2017 WCWS Game One: An Oral History
It was always a matchup primed for the history books. The Oklahoma Sooners, the defending national champions, gave themselves a chance to go back-to-back against the top-seeded Florida Gators in the 2017 Women’s College World Series Championship Series. As the two teams walked into USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium for the first game of the best-of-three series, they had no idea about the marathon game they were about to begin.
What If People Said You Were About To Play 17 Innings
Oklahoma first baseman Shay Knighten: “I would look at them and tell them, ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way this game is going 17 innings.’ I’d honestly just laugh.”
Oklahoma designated player Falepolima Aviu: “Coming in, we were the 10 seed, we had somewhat of a chip on our shoulders. It was going to be interesting to see how it played out and everything. We were going to take it pitch by pitch, inning by inning, if it was going to take 17 innings, then it was going to take 17 innings.”
A Different Start
Oklahoma pitcher Paige Lowary: “I had been closing games for about two months at the time. I think the last time I started was some time in March. Coach (Patty) Gasso had a meeting with me and Paige Parker that morning and we didn’t really know what the meeting was going to be about. In our hotel room, she said, ‘We are going to throw Florida off because they won’t expect Paige Lowary to start, but you’re starting tonight.’
“The whole pregame for me was getting my mindset right to start. The two months prior, I was just showing up to the game not really in a pitching mindset until the game started because I knew I’d just start warming up in the fourth inning every game. My entire pregame process was completely different than it had been for two months for that game. It felt different, I knew it was going to be a different game.”
Just The Beginning
The Gators struck first in the fourth inning on a RBI single from third baseman Aleshia Ocasio to bring in second baseman Nicole DeWitt.
Oklahoma answered back with a run in the fifth and sixth innings. Third baseman Sydney Romero drove in the tying run and right fielder Nicole Mendes hit a home run to hand the Sooners the lead. They brought it into the seventh and that’s when the fun began.
Florida Sends It To Extras
Paige Parker had the Gators down to their last strike. Florida shortstop Sophia Reynoso took the 3-2 pitch and flared it into left field, Oklahoma’s outfield had been playing back to stop any doubles, as Ocasio stood on first. The decision backfired as neither left fielder Macey Hatfield or center fielder Nicole Pendley got to it. The ball dropped and Ocasio scored to tie the game at two.
Oklahoma center fielder Nicole Pendley: “Before the pitch I was just thinking about all the scenarios because we were in no doubles, probably a little deeper than we should’ve been. Off the bat it was ‘Try to make a catch, try to make a catch.’ I saw Macie out of the corner of my eye and we both went for it, it was just a blur from there.”
Knighten: “Just get to the ball, get there, do whatever you can do to catch it. It’s one of those things you can’t really do much, you just have to wait and see what happens. It was almost like we were just holding our breath, like c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.
When that ball dropped and they tied it up, it was alright, next pitch, let’s keep moving.”
Aviu: “If we couldn’t come up with the play then we were going to come into the dugout and handle business offensively.”
Lowary: “At that point in the game, I’m just thinking this is going to be a battle now. I think in the seventh inning we were thinking we’re going to win this game. When that happened, we’re going to be in a battle the rest of the way.”
Oklahoma Ends The Scoreless Streak
Knighten doubled off Florida’s Delanie Gourley to open the 12th inning. The next batter, Aviu, sent out the first runs of the game since Reynoso’s ball dropped in back in the seventh. Aviu’s two-run home run put the Sooners up 4-2.
Aviu: “Going into that at-bat, our hitting coach J.T. (Gasso) was talking to me about game plans. He was saying, ‘This is what we’re seeing,’ He was telling me, they noticed Delanie was throwing a bunch of changeups. J.T. tried having me sit on a changeup.
I said, ‘No, I’m going to sit up and in.’ He just said, ‘Okay.’
I hit the home run and it was up and in. When I got back into the dugout, we started laughing at each other. He lets you do what you want, having a coach trust your game plan is cool to see and how it paid off.”
Knighten: “We were so excited. We were trying to contain our emotions but trying to show it at the same time in the moment, be excited that we were able to do something like that and be ahead in such a big game. We knew we still had a job to do, we knew we had to go out there and finish.”
Pendley: “It was like a feeling of relief going up ahead. But then you go on defense and you’re like they know how to punch back. When you were on offense you felt like you were in control and when you went back on defense, it felt like things tightened up.”
Gummy Bears And A Chance To Close It Out
Lowary was still on the bench in the 12th inning, as Parker stayed in the circle. Florida got the first two runners on to start the inning. Despite Parker getting the next two outs, current Oregon head coach and former Oklahoma pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi told Lowary she was going in.
Lowary: “I was eating gummy bears in the dugout, then Coach Lombardi said, ‘Paige, you’re going back in the next batter.’
I am? I haven’t pitched in seven innings, so I should probably go do that.
I sprint down to the bullpen, when I got down there my bullpen catcher wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the dugout, he happened to be in the bathroom. I just grabbed a ball and threw it two times, then went into the game.”
Florida left fielder Amanda Lorenz stepped up to the plate.
Lowary: “I was a little flustered, I felt like I wasn’t prepared to re-enter and then Amanda Lorenz is up.”
Lowary got her in a 1-2 count, but Lorenz lined one into the left-center gap and made it to third to tie the game at four. Lowary got Oklahoma into the 13th inning, but was less than thrilled entering the dugout.
