Oklahoma sets the standard, but Texas softball changed its trajectory with WCWS success
Four seniors, coach Mike White have energized once stagnant program. Jefferson: ‘Just ending my career here, it’s the best feeling in the world.’
OKLAHOMA CITY — It makes sense that someone from New Zealand would cherish a book about the All Blacks, one of the most successful sports teams in either hemisphere.
The book “Legacy,” as Texas softball coach Mike White noted after Thursday night's season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Women's College World Series championship, stresses the point that little things matter. Everyone can clean the sheds and be humble, he said. "And leave the jersey in a better place."
That's why White and his seniors held their heads high after the 10-5 loss.
Janae Jefferson, Mary Iakopo, Lauren Burke and Hailey Dolcini, “all those seniors can say they’ve left the jersey in a better place,” White said.
After the 2018 season, Texas made a coaching change. The program had grown stagnant. It needed an overhaul, a shot of new energy. White's splashy arrival from Oregon made huge waves at the time.
In four years, Texas went from mediocre to meteoric, going 46-17 in White's first season, jumping to a 24-3 start in 2020 before the season got called in March, winning its second straight Austin Regional in 2021 and shooting all the way to NCAA national runner-up status this year, the best finish in school history.
“I think it was all worth it,” said Iakopo, who transferred to UT from Oregon in 2019. “The hardships, the hate, all the love, meeting new people, being in a new place. I think it was all worth it in the end to say that we left it all out there and emptied our gas tanks to get to where we are in our fifth year. So I’m proud.”
Jefferson was a freshman in 2018. She stayed at Texas through the coaching change and became one of the best players in school history.
“If our bond was strong together, then it spread throughout the whole team,” Jefferson said. “Like Mary said, just ending my career here, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Texas (47-22-1) became the first unseeded team ever to reach the WCWS championship series. The top-ranked Sooners (59-3) were simply too dominant. OU won its fourth title in the past six seasons and sixth overall. This program is Alabama football or UConn women’s basketball dominant.
Heck, some Oklahoma sports writers were comparing coach Patty Gasso’s 2022 team to some of the best OU football teams in school history. Bud, Barry, Bob and Patty. Sounds about right, actually.
No matter where the softball Sooners stack up, they’re a sports dynasty in every sense of the word.
The Horns bounced back from a 16-1 loss in Game 1 the night before and made the Sooners work for the championship-clinching victory. Texas led 2-0 as left-handed sophomore Estelle Czech worked around some defensive miscues to coax double plays in the third and fourth innings.
But the Sooners tied the game in the fourth and broke it open in the sixth. Kinzie Hansen’s three-run blast gave OU a 6-2 cushion.
“They have all the studs, right? They’re a destination,” White said. “This here is a scrappy bunch of young women who stood up against Oklahoma and give them a damn good game today. And I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
White’s team changed the trajectory of Texas softball this season. A team once looking up at programs like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State now expects to stand shoulder to shoulder with them going forward. And there’s a slew of players who can use this WCWS experience as fuel for the future.
“Beyond proud of this group!” Texas softball legend Cat Osterman tweeted after the game. “They did things no one could imagine and demonstrated Texas Fight till the very end. Hold your heads high, and know you just elevated our program!”
Center fielder Bella Dayton has a bulldog approach and sprinter’s speed. Designated player Courtney Day showed exceptional clutch-hitting ability, especially in the postseason when it matters most.
First baseman JJ Smith will do whatever it takes, even if it means racing across the diamond to tag a runner between third and home.
As terrific as Dolcini was this season, Texas wouldn’t have gotten to the WCWS without Czech and right-handed freshman Sophia Simpson. Those two will be impressive cornerstones going forward.
But it obviously takes something more, as OU proved all season and showcased at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. It takes power at the plate, something Jocelyn Alo provided. It takes consistent pitching, like the way Hope Trautwein dealt this season. And you need a suffocating defense.
How about the way OU’s Jayda Coleman went airborne against the 6-foot wall to rob Day of a home run Thursday? Or left fielder Alyssa Britto's sliding, sensational catch?
Texas wasn’t about to roll over, though. The Sooners tried to stage a coronation for the sellout crowd of 12,257 in the bottom of the seventh. Texas third baseman Mia Scott was having none of it. The Angleton graduate and breakout freshman blasted a three-run homer as one final salvo.
Texas assistant coach Steve Singleton got a little feisty afterward when the umpire tried to pocket Scott’s home run ball. The umpire ultimately gave it up, White said, but wasn’t exactly cordial about it.
No, these Horns don’t like losing and don’t like having to stand around while the Sooners take curtain calls. They plan on coming back even stronger next season.
“I talked about a lot before about how you can’t practice this,” White said. “You’ve got to get here to experience and know what’s like. You can tell them all you want. But until you get out there and do it, it’s hard. So we had that experience. Now can they spread it?
“Can they spread the word that Texas is a real place to come play softball as a great university?” he added. “You’ll get an awesome education there as well. So there’s a lot of factors that we need start spreading the word about. Texas softball is for real.”
Texas' softball rise
From 2015 to 2018, Texas went 142-85 and lost in four straight NCAA regionals in Seattle, College Station, Lafayette and Los Angeles. But since 2019, the Longhorns have made it to four straight super regionals and have won 76% of their games. They were WCWS runners-up this year.
2019: Longhorns (46-17) won their own regional in Mike White's debut season.
2020: Texas was 24-3 and ranked No. 1 when the season was called in mid-March.
2021: Texas went 43-14 and beat White's old Oregon team to win the Austin Regional.
2022: Texas (47-22-1) made its first WCWS championship series.