College softball: Oklahoma, Florida State survive losers bracket for WCWS championship clash

OKLAHOMA CITY -- For five days, they sat behind the Oklahoma dugout, quietly and not so quietly, just a dozen or so former OU All-Americans gathering to watch their school win a national championship. The women don't normally do this, former All-American Erin Miller said, but this team, with one of the most prolific offenses in the history of college softball, has captivated many.

When their alma mater lost to unseeded James Madison on the opening day of the Women's College World Series last week, the women did the only thing they could: They made T-shirts. The shirts said, "In Patty We Trust," a nod to longtime OU coach Patty Gasso, winner of four titles. The former All-Americans ironed on the decals themselves. It would take four wins for the top-ranked Sooners to get to the championship round, a four-day slog through rain delays and elimination pressure.

"If you're in our little Sooner sisterhood, nobody blinked an eye," Miller said. "Nobody comes close to this offense. The numbers are almost mind-boggling."

Oklahoma won its fourth straight Monday, shrugging off three hitless innings and erupting for a 7-1 win over James Madison to earn a spot in Tuesday's championship round. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, the Sooners were just the fourth team in the past 29 years to start the WCWS 0-1 and make it to the finals. A few hours later, Florida State became the fifth team to do it, shocking Alabama 8-5.

The Crimson Tide, considered by some to be a favorite to win the WCWS after OU lost and No. 2 UCLA was eliminated, looked as if they might get run-ruled in the top of the third inning, when Florida State clubbed out an 8-0 lead.

But nothing has gone to script in the first five days of this WCWS, from the weather -- multiple two-hour rain delays and an added day to the schedule -- to the scores. Monday was almost an example of the softball universe righting itself, as Oklahoma pounded out 10 hits in the final four innings and national player of the year Jocelyn Alo mashed a home run deep into the left-field bleachers, her 32nd of the year.

No other team carried the burden of expectations more than Oklahoma, with its 155 homers (three shy of tying Hawaii's single-season Division I record of 158), its home-cooked crowd and, well, the eyes of a collection of All-Americans sitting in the stands. The Sooners did not disappoint, outscoring their opponents 31-7 in the past four games.

Gasso said her team took on a "gladiator mentality" after the opening loss.

"If any team can do this, it's our team, so let's go make history," she said. "That was really kind of the attitude.

"You can't be afraid to lose. You can't think about, 'Oh, my gosh, what could happen?' You've got to really stay locked in and keep your minds right where they're at, and the team did a really good job of that."

The Sooners have a sign-up sheet in their dugout that allows each hitter to post notes on her last at-bat. It helps them get insights on opposing pitchers. James Madison pitcher Odicci Alexander no doubt had many reviews on that wall, as she was the pitcher who shut down the Sooners in the June 3 opener. In the four days that followed, she stole the show at the WCWS and looked as if she might take a little more from the Sooners Monday afternoon, when JMU took a 1-0 lead into the fourth inning.

Their season down to 12 outs, the Sooners weren't rattled; they'd hit some balls to the warning track that had been caught. Right-fielder Nicole Mendes knocked a triple to the right-center wall, slid into third, and bounced to her feet. She yelled toward the OU dugout and clapped her hands. The Sooners, who've gotten help up and down their lineup for the past week, were fired up.

Mackenzie Donihoo, who homered three times in Saturday's victories over Georgia and UCLA, worked a 3-0 count, and Alexander wiped her brow and swiped her foot in the dirt. She had pitched every WCWS inning for the Dukes heading into Monday. Her next pitch bounced in the dirt and got past the catcher, and Mendes sprinted home to make it 1-1. Two batters later, Jana Johns' blooper to left gave the Sooners a lead they would not relinquish.

"It's the best offense I think we've ever seen," JMU coach Loren LaPorte said. "When you have to face them three times, you have to do things different, and I felt like CC [Alexander] was doing that. It's just one of those things when their strength -- not just physically but mentally -- they're just so prepared and they can hit a lot of different pitches very hard."

Before Monday, Florida State was the last team to crawl back from an opening-day loss and win a national championship. The Seminoles did it in 2018. That team was dubbed the "Cardiac Kids" because it won six elimination games in the NCAA tournament, and five players remain from the squad.

FSU coach Lonni Alameda said the coaching staff learned that season how important it was for her team to "be comfortable in their own skin." After the Seminoles lost 4-0 to UCLA last week, she said the players had a meeting together without the coaches and took control of their season.

"I don't think we were fully competing in the UCLA game," she said. "I think we were kind of dipping our toe in the water and seeing if we could compete, and then afterward, we chatted a little bit and laid out there. Of course, your 2018 veterans are like, 'Hey, we've been there before.' Then all of a sudden you look up, and you've got some games under your belt, and it's really special enjoying that process part of it.

"Now it's about getting prepared for OU and figuring out what we can do there."