Winning the NCAA national championship is the pinnacle softball teams attempt to reach every season. Yet while a title brings exposure and plenty of acclaim for the school, the weight and pressure of carrying around the label of "National Champions," is often overlooked.
The past two national champions will meet on Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. in the Women's College World Series. No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 7 seed Oklahoma may have not been aware of the pressure that accompanied a national championship, but the past two seasons have shed new light on what it feels like to carry that pressure around on a daily basis.
The Sooners struggled out of the gate this year, losing as many games in the first two weeks as they had all of last year during their dominating run to the program's second national championship. OU coach Patty Gasso said the loss of some great players, as well as the pressure of being the defending champs led to many early-season struggles.
"As we got started, we still were trying to figure out who we were," Gasso said. "We lost some of the best college softball players to play the game, and now we're trying to figure out how to get back to that kind of prominence. And the pressure was definitely put on unnecessarily, probably by all of us."
After a 2013 season where almost everything went right for the Sooners, injuries plagued the team this year, none moreso than back and knee injuries to Lauren Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest hitter in the game today. Chamberlain missed 23 games with a back injury and is currently playing with a partially torn PCL in her right knee. But the injuries didn't derail Oklahoma's season; they became a huge motivator for the Sooners.
"As we began Big 12 play, this team started to really gel together, started to relax and started to step forward when some prominent players were out," Gasso said. "We had to find ways to continue to make things happen. When Lauren was out for 20-plus games, this team decided, ‘Let's keep going and find a way to get her back, give her time to get healed and hopefully have her back in the lineup.' So, they've just pieced some things together.
"I've seen them grow up quite a bit, mature as softball athletes, but also into young women. So, it's really been a journey that is something I'll never forget, and this is just kind of the icing on top of all of it."
After a poor start to the season, it's remarkable the Sooners have made the return trip to Oklahoma City, but they're here to enjoy the journey and don't see themselves on a business trip to defend last year's national championship.
"We don't even talk about it," Gasso said. "It's not worth talking about. It's not worth trying to put pressure. It's tough. You've got to take one pitch at a time, one game at a time. So, we aren't really focusing in on that, although it is an honor to be back to get the opportunity but certainly not a focus of where we're at."
If any team—or coach—can appreciate the Sooners' plight this season and the burden they have carried, it's the team that will occupy the dugout opposite Oklahoma on Thursday night. Alabama suffered through injuries and pressure last year after winning the 2012 title over the Sooners, just like Oklahoma suffered this year. Unlike the Sooners, Alabama wasn't able to overcome adversity to return to the Women's College World Series for a chance to defend its title.
"I mean, exactly what she (Gasso) said we went through last year, word for word," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "Jackie [Traina] wasn't healthy. This year it was Lauren for them and she's had several injuries, but Jackie was probably about 65 to 70 percent, 70 percent of the year and there were a lot of expectations, a lot of new kids. It was the perfect storm. I mean, we had a lot of injuries. We had a couple new kids, and then we had just won the National Championship and it was too much for a lot of them to handle, probably including me."
Nine Alabama players and seven Oklahoma players were on the field when the Crimson Tide beat the Sooners in the championship series, 2-1, to claim the 2012 national championships. There's a lot of familiarity there, but Murphy said the biggest difference between the two teams is who won't be on the field Thursday night.
"She's still got a heck of an offense, great defense," Murphy said of Gasso and the Sooners. "Her coaching staff is intact and they're always going to win. They're going to have the crowd again. We're a little bit different, but I think the biggest difference is Ms. (Keilani) Ricketts is gone and they have Kelsey Stevens."
The Crimson Tide and Sooners should put on an excellent softball game on Thursday, and there will be plenty of shared respect between the two teams. The two teams have much more in common than most would think. Not only did 16 players and two coaching staffs face off for the sport's greatest achievement two years ago, but each team has had to carry their successes the past two years.
They've each learned just how hard being a champion can be.
Pendley, Chamberlain Named All-Americans
For the 10th straight season, the Oklahoma softball team features a pair of All-Americans as juniors Shelby Pendley and Lauren Chamberlain were recognized by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association at a press conference Wednesday.
Pendley was named a First-Team All-American for the first time in her career as an at-large at third base. It's the second straight season that she has been recognized by the NFCA, adding to her second-team status from a year ago.
Pendley leads the Sooners in several offensive categories, including hits (79), runs (64), home runs (17), runs batted in (74) and doubles (18) and is a perfect 13-13 on stolen base attempts. Nationally, she ranks in the top 25 of seven different offensive categories, including ninth with 1.21 RBI per game.
Oklahoma has had at least one First-Team All-American each season since 2009. In total, the program has seen 27 players earn 47 All-American honors.
After being named a First-Team All-American in each of her first two seasons, Chamberlain was placed on the third team as an at-large at first base in 2014 mostly as a result of missing 25 games due to injury. Nevertheless, the Trabuco Canyon, Calif., native becomes the seventh three-time All-American in program history.
Despite missing those games because of injury, Chamberlain is still hitting .371 on the season with 12 home runs and 44 runs scored. Her 47 walks lead the team and are ninth in the nation. Her .591 on-base percentage would rank second in the country if she had enough plate appearances to qualify.
As a duo, Pendley and Chamberlain have combined to hit 130 home runs combined in their careers. That's the most for any teammates in the country. They will enter next season as the top two active leaders in home runs.