UCLA next in Sooner softball's path to a record NCAA Championship 4-peat

Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The scene at Devon Park in Oklahoma City on the opening day of the Women's College World Series on Thursday afternoon was ripe for an upset of the No. 2-seeded Oklahoma Sooners, who have owned college softball and the WCWS the past three seasons.

First came a lightning delay that moved everything back 90 minutes from its original starting time. The Sooners' opening round WCWS game with No. 10 Duke started off quietly. After a scoreless first inning, however, the Blue Devils jumped out in front 1-0 on a leadoff home run down the left field line by clean-up hitter Francesca Frelick, her third in as many games.

Good pitching has been the kryptonite this season against the high-scoring Oklahoma offense, and Duke led the Atlantic Coast Conference this season with a staff ERA of 1.55 and a pair of pitchers who both rank in the top 20 of all pitchers nationally.

The Sooners (55-6) threatened in the home half of the second inning, putting runners on second and third with one out, but Duke starter Cassidy Curd managed to wiggle out of the jam when Alyssa Brito was caught in a rundown trying to score from third on an infield ground ball by Rylie Boone. Cydney Sanders then flied out to left field to end the inning.

Although Oklahoma ace Kelly Maxwell had pitched a one-hit gem in a 3-0 victory over Duke earlier in the year, she struggled with her command in the rematch on Thursday. Of concern for Sooner fans, this is the second straight game the former Oklahoma State transfer and 20-game winner has gone deep in the count to a number of hitters and had difficulty finding the strike zone.

In the bottom of the third inning, Duke head coach Marissa Young made a strategic move that came back to to bite the Blue Devils. After Jayda Coleman singled up the middle leading off the third for the Sooners, Young removed Curd from the circle and brought in left-handed Jala Wright, a 19-game winner with eight complete games and a 1.50 ERA, in an attempt to keep the OU hitters off balance the second time through the lineup.

Wright struck out the first two Sooners she faced, and Young's decision appeared to be working...until it wasn't. OU catcher and three-time WCWS champion Kinzie Hansen stepped in and rocketed Wright's first pitch over the left field fence, flipping the score to 2-1 in Oklahoma's favor. And from there, the Sooner power parade was on. The home run by Hansen was the sixth WCWS home run of her career, placing her third on the all-time list.

Alyssa Brito drew a walk following Hansen to the plate, and Alynah Torres greeted Wright, sending a 1-1 pitch over the fence in left. Just like that, Wright had faced five Oklahoma batters and yielded a 4-1 Sooner lead.

Cydney Sanders followed a single by Rylie Boone, leading off the fifth, with a two-run shot of her own to left field, the third two-run blast off of Wright in eight Sooner batters. That was the end of the line for Wright, who gave up five runs on four hits and suffered just her third loss of the season.

The Sooners added a seventh run in the fifth and two more in the sixth completing the 9-1 run-rule victory.

Maxwell was removed from the game in the fourth inning after loading the bases with two walks and a hit batter. Kierston Deal was summoned from the bullpen to record the final out and worked the final 2.1 innings, allowing no runs and two hits and earning her 13th win of the season in 14 decisions.

Oklahoma has now won a program-record 19 consecutive postseason games and advances to the winner's side of the bracket to face a UCLA team that is no stranger to the WCWS and the big stage, having won an NCAA most 12 national championships.

The Sooners and Bruins have met seven times in WCWS play with UCLA winning four of the seven. The two teams met twice in the 2022 WCWS. The Bruins defeated the Sooners 7-3 in the semifinals, staving off elimination. UCLA had to win a second game against OU that same day, however, to earn a spot in the championship series. The Sooners prevailed in the second game 15-0 and went on to win their second consecutive national title, sweeping Texas 16-1 and 10-5.

What make this matchup even more interesting is that UCLA (1988-90) and Oklahoma (2021-2023) are the only teams in NCAA softball history that have won three consecutive national championships.

With the opening-round win in the 2024 WCWS leaves the Oklahoma magic number for achieving what no other team in NCAA history has -- a fourth consecutive national championship in softball -- four tough wins away. Two losses, however, will leave the Sooners short of that record-setting mark.