OKLAHOMA CITY >> Whether it’s Oklahoma’s celebrations for anything from a spectacular defensive play to drawing a walk or Tennessee’s players showering teammates with fake money in the dugout after a home run, the energy around the sport beyond the play has drawn considerable attention at this year’s Women’s College World Series.
Part of it is by design. Last July, the NCAA Division I softball committee removed a restriction on dugout props during NCAA Tournament play. That allowed Stanford’s pink cowboy hats, Tennessee’s money and Oklahoma State’s stick horse, Bullet, into the World Series.
And part of it is completely organic. Most softball teams cheer and chant from the dugout as play unfolds in front of them. The sport’s current juggernaut, Oklahoma, has been unapologetically animated in its quest for a third straight national title.
Oklahoma pitcher Jordy Bahl, a tireless bundle of energy who had not allowed a run in 21 2/3 innings at the World Series, hears the critics. She and her teammates sometimes avoid social media to avoid the backlash.
“Some people probably think it’s excessive at times,” she said. “What they don’t realize is maybe that was an 0-2 count that turned into a walk. So it’s just knowing the game and celebrating every little thing.”
Alyssa Brito, one of the most animated Sooners, threw her bat to the ground after drawing a walk against Tennessee during a World Series game — one of several Oklahoma celebrations that have drawn attention. But the Sooners believe the benefits outweigh outside opinions.
“When you really think about the game, walks are so important,” she said. “That’s something that we stress … so to us, we’re going to celebrate it, and we’re going to celebrate it really hard, and it’s just as good as getting a base hit in my eyes.”
Former UCLA player Rachel Garcia, who led the Bruins past Oklahoma for the 2019 national title, likes the energy the Sooners bring to the field. A Tokyo Olympics participant for Team USA and one of the top players for Athletes Unlimited, said she’s enjoying the view as a fan.
“I think it’s what makes the sport a lot more fun to watch, especially at the Women’s College World Series,” Garcia said. “It’s one of the biggest stages in softball that you see, and that’s ultimately how this game is continuing to grow, is through that that stage right there. So to see all those girls show their expression, show how much passion they have for this game and also use their voice at that level — I think it’s what makes it so exciting.”
The NCAA is fine with all of it so long as it doesn’t cross into disrespect. Liz Turner Suscha, the NCAA’s managing director of championships and alliances, said dropping the props ban was a result of listening to coaches who have said for the past few years that they want more excitement in the game.
“We just continue to have more conversations with the coaches and understand what’s part of the game, what brings teams energy, what gets them focused, what things they kind of key in on and sort of celebrate. … If the fake money and the hats and stuffed animals are kept within the dugout and it’s not interfering with what’s happening on the competition field itself, we’re okay with that,” she said.
The celebrations provide opportunities for the player to make big moments extra special.
“It’s just great seeing all of your teammates celebrating you,” said Tennessee center fielder Kiki Milloy, the nation’s home run leader. “When someone who doesn’t maybe hit as many home runs or hits a home run during a big moment, being able to celebrate with your teammates and throw the cash on them — it’s awesome.”
Tennessee coach Karen Weekly didn’t always like the displays. But she said the game and the players have evolved. Now, she has, too.
“I realized they don’t stay in the game if they’re not cheering,” she said. “So whatever kind of keeps them engaged and connected … it’s just so fun to be able to celebrate with your team.”
The key, Oklahoma infielder Grace Lyons said, is that the energy is directed internally.
“We never mean it disrespectfully or against anyone else,” Lyons said. “It’s in our circle. So what we do is to bring passion to our own circle, and it’s never against anyone else.”