NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

OU softball: Sooners' 2000 WCWS title provided blueprint, belief that changed sport forever

The Oklahoma softball team poses with their championship trophy after defeating UCLA 3-1, in the NCAA Women's Softball College World Series, Monday, May 29, 2000, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Jackson Laizure)
The Oklahoma softball team poses with their championship trophy after defeating UCLA 3-1, in the NCAA Women's Softball College World Series, Monday, May 29, 2000, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Jackson Laizure)

Tim Walton believes OU softball did more than win a national title in 2000.

He thinks the Sooners kicked down a wall, too.

Walton, now the coach at Florida, was in his first full year as the OU hitting coach back then. He had never coached college softball — he had played minor-league baseball in the years before — so he wasn’t all that knowledgeable about the sport’s history.

Didn’t take him long, though, to see everyone was chasing UCLA and Arizona.

Then, those Sooners, a team from softball’s no-woman’s land, won it all.

“What that Oklahoma Sooner team did in 2000 was kind of break down a barrier of West Coast dominance,” Walton said. “They got other people in other parts of the country really thinking about, ‘Hey, if they can do it, we can do it.’”

During a week we lament the pandemic-caused absence of the best-of-three championship series at the Women’s College World Series, we are still mindful of how much the sport has changed since that first Sooner crown. Search the internet for simulations of what teams were expected to be in Oklahoma City this year, and you’ll see old, familiar favorites. UCLA. Arizona. Washington. But you’ll also find programs that were still in their infancy when OU won in 2000. Florida. Alabama. LSU.

Or look at the list of champions over the past two decades, and you can see the change. Plenty of teams from west of the Rockies won, but so did Michigan and Alabama, Florida and Florida State, and yes, OU a couple more times.

The landscape of college softball has been altered, and the 2000 Sooners moved the first tectonic plate.

Sure, they changed the future of OU softball. Yes, they helped make the WCWS into the rowdy, raucous event it is today. But really, that title caused much bigger shockwaves.

“It changed the world of softball,” Sooner coach Patty Gasso said. “When Oklahoma won the national championship, it changed a lot of programs in a good way.”

And it was not only the win but also the way.

For decades, there was a blueprint for success in college softball.

“You try to get a really good pitcher, play really good defense,” Gasso said, “and then, it’s a base hit, sacrifice the runner to second, get a bloop to fall in and you win 1-0.”

Thing is, there were only so many dominant pitchers, a handful or so in each recruiting class. It was rare for one of them to go anywhere other than a powerhouse program, and that left most programs fighting an unwinnable battle.

Gasso followed the blueprint for a few years, but she quickly realized how hard it was going to be to break through.

She decided to try something different.

“She didn’t recruit a right fielder or a left fielder or a first baseman,” Walton said. “She recruited athletes.”

Defensively, Gasso was able to move players around. Because she had players athletically capable of playing multiple positions, she was able to move Lisa Carey from shortstop to first after off-season shoulder surgery. To put Kelli Braitsch at shortstop, then right field, then back to short. To pull Andrea Davis from catcher to left field.

That defensive dexterity gave Gasso a chance to get as many hitters into the lineup as possible. She had signed a bunch of hitters, many from Oklahoma high schools, in the years leading up to the national title — “They just hammered the ball,” Gasso said — but she directed Walton to go further.

Simply making contact and putting the ball in play, another long-standing pillar of the college-softball blueprint, wasn’t enough. Gasso and Walton wanted their players to smash the ball.

Sometimes, that meant the Sooners struck out more than some folks would’ve liked

“But we’ll hit a three-run homer to beat you,” Walton said.

The result was a new plan for success, one with stellar defensively and stout offensively. Every player in the batting order was a tough out, and backing strong pitching from Jennifer Stewart and Lana Moran, every fielder was consistently solid and regularly spectacular.

“That team was really good at everything when not a lot of people across the country were good at a lot of things,” Walton said. “You’d have one team really good pitching, one team really good hitting, one team really good defensively.

“That team was good at everything.”

Those Sooners proved a championship could be won in a different way, and that altered the thinking of players, coaches and even universities around the country.

The SEC, which had only started sponsoring softball in 1997, started to really take off with athletic, versatile teams. There were similar surges in the Big 12 and the ACC.

Today, every Power 5 conference has at least one softball national title.

Florida is among the sport's nouveau riche with two championships, and Walton has been at the helm for both. The program is consistently among the nation's best, and last season, the Gators opened a renovated stadium with a new softball facility, a $15 million refurbishment that makes Florida’s stadium among the best in the country.

Walton and the Gators built actual walls partly because of the wall he was part of the Sooners tearing down in 2000.

“It was a huge barrier,” he said.

Smashing it was significant. Monumental, really. But giving others with championship aspirations the blueprint and the belief was every bit as important.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

Comments