May 25, 2022

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Sports Really Satisfies

The ‘Wonderful Monster’ of College Softball

Powerhouse. Juggernaut. Behemoth. Beast.

Patty Gasso, who knows them better than anyone, uses a much more evocative term to describe the 39-1 Oklahoma softball team. 

“This wonderful monster,” says the Hall of Fame coach.

See? That sounds much cooler. Gasso’s Monster—er, Sooners—are the defending NCAA Division I softball champions and the nation’s top-ranked team. They began the season with a record 38-game winning streak until an unexpected loss last weekend at rival Texas. 

Gasso—always the coach—saw a silver lining to the defeat.

“At times, we were taking winning for granted,” she says. 

After all, the Sooners don’t just beat teams. They crush souls. Thirty-two of the club’s 39 wins, including Wednesday’s 10-0 blanking of North Texas, have come via the “run rule,” a device that ends a game early if one team takes an eight-run lead after five or more equal innings.

Just going the distance with the Sooners is a kind of moral victory. The pitching staff—led by freshman phenom Jordy Bahl (168 strikeouts in 104 innings) and transfer Hope Trautwein, who threw a strikeouts-only perfect game last year for North Texas—holds a filthy, nation-leading 0.68 ERA. Oklahoma’s .375 team batting average is also tops in Division I. 

Home runs? Sure. Plenty. The Sooner offense is anchored by Jocelyn Alo, aka college softball’s Babe Ruth, who recently broke former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain’s career record of 95 home runs—and has now pushed on to 109.

It doesn’t stop there. The Sooners have four players (Alo, Bahl, Jayda Coleman and Grace Lyons) named as finalists for National Player of the Year. They’re so stacked, some of their most competitive games wind up being against themselves. Alo vs. Bahl, at practice? Good stuff. 

“I wish I could have that televised,” says Gasso. “Our intersquads look like two top-10 teams playing against each other.”

Oklahoma is the most prominent team riding a boom time for college softball. Television ratings for last year’s Women’s College World Series, in which the Sooners defeated Florida State, vastly outperformed the men’s baseball tournament, averaging more than a million viewers per contest. 

With its shorter games, snappier play, and packed, compact stadiums—to say nothing of the amusing chatter from players on the field and in the dugout—college softball can hit like a double espresso next to baseball. 

“I’ve said many times in our administrative meetings — baseball should pay attention to what’s going on,” says Oklahoma’s athletic director,

Joe Castiglione.

The softball Sooners are a hot ticket wherever they play. Everyone wants to see them, beat them, or watch them be great. There are vibes of other sports phenomena, like the peak Golden State Warriors. At home in Norman, games are standing room only, with overflow fans stuffed into the outfield. 

“Fans are crazy for their Sooners,” says Alo. 

“There are scalpers outside of our stadium,” Gasso says, incredulously. 

The coach remembers far humbler days. When Gasso started in Oklahoma 28 seasons ago, the Sooners were lucky to get 50 people to show up—“just parents,” she says. Players didn’t get dressed in a locker room; they arrived for games in uniform, and left in uniform, too.

Now there are five national championships, and an expectation to compete for the title every season. 

Alo, who hails from Hauula, Hawaii, fell in love with Sooner softball on a visit to Norman, and smacked 30 home runs in her 2018 freshman debut. Now a “super senior”—she earned extra eligibility after Covid abruptly ended the 2020 season—she’s soaking up the atmosphere, and feeling bittersweet about the end. 

“I’m genuinely trying to enjoy every moment I have with this team,” Alo says. 

Alo is among the growing number of college athletes who’ve been able to capitalize on new “name, image and likeness” rules that allow them to receive money for endorsements. You can buy “HOME RUN QUEEN” T-shirts with Alo’s picture and number on them—they’re co-branded with Oklahoma—and this week, she announced a partnership with a local car dealership.

“I’m excited to see companies take a chance with women’s athletes,” she says.

Navigating all of this from the dugout is Gasso, the 59-year-old California native who has won more than 80% of her games and transformed OU into one of the best athletic programs in all of college sports. 

“She is 100% a boss lady,” says Alo. “I would run through a brick wall for her.”

Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, center, has transformed the softball team into one of the best athletic programs in all of college sports.



Photo:

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Gasso sees progress all around—in the level of talent, the media attention, and the rising public interest in the game overall. “There’s kind of a ‘wow’ factor, what’s happened,” she says. 

Later this year, the softball Sooners will break ground on a new stadium, with a budget reported to be close to $30 million. Oklahoma intends to keep its foot on the pedal. 

“They’re pushing the limits—in a positive way—of how far they can take the sport,” says Castiglione. 

But first, the “Wonderful Monster” wants to win the season’s last game. 

“They want those rings,” says Gasso. “That’s what they’re about.”

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Write to Jason Gay at [email protected]

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