OKLAHOMA CITY -- "Stay ready," William Juarez texted his daughter Wednesday night.
Giselle Juarez's softball career at Oklahoma had been a deep reservoir of highs and lows. She didn't even pitch in super regionals, but she'd just tossed a four-hit gem Wednesday night to help keep her Sooners alive in the Women's College World Series, and she wanted the ball again 17 hours later for the final game of her college career.
"I'm pumped," she replied to her dad.
Twice in high school, Juarez was on the precipice of a championship, only to finish second best. Two years ago, it got worse -- she was on the mound during the WCWS championship game when UCLA won on a walk-off. The expectations were wearing on her. Now she wears a tattoo on her wrist: "Just be you."
In the decisive Game 3 of the championship round on Thursday, the Sooners again turned to Juarez and she delivered, firing a two-hitter to lift No. 1 Oklahoma to a 5-1 victory over Florida State to claim the 2021 national championship. Juarez struck out the first and second batters in the seventh inning, and she caught Devyn Flaherty's popup for the final out. Juarez embraced her catcher, Kinzie Hansen, then her teammates mobbed her as they celebrated the fifth national championship in school history.
It was just a year ago that Juarez had a conversation with her family about whether she'd keep going. She had torn her left biceps, and faced a long, painful recovery. (The left-hander pitched with the injury before COVID-19 shut the season down). Her 2021 return was not always stellar, and when it was over Thursday, even coach Patty Gasso admitted that Juarez "didn't have her best season."
But when Oklahoma fell into the losers bracket on the opening day of the WCWS and needed her, Juarez went 5-0, striking out 37 with a 0.90 ERA.
And on Thursday, she was named the WCWS Most Outstanding Player.
"Such a special moment," OU right fielder Nicole Mendes said of Juarez's performance.
"To see her come back from both of those two big adversities and to be where she is, I just can only smile because it's such a 'G' thing to do, to come in and to say, 'OK, you know what? I'm going to own this one, and I'm going to bounce back from this injury, and I'm going to carry my team to this championship.'"
The 56-4 Sooners cemented themselves as one of the most dominant teams in college softball history, starting the season 33-0 and breaking single-season records for home runs (161) and runs scored (638). They hit 15 home runs during the WCWS, breaking an all-time record. They also became the first team to win six straight elimination games on the way to a championship.
Tenth-seeded Florida State, which won the first game of the championship series and was leading Oklahoma in the sixth inning of Game 2, finally succumbed to history on a sweltering Thursday afternoon with a 104-degree heat index. The Seminoles trotted out three pitchers in an attempt to stop OU's offense, but by the time their much-used ace, Kathryn Sandercock, took the mound in the third inning, it was too late: The Sooners were fist-pumping and dirt-sprinkling and up four runs.
Jocelyn Alo, the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, smashed a home run to left field in the first inning, her 34th of the season, to give the Sooners a 1-0 lead. The next inning, Jayda Coleman cranked one just out of left-fielder Kaley Mudge's reach and over the fence.
Juarez sighed in frustration after she walked freshman Kalei Harding to lead off the third, and Harding scored when Sydney Sherrill skied a pop fly that second baseman Tiare Jennings lost in the sun. But Oklahoma responded with a three-run bottom of the third, buoyed by Coleman's two-run double that bounced off the top of the left-field wall. FSU coach Lonni Alameda called in freshman Emma Wilson from the bullpen after starter Danielle Watson gave up a leadoff single. Wilson, who'd thrown just 20 innings before Thursday, gave up two walks, a hit and two runs in two-thirds of an inning.
"The inning got to us," Alameda said. "Maybe it wasn't so fair on her part for me to put her in there, but I know she wanted it. I know for the future of this program, it's going to be good for her to take the memories to this, and it's by no means her fault for what happened."
With Oklahoma up 5-1, and Juarez cruising, the last four innings were an extended lovefest for the 10,830 fans at USA Hall of Fame Softball Stadium. Forty-five minutes after the game, Juarez was still awestruck by the moment. As she settled in for the postgame press conference -- conducted via Zoom -- she mouthed a "Wow."
The players' affection for each other was obvious. When Alo was asked what the Sooners will do without their seniors, including Juarez, she started to sob. Juarez reached over to console her and told Alo that she was making her cry too.
Gasso, who knew this team was going to be special well before the first pitch was thrown, seemed particularly happy for Juarez.
"[There] was just something different about her this week that everyone felt very confident about," Gasso said. "She had a different look, approach -- calm, confident, wanting the ball.
"My heart just was overflowing with joy for her because it was a tough season for her. It was her super senior year. She had a lot of things to prove."
Gasso didn't have much time to celebrate. Her son D.J., an assistant coach at Utah, is getting married Friday. The rehearsal dinner was set for Thursday night.
"I'm paying for it but I'm not there," she said jokingly.
She did take time to reflect on a WCWS in which attendance records were smashed and her sport undoubtedly grew in popularity. It was a week of rain delays and a 2 a.m. game, of disputed umpire calls and James Madison pitcher Odicci Alexander becoming a viral superstar. Wednesday night's game on ESPN drew 2.6 million viewers at its peak.
"This tournament is big," Gasso said. "It's getting really, really big. It's getting a lot of viewership. It's getting talked about a lot. As coaches, we just want to do what's best for this sport in a respectful way, and we just hope people are listening, whether it's changing our schedules, giving us an extra day, [or] not having us play in late-evening games. Instant replay absolutely needs to be a part of this.
"It feels to me like this College World Series really exposed a lot of things, in a good way, that need to change to make our game better for our student-athletes."