu and Romero combined for four runs, seven hits and six RBIs in Oklahoma's 17-inning, 7-5 win against Florida. That was the day Knighten became a legend with a three-run homer in the 17th inning, the longest game in Women's College World Series history. In Game 2, Knighten's bases-clearing double gave Oklahoma a 5-3 lead in a game it held on to win 5-4. She was named MVP.
This year, top-seeded Oklahoma has the firepower to win it all again. The Sooners open Thursday against Alabama.
Romero, second baseman Clifton and first baseman Knighten form the most lethal infield in college softball with a .987 fielding percentage. They also fuel the nation's leading team batting average, a gaudy .355.
In the Sooners' 8-0 win against Northwestern that sent them back to the Women's College World Series, Romero, Aviu, Clifton and Knighted combined to go 6-for-13 with two doubles, two home runs, three RBIs and four runs scored.
Romero leads the Sooners in batting average (.435), home runs (19) and RBIs (54). Clifton tops the team with a .564 on-base percentage and has 17 homers on the season. Knighten is hitting .325 with eight home runs. Outfielder Aviu has hit seven home runs while batting .362.
And those four aren't the only key seniors.
Part-time starters Raegan Rogers and Kylie Lundberg have chipped in when called upon all season, as well.
"They're leaving such a strong foundation for how the game should be played and how to play hard -- all those great things this team has," said Patty Gasso, who is going for her fifth national championship as Oklahoma's coach. "It's just been really easy for me and it seems like it's been easy for them, just because they love to play. They love competition together."
That competitive spirit has also galvanized the Sooners behind their seniors based on the way last season ended. A year ago, Oklahoma entered the Women's College World Series hoping to become the first program since UCLA (1988-90) to win three consecutive national championships.
After falling to Washington in the opener, the Sooners staved off elimination by beating Arizona State and Florida. But in a rematch against Washington, once again Oklahoma's bats went flat in a 3-0 loss. In that game, Aviu, Clifton, Romero and Knighten went a combined 2-for-13.
"That stung, that hurt because we weren't used to it," Clifton said. "But I think it just taught all of us just to not get complacent."
The Sooners rebounded from a complacent effort in the regional, when unranked Wisconsin stunningly snapped Oklahoma's NCAA record 41-game winning streak. But in the regional elimination game, the Sooners rebounded with a 2-0 victory, in which Romero delivered the go-ahead RBI sacrifice fly.
"This class, we'd never experienced a loss at the end of the season," Romero said. "That's motivated us and kind of lit a fire in us because we didn't like that feeling."
Now, Oklahoma's seniors are back in the Women's College World Series with the opportunity to cement a third national championship. And, a legacy virtually unprecedented.
"I just think winning it once is hard enough," Clifton said. "Winning it twice is unreal. Three times? I mean, I don't even know. For us, that would be an awesome way to go off."