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Oklahoma looks to be first to win four consecutive NCAA softball titles

THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY
                                Oklahoma’s Kierston Deal pitches on Friday.
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THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY

Oklahoma’s Kierston Deal pitches on Friday.

OKLAHOMA CITY >> A few weeks ago, it looked like the door was wide open for a team other than Oklahoma to win the Women’s College World Series.

While this season’s WCWS, which begins Thursday in Oklahoma City, features several teams capable of winning the title, the Sooners are looking more and more like the favorites they were thought to be for much of the season.

Last year, the Sooners became just the second program to win three consecutive WCWS titles.

Now, they’ll try to become the first to win four consecutive.

“It would be easy to say, ‘We’ve had enough. This is hard work and we’ve had enough,’” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “But they’re elite athletes. Whether they want to or not, they grind, they work hard. Their best is always on the biggest platform.”

The Sooners enter the event on a nine-game winning streak including sweeping through both regional and super regionals.

They’ll open the WCWS against Duke, the only team in the field who is making its first appearance.

Duke softball, which is in just its eighth year of existence, opened the season with a 3-0 loss to the Sooners.

“We just want to be the grittiest and toughest team in the field,” Blue Devils coach Marissa Young said.

UCLA is in the WCWS for an NCAA-record 32nd time, back in the field after missing last year’s world series for the first time since 2014.

The Bruins struggled early in the season but turned a corner and enter the WCWS on a 13-game winning streak.

“I believe we’re battle-tested,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “There was a lot of emotion and frustration because that what sports does.”

The Bruins open the tournament against No. 14 Alabama, the lowest-seeded team of eight in the field.

However, Alabama is third among WCWS teams in pitching with a 1.89 team ERA.

“We preach the defense and the pitching stays constant,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “If we can scratch a run, we’re going to win. They’ve basically done that all year.”

Texas is the No. 1 overall seed after winning the Big 12 — the first team other than Oklahoma to win the league’s regular-season crown since 2011 — though the Longhorns fell to the Sooners 5-1 in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on May 11 in the same park where the WCWS is held.

The Longhorns went down to the wire in the super regional, battling back from a loss to Texas A&M in the opener to beat the Aggies in back-to-back games to advance to the WCWS for the second time in three seasons.

“I think that’s exactly what we needed going into this week,” Texas sophomore Reese Atwood said. “It’s definitely going to be hard. That series prepared us. It was a fight every single inning.”

Texas will take on Stanford in the first round.

The teams split two games this season.

Atwood and Stanford pitcher NiJaree Canady were two of the three finalists for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the year, with Canady winning the award.

Canady burst onto the scene as a freshman in last year’s WCWS, with four strong outings.

Canady’s changeup has elevated her game this season.

“When you have the capability to throw with this speed and movement that NiJaree does, batters are going to begin to cheat and try to get going a little bit sooner,” Stanford coach Jessica Allister said.

The final game of the day features a pair of former college teammates going head-to-head as head coaches, with Oklahoma State’s Kenny Gajewski and Florida’s Tim Walton facing off.

The two were teammates on Oklahoma’s 1994 national championship baseball team. Gajewski was an assistant under Walton at Florida from 2013-15.

“I miss being around him a lot, to be very honest,” Gajewski said. “But it’s really cool to be able to showcase his team and our team on this stage, and to be able to do that is just an incredible thing.”

The Cowgirls are in the WCWS for the fifth consecutive season, the longest streak outside of Oklahoma (eight).

The Gators are led by SEC Player of the Year Jocelyn Erickson, an Oklahoma transfer.

“She’s been a phenomenal addition,” Walton said.

Players to watch:

Reese Atwood, Texas

The sophomore is hitting .435 with 23 home runs and a nation’s-best 90 RBIs.

Kayla Beaver, Alabama

Beaver is 18-9 with a 1.58 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings.

Maya Brady, UCLA

Brady is hitting .431 with 17 home runs and 68 RBIs, with a .844 slugging percentage.

NiJaree Canady, Stanford

Canady burst onto the scene in last season’s WCWS, throwing 18 2/3 innings across four games and allowing just three earned runs while striking out 25 with just two walks. She leads the nation with an absurd 0.65 ERA

Cassidy Curd, Duke

The sophomore carried the load in the circle in the super regionals, and is 13-3 with a 1.29 ERA in 119 1/3 innings this season.

Jocelyn Erickson, Florida

The Oklahoma transfer is hitting .383 with 13 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Tiare Jennings, Oklahoma

Jennings’ stats aren’t as lofty as they’ve been in her previous seasons but she’s still plenty dangerous, hitting .372 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs.

Lexi Kilfoyl, Oklahoma State

Kilfoyl’s 1.06 ERA is second in the country behind only Canady. She’s 26-3 with 146 strikeouts in 171 innings.

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