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From first pitch to the final out, it's all Oklahoma time in 2017

There's not much the people of Oklahoma love more than the University of Oklahoma and the Women's College World Series. AP Photo/Alonzo Adams

NORMAN, Okla. -- The same five words greet fans before every session of the Women's College World Series. They grow familiar to those who show up by the tens of thousands at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium as spring turns to summer in Oklahoma City. They call in people from the tailgates and tents that grow more plentiful by the year.

With each syllable of the final word accentuated, public address announcer Chad Gilbert delivers the line with a ringmaster's flair.

It's softball time in Ok-la-ho-ma.

For a week each year, as May becomes June, as nearly 80,000 people fill the seats, as television ratings rival baseball's College World Series, Oklahoma City is the object around which a sport orbits. The name triggers the same response in softball players that Indianapolis or Daytona does for drivers who get behind the wheel of race cars at small tracks across the country, or the way Augusta registers with golfers. Everyone who plays wants to go to Oklahoma City.

"The fans here, people in this state love softball." Andrea Gasso

Andrea Gasso (formerly Andrea Harrison), who grew up in softball-mad California, experienced it first as the place the best travel teams convened to settle bragging rights, then as an annual pilgrimage for UCLA, the college game's first superpower.

"We always knew Oklahoma City as a place you go to win championships," said Gasso, an All-WCWS selection in 2010. "When I was at UCLA, we didn't really talk about Oklahoma City. We talked about 'Emerald City' because we never wanted to say 'Oklahoma City' until we were there. ... I knew nothing about the state. I knew Hall of Fame Stadium. You go there, you play softball. And then you go home."

Except that today, as a new season dawns, it is still softball time in Oklahoma. The sport long ago took root and flourished in the state's red soil for more than one week a year.

A restless dry-cleaning manager, a self-professed California girl and a lot of talented players made sure that the road to Oklahoma City runs through Norman, 30 minutes to the south.

For the second time in four years, the University of Oklahoma opens a season as defending champion. The Sooners who won a title in 2013 might have been the greatest collection of college players yet assembled, blessed with the likes of two-time national player of the year Keilani Ricketts and NCAA all-time home run leader Lauren Chamberlain. The team that won the championship a year ago was notable for its youth: eight freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup for the clinching game against Auburn. Already the only program other than Arizona and UCLA to win at least three titles, it is a model of excellence for a modern era.

Oklahoma is home to college softball's biggest event, to the sport's Hall of Fame and its governing body. But it is also softball's home because of something born here.

Just ask Gasso. What was once little more than an airport and a stadium to her is now home. A volunteer assistant at Oklahoma, she is married to assistant J.T. Gasso, son of head coach Patty Gasso.

"The fans here, people in this state love softball," Andrea Gasso said. "They love the University of Oklahoma, and they love the Women's College World Series."

***

That the sport's center of gravity is the 28th-most populous state is, well, all a bit random.

Softball was born in Chicago in the late 19th century. Women's fast pitch was raised to maturity in California in the 20th century. Only in recent decades did the women's game fully take root in the Southeast, let alone less temperature-friendly reaches of the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic.

Two unrelated events in the mid-1960s set in motion the sequence that lend Gilbert's signature phrase its full meaning.

First, in 1966, the Amateur Softball Association moved its headquarters from Newark, New Jersey, to Oklahoma City. The ASA was three decades old, founded in 1933, but new secretary general Don Porter led an effort to relocate. He sought a more central location on the map. Oklahoma City welcomed a foothold in the sports world.

The second bit of serendipity came when Marita Hynes woke up one morning before her shift as the manager of a dry-cleaning plant and asked herself if she wanted to keep doing that six days a week, 12 hours a day for the rest of her life. She didn't. So Hynes, who allowed that she had a little too much fun in the lone year she spent at the University of Oklahoma before working in dry cleaning for three years, went back to school at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, a city 10 miles north of the plot of land eventually home to Hall of Fame Stadium.

Women's softball had no particular hold on Oklahoma at the time. That much was evident in the scholastic offerings available to Hynes growing up. She didn't play softball because there wasn't much to play. The first high school state championship was awarded in 1950, but by way of comparison, while there were five classes of high school baseball by 1968, there was still just a single class for softball as late as 1976.

Hynes started playing softball at Central Oklahoma because she played everything at a time when women's sports were still so on the fringes that the school's teams shared uniforms, jerseys passed from volleyball to basketball to softball. After coaching high school softball in the area, she was ready to leave for a postgraduate program at Arizona State when the University of Oklahoma, in the wake of Title IX's passage, asked her to take over its nascent varsity softball program in 1976.

Hynes would go on to serve as tournament director for the Women's College World Series the first 15 times it was played at Hall of Fame Stadium, which opened in 1987 across the parking lot from ASA/USA Softball headquarters. But the first three softball World Series ever played in Oklahoma took place not as NCAA events in Oklahoma City but as AIAW events in Norman from 1980-82.

Those World Series took place at Reeves Park, a public park on the edge of campus where the Sooners played all of their games at the time.