Lowary: “I ran into the dugout that inning and I freaked out. I had a mini panic attack in the dugout. What changed everything for me was Coach Lombardi pulled me aside and said, ‘What’s going on?’
I said, ‘We could’ve lost the game there, that could’ve been my fault.’
She said, ‘Well, we didn’t, did we? We’re tied. Change your mindset and we’re going to win this game.’
From that point on I knew we were winning this game. There’s no question about it.”
Knighten: “You were up, now they tied it, you were up, now they tied it. It can be a little scary, but we knew what we wanted. We wanted to win a championship. Whatever it took, we were going to do it, and we weren’t worried about what they were doing. That’s the game of softball, you never know who is going to do what. Whenever it was our opportunity to strike, we had to take advantage of those opportunities.”
That 15th Inning Feeling
How does one even maintain energy and focus 15 innings into a game?
Lowary: “It’s all adrenaline. It was a we’re not giving up and see who gives up first mentality. We’ll play 30 innings if we have to.”
Knighten: “Just keep fighting, keep going. We have to finish. We had to do it together, do whatever you had to do to fight to the finish.”
Aviu: “In the moment, it’s like, let’s keep going, keep going. Looking back and it’s 17 innings, it’s like wow, we really did that. It’s just adrenaline and the will to never give up.”
The Power Of Three
Despite Oklahoma loading the bases in the 15th and 16th, the teams stayed locked at four entering the seventh. Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill struck out the first two batters she faced before Sooner second baseman Caleigh Clifton and Mendes reached with two outs. Then, Knighten stepped to the plate, and Oklahoma had a chance to take the lead again.
She got her pitch, sending it into the Oklahoma City sky for a three-run home run to make it 7-4.
Knighten: “I went up just trying to calm myself down while I was in the on-deck circle and just waiting for my opportunity. If I was able to get an at-bat, I needed to do whatever I could to score at least one run, even if it wasn’t the prettiest hit.
I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t scared, I was very excited for the moment. As I got into the box, I was just like clear mind and go. Whatever happens, happens. And it happened.”
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Lowary: “We were all really exhausted and on autopilot during the game. Then, when that happened, I was like, ‘It’s going to end this inning.’
Our motto during the World Series was the Power of Three. If you look back at the game, we were up one run, they came back, we were up two runs, they came back. When we went up three runs, we said they’re not coming back from three runs. They’re not coming back this time. We’re winning this game and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Aviu: “Being on-deck, like how do I follow that up? What’s next? It’s cool because everyone is going crazy after that. But we needed to lock in, this game wasn’t over and they’ve proved they can come back.”
Pendley: “Whenever your teammate hits a home run, you get more wild for them than you do for yourself because you go to work with that person every single day. In that moment, we all knew it was out probably before she did, but you kind of go black and the emotions take over.
Little stuff like the (Power of Three) you didn’t realize in the moment. Going back and rewatching, it’s weird, that theme was very powerful for us. You could see how invested we were in that theme.”
Crossing the Finish Line
Florida battled back to score one, and put two more runners on base with two outs in the bottom half of the inning. Lowary stood in the circle against Gator first baseman Kayli Kvistad. This is where the story ended. Lowary struck out Kvistad to finally end the 17-inning contest and seal Oklahoma's victory.
The moment held more than just the win for Lowary.
Lowary: “Kayli Kvistad, who I struck out, back when I was a sophomore in high school, I played on a travel team for one tournament with her travel team. She was my roommate and my teammate, we literally shared a bed together. We hadn’t talked since then, it was a full circle moment because I didn’t do well during the tournament and I didn’t get invited back to the team.
I wanted to prove all of them wrong and that I’m good enough, striking her out in the final at-bat was just full circle for me.”
For everyone, they were just glad the never-ending game found a conclusion.
Knighten: “Finally, it was over. But at the same time, I didn’t even realize we had gone 17 innings because the scoreboard had shut off or didn’t go past a certain inning. I didn’t even realize what inning we were in. After that, we were just hugging each other like, ‘Finally, it’s over.’
We won it, we got it, game one is in our pocket. We had a job to do tomorrow, so let’s go home and get to sleep.”
Pendley: “We were tired, but we couldn’t fall asleep. I know a lot of us stayed up a lot later after the game ended. We were just trying to grasp what had happened.”
Aviu: “The crazy thing to me is the Power of Three. It was three runs that set us apart heading into that 17th inning. Our chaplain, Sarah Roberts, she’s the one who shared the story with us—the story comes from 2 Samuel 23 in the Bible. She was telling me after game one that it was funny how they came back over one run and two runs but with the Power of Three, they couldn’t come back. To me, it gave me goosebumps knowing that we were going off that theme and it’s crazy to think about.”
Pendley: “I had never rewatched it until (recently). Before things happen, I’m like I can’t remember what happens here. I know we don’t win right here, we don’t score, but couldn’t remember small details. I was able to take in a lot more than playing the game. Even years later, it’s emotional.”
Knighten: “To play a game like that is unbelievable. You can never predict to play a game like that. For it to be in the World Series, on a big stage like that, being able to play a team like Florida is something I’ll never forget. My teammates on that team, my coaching staff and everyone involved in that season knows it wasn’t an easy season. It was fun to finish it out that way, and to do something as a team like that is something I’ve never felt before.”