For Oklahoma, the glory was in the journey to the national title

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The last time Oklahoma played for a title in the Women's College World Series, it put arguably the greatest team of all time on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

The Oklahoma team that played Wednesday night isn't in that discussion -- at least not yet.

What the Sooners are -- more specifically, what they became over a matter of months -- is the best version of themselves, the realization of their potential. When the dust cleared, that turned out to be a team that earned the national championship, which is the only thing they give trophies for, anyway.

A night after giving away the largest lead in the history of the championship round and watching a title slip away run by agonizing run with its best pitcher out of gas on the bench, Oklahoma made the slimmest of leads hold up in the winner-take-all finale of the Women's College World Series. The Sooners scored twice in first inning. That was enough to beat Auburn 2-1.

One year after it lost two of the best players in college softball history, Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma started four freshmen and four sophomores and won a third title, which puts it in a class previously occupied by only Arizona and UCLA.

"Our mantra for the year was 'team,'" senior Erin Miller said. "We lost some really good seniors, and we weren't going to let that defeat us. I think this team really took that upon themselves to prove to the nation that we can do it without those big names."

What the Sooners celebrated on the field was a win, seven innings of good fortune mixed among good softball, as it always must be in an event with so many games and such slim margins. But they also celebrated all that put them in position to be part of the game.

Every team's route to a title is a journey. But Oklahoma's journey is its identity.

Through the smallest lens, a season composed of thousands of innings came down to two sets of three outs: the bottom of the first inning, when Oklahoma scored its only runs, and the top of the third inning, when Auburn couldn't score any with the bases loaded.

The ball seemed to foreshadow what was to come in the bottom of the first inning. Leadoff batter Erin Miller grounded out on a sharply hit ball to Auburn second baseman Emily Carosone. Then Caleigh Clifton reached on an infield single hit Carosone's way. The Auburn senior dove to keep the ball in the infield, but her throw sailed wide of first base. Clifton didn't appear ready to advance, but a collision with first baseman Jade Rhodes removed any doubt. That meant no error for Carosone, but it wasn't a start on solid footing.

Things rapidly got worse for Carosone. A ground ball from Shay Knighten got through her glove and bounded into the outfield grass. It was the only ball that left the infield in the sequence that won a national championship. Carosone retrieved it, then tried to do too much when she tried to bluff one of the runners on base into straying too far from safety. She threw the ball into the ground, and her second error on the play allowed Clifton to come all the way around and score.

"That's never happened before, but it happened today," Carosone said. "It slipped."

An infield single from Fale Aviu brought Knighten home for a 2-0 lead.

In a World Series that juxtaposed moments of true defensive brilliance, many crafted by Auburn players, with some of the sloppiest fielding in decades, the miscues were fatal.

"We didn't do the little things," Auburn coach Clint Myers said. "If we do the little things, we win that ballgame 1-0."

Two of Oklahoma's greatest assets, its infield defense and its sophomore ace, didn't flinch when the Tigers loaded the bases in the top of the third inning. Paige Parker, the pitcher who was too physically exhausted to go a day earlier, struck Carosone out on three pitches -- a far different ending than the Auburn All-American's walk-off grand slam in Game 2.

Then Oklahoma, itself uncharacteristically erratic with five errors in the World Series, played. Auburn's Carlee Wallace hit a slow roller that shortstop Kelsey Arnold fielded and flipped to Clifton, whose relay to first base beat Wallace for a double play that wiped out the runner who raced home at the same time. A moment of hesitation, a bobble or a poor relay, and the Sooners wouldn't have turned two.

It wasn't Tinkers to Evers to Chance, but a sophomore and two freshmen, Arnold to Clifton to Knighten, pulled it off seamlessly.

"You definitely think double-play ball," Arnold said. "Coach Gasso has taught us a lot, and in practice, we've been in situations just like that, so we're ready for the real thing when it happens."

Named Most Outstanding Player, deservedly even when the same could have been said of Knighten, Parker said she pitched Wednesday at about 75 percent. But that 75 percent climbed toward 90 percent when it mattered.

"I knew how hard our offense was working," Parker said of escaping the jam. "And I wanted them to have freedom to play."

That's a phrase with some meaning for the Sooners. A year ago, Florida didn't lose its first game until the middle of March. That was about the same time it lost its first game the season before that. When Oklahoma rolled to the championship in 2013, it won 16 games in a row at the beginning of the season. You get the point: No one goes unbeaten in college softball, but the best teams generally look the part at the start of the season.

Oklahoma lost the first game it played this season. Then it lost the second.

After the loss to Auburn on Tuesday, Gasso tried to put things in perspective. She said that when the season began, no one expected Oklahoma to be playing for a championship. That might have included a lot of people in Sooners' colors

"It was almost panic from the first weekend," Gasso said. "All of us were like, 'Wow, wait, what happened?' They were scared, very tight. I think we just started to understand -- and they're going to laugh when I say this word because every time I say it, they laugh -- but the word 'freedom' is what this group is about. ... The freedom to make mistakes. They can be good mistakes because you can learn from them. That is why this group can be so loose. They can play the way they need to play without me pointing my finger in their face."

For the record, she was right. Her players laughed.

The 2013 championship team that the current seniors joined as freshmen was a machine. It was a roster loaded with some of the most compelling individual talents and intense competitors in the history of the college game, players driven that much more by the memory of a soul-crushing exit in the title round a year earlier. The older players on that team were on a mission. They didn't have time to coddle. The results, the nation's best offense and defense and a title, spoke for themselves.

In a way, that year set up the championship chemistry that won this title.

"We talked about the amount of freshmen we have and how important they're going to be on this team," Gasso said of an offseason meeting with the seniors. "They welcomed them with open arms because I don't know, when they were freshmen, that they were treated the same way. I think they had an idea that 'When we're seniors, we're not going to be like that.'"

The tone set by those seniors, Erin Miller and Kady Self in the starting lineup Wednesday, and the reality check of those early losses meant this team had time for Knighten to figure out not just how to play a foreign position at first base but also how to play it as well as anyone in the college game. It had time for Sydney Romero to escape older sister Sierra's shadow and play her own game. It had time for Parker to get over both the ghosts of a painful super regional a year ago and the knee injury that slowed her in February and March.

This was never going to be the greatest team of all time (but check back in a couple years, when so many of the key players are still around). It just had to be the best it could be.

The journey didn't win Oklahoma the national championship. Knighten's walk-off home run off Alabama's Alexis Osorio in one of the week's best games did that. Romero's home run in the first game against Auburn did that, as did Knighten's defensive play from first base to throw a runner out at home.

Dozens of plays that went Oklahoma's way by dint of talent and a bit of good fortune won the title. But Oklahoma's journey to the national championship stage was ultimately what gave it the means to be the last team standing.