"Sometimes teams would play and there might not be 40 people in the stands," Hynes said. "It was very difficult to get media coverage. We were lucky to get our local newspaper to cover it."

***

The softball diamonds at Reeves Park are still there, these days across the street from Marita Hynes Field, the 1,378-seat softball stadium that opened in 1998 and is home to the Sooners. Playing in a local youth tournament at Reeves when she was still in grade school about a decade ago, Caleigh Clifton heard the music that drifted across from the stadium. She heard the cheers.

That was the day she told her dad that she wanted to play for the Sooners.

"It was my dream to come here," said Clifton, a sophomore and a national champion. "I didn't really consider anything else. I was just hoping Coach Gasso wanted me."

"It was my dream to come here. I didn't really consider anything else." Caleigh Clifton

The coach had to look only 30 miles down the road to find her. A town of fewer than a thousand people that comes and goes in the blink of an eye on U.S. Highway 77, and where a significant part of the rush-hour traffic comprises the freight trains that rumble within yards of city hall, Wayne makes Hynes' hometown of Okemah look bustling. But the high school from which Clifton graduated with about 40 classmates had a softball team. A team good enough that before Clifton ever won a title with the Sooners at Hall of Fame Stadium, she won a Class 2A fast pitch state title on the same field.

The facility in Oklahoma City is in use for about 30 weekends a year, hosting both national and international events. This May alone, it will host the Big 12 tournament and NCAA Division III Women's College World Series before the Division I teams arrive. It is also where the state's 470 high school fast-pitch teams, spread across seven classes, settle their championships in the fall. (Oklahoma remains one of the few states that sponsors high school slow-pitch softball, which is played in the spring.)

"Besides the College World Series," ASA executive director Craig Cress said, "the high school state finals are our biggest crowds."

One of four starters a season ago from the state, along with shortstop Kelsey Arnold and outfielders Erin Miller and Kady Self, Clifton suffered through a decidedly difficult start to her freshman season. It is a common affliction for those who grow up thinking about the opportunity to play at Marita Hynes Field the way those elsewhere think about Hall of Fame Stadium.

"They start to kind of psych themselves out, because they want to be so good because they live in this program without actually playing in it," Gasso said.

Here, too, strands intertwine. The World Series might still have made a permanent home in Oklahoma City had Hynes stayed in dry cleaning. Similarly, the Sooners would presumably still have a softball program if the ASA had never convinced the city to build a softball stadium worthy of a major event. But it might not be the program that has such a hold on girls like Clifton.

Not without the coach she just hoped wanted her.

***

It was Hynes, by then associate athletic director, who hired Gasso in 1996. Raised blocks from the beaches of Southern California, Gasso found her passion for bat-and-ball sports from her mom, who coached her, and from the voice of Vin Scully calling Dodgers games on a transistor radio. She always wanted to coach but had no intentions of following softball away from the ocean, let alone to Oklahoma's landlocked horizon.

But she had been to Oklahoma City even before Hynes called to ask if the then-five months pregnant softball coach at Long Beach City College was interested in taking a pay cut to coach the Sooners. She attended the World Series a few times in its early years in Oklahoma City and was wowed that there were as many as 2,000 people in the stands for some sessions (the average session drew more than four times that many people in 2016). Even as Oklahoma State took the early in-state lead, reaching Hall of Fame Stadium four times in the 1990s, Gasso wondered what the crowds might look like if the school from Norman were involved.

She took the job, not entirely aware of the scale of mess she was inheriting, with players so unhappy that their preferred choice had been passed over that some boycotted practices. She won a national championship four years later. She was right: The fans filled the stadium to a staggering extent that is now considered normal, whether the Sooners are playing or not.

Two more titles have followed, more than any programs but the Arizona and UCLA dynasties.

In addition to in-state talent, Gasso's ties to California helped shape the program. From Lana Moran, the lone senior in 2000 and the recruit who opened the door for others to follow, to Chamberlain and Ricketts and now Fale Aviu, Shay Knighten and Sydney Romero, a steady stream of talent flowed west to east.

With competing club tournaments, many elite recruits from California no longer make annual trips to Oklahoma City the way Andrea Gasso's generation did for ASA Gold Nationals. But Oklahoma City remains Emerald City. It is still home to the World Series and effectively Team USA, with Olympic softball set to return in 2020.

So growing up in the hyper-competitive softball scene in Southern California, where she played club ball against Aviu and Romero, Knighten didn't build her own aspirations around the Sooners the same way Clifton did in Wayne. But she did watch the World Series every year. She dreamed of her own moment on the biggest stage.

Which made it all the sweeter to soak in all that was around her after the Sooners won their World Series opener a season ago.

"It was like you actually made it, you're finally there," Knighten said. "Regardless of if you come out a champion or not, you made your lifelong dream an actual reality."

***

A recent winter morning didn't feel much like softball weather in Oklahoma's capital. But a billboard stood watch over traffic on Interstate 35, the light towers of Hall of Fame Stadium barely visible beyond, with a simple message: Welcome to the softball capital of the world.

As a new college season begins, it is difficult to argue.