<
>

2022 WCWS: Can Texas softball find upset formula once more against overpowering Oklahoma?

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- There are two ways to look at Saturday's first game of the Women's College World Series slate. One is that the No. 1 seed, a historic dynasty, is playing a scrappy unseeded underdog that has gotten hot at the right time.

Or more simply: It's Oklahoma vs. Texas (3 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN App).

The 55-2 Sooners certainly could've expected to be here, putting together one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the sport. Meanwhile, in February, the Longhorns went 0-5 in the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational and fans weren't exactly booking hotel rooms in Oklahoma City.

But fast-forward to June, and the Longhorns are facing the Sooners in the winners bracket in OKC after a 7-2 win over No. 5 UCLA.

In between, the unthinkable happened: On April 16, behind the arm of Hailey Dolcini, Texas beat Oklahoma, snapping the Sooners' 40-game winning streak overall and a 23-game winning streak against the Longhorns. It wasn't a cure-all for Texas' season; the Longhorns still dropped all three games in a series against Oklahoma State about a week later, and they lost again to the Cowgirls in the Big 12 tournament. But in the Seattle Regional and the Fayetteville Super Regional, the Longhorns went on a tear, going 5-2 with series wins over No. 11 Washington and No. 5 Arkansas, the latter a confidence-building victory before a decidedly home crowd.

Sound familiar?

The Longhorns will get a heavy dose of crimson and cream on Saturday, playing the defending champ Sooners just 20 miles from their Norman campus.

Before the Horns' first-round game against UCLA, Texas star Janae Jefferson, a four-time All-American, knew what was in store for her team.

"I'm not expecting us to get much support from the OU fans out here," she said, before saying the Longhorns' faithful were still rowdy in Arkansas. "We're going to need that support for sure. We're ready."

History is not on the Longhorns' side, either. The Sooners have won five national championships, including last season's. Texas, meanwhile, has made just six appearances overall in the WCWS, with this being its first since 2013. That was the year of the only previous Texas-OU matchup in Oklahoma City, where the Sooners run-ruled the Longhorns 10-2.

But Dolcini is the reason for Texas' long-shot hopes at a second win over OU this year. In two starts against the Sooners this season, she has allowed just five total runs, giving up three in a 3-0 loss on April 14, then two more in a 4-2 win two days later.

Two of Oklahoma's biggest threats, Tiare Jennings and Jocelyn Alo, are hitless in 13 at-bats against Dolcini this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And while the Sooners were held to three hits or fewer just three times all season, two were against Dolcini.

"It was truly attacking them with no fear," Dolcini said. "You've got to trust that your best stuff will beat their best swings and keep the ball down for a team that hits a lot of long balls."

It was a remarkable initiation into the Red River Rivalry for Dolcini, a super senior transfer from Fresno State who was facing the Sooners for the first time in burnt orange in that series.

"It's not always the best team that wins," Texas coach Mike White said on Wednesday. "It's the team that plays the best, and on that particular day, we played better than they did. They had their No. 1 pitcher [Jordy Bahl] throwing against us. It was a 0-0 game for a while, and we were able to score a big hit at the right time, and Hailey pitched one heck of a game, and that's what you have to do.

The Sooners don't need any miracles with the machine that coach Patty Gasso has built. But they're also coming off a Game 1 showing that included the return of Bahl, who had been out with arm soreness since May 6.

"We need her, but these two pitchers (Hope Trautwein, 19-1, 0.51 ERA; and Nicole May, 15-0, 0.99) have been crushing it," Gasso said on Thursday. "So adding Jordy (21-1, 0.95, 199 strikeouts in 132⅔ innings) to the mix and making you now train for three different pitchers instead of two is difficult for teams."

Oklahoma great Alo, the sport's all-time home run leader, says the Texas loss earlier in the season was a big factor in the Sooners' run to this point, too.

"I've played with a lot of really special teams," Alo said on Wednesday. "Been here for five years, so I've had my fair share. I think this is the best team I've been on just because of how complete we are and how tight-knit we are. Again, I've never seen a pitching staff like this, and they just love to dice us up at practice, so I feel like that's what makes us good. Just iron sharpening iron every day. I think I saw this team really start trending in the right direction, I think, after we lost to Texas, and I've just seen us come out of some really tough spots and handle it with grace and passion."

A peaking Texas team and an Oklahoma squad on the cusp of historical greatness. Two weeks ago, the No. 4 Texas women's tennis team upset No. 2 Oklahoma, which was 32-2 and set a program record for wins, for the national title.

Can Texas softball find the formula for one more upset of its own?

"I've always said good pitching beats good hitting, especially in pressure situations, and Hailey was able to put together one of the best games of her career, and that's the way to do it," White said earlier this week. "Hopefully, we can repeat it sometime."

Now they get their chance.