2022 WCWS – The growing popularity of college softball (and the dominance of local teams) on display at OKC

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Two hours before Texas and Oklahoma meet in Oklahoma City, Cheryl Judkins and Karen Hendricks walk past the National Softball Hall of Fame next to the stadium that hosts the Women’s College World Series, which is part of a complex known as the Softball Capital of the World.

Judkins, an Oklahoma State fan, wore a homemade shirt she made by cutting two shirts in half then sewing the pieces together to feature an Oklahoma Sooners logo on the front and the Oklahoma State Cowboys on the back. She sees no problem loving both teams in the heated rivalry. The Sooners, she said, are too good to hate, because of their focus on a sport she loves.

Hendricks and Judkins are proud WCWS lifers. They’ve had subscriptions for decades. But, they say, it has never been more exciting than this year.

“Oh my God, we had tickets behind the plate 30 years ago,” Hendricks said. “It was just Pac-10 [schools], that’s all there was. Occasionally you would have Michigan or Wisconsin. It was mainly Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. We were coming back then.”

But now his Cowgirls are there too in addition to the Sooners, who are in the midst of a historic run and smashing records along the way.

“It’s just the best feeling in the world,” she added. “We were talking about it on the drive up here. Not only are we going to see great softball, but my team is in it. It’s just fantastic.”

WCWS has been played in Oklahoma City since 1990, and between that date and 2011, the current Pac-12 won 19 championships. But in the past decade, the current Pac 12 has only won once, and power has shifted south. Oklahoma has won four of the last eight titles and is one of the favorites to do so again this year behind the brilliant dominance of Jocelyn Alo, the sport’s all-time leader at home.

Meanwhile, the sport is exploding in popularity. ESPN’s broadcast of the first day of the tournament on Thursday averaged 901,000 viewers for Oregon-Florida State and Northwest Oklahoma, coming on the heels of the Texas-Arkansas super regional, which drew 1.02 million fans, the largest viewership ever for this round of the playoffs. . Saturday and Sunday’s games aired on ABC, the first time WCWS has even aired on network television, which Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said was a “wow” moment for she.

In Oklahoma City, the WCWS set a single-day attendance record with 12,533 fans on Saturday. Some, like Judkins and Hendricks, are longtime locals and supporters. But all over the stadium, young girls who have come to softball tournaments are roaming the stadium in jerseys to see their heroines up close.

12-year-old Lily Gallardo just started playing softball last year and wanted to come to Oklahoma City for the first time, so her dad Eric drove her 5 1/2 hours from Killeen, Texas just for the day, with his glove in tow. She scored big in OU’s 7-2 win over Texas when she jumped up and caught a foul ball from Alo in front of her seat along the right field line.

“I hope I’ll get it signed and keep it in my room,” Lily said. “I was just hoping for a moment like this.”

Alexis Clark and her nine-year-old daughter, Evie, drove nearly four hours from Kansas to catch the action. The two stood out with Alexis’ bright orange Cowgirls shirt alongside Evie’s crimson OU t-shirt. They have no affiliation with either team, but Alexis loves the stoic demeanor of OSU pitcher Kelly Maxwell while Evie loves the exciting Sooners, a state rivalry that even divides the mother and the girl.

“We watched the whole season,” Alexis said. “We love softball. It’s our whole family’s favorite sport. My husband says it’s his favorite sport just to watch all the chances we have when we’re not playing softball or running to another athletic event.”

They bought tickets for Saturday on a whim and were then very happy to find that they could see both of their teams adopted. But just being there was the most exciting thing.

“They’re superstars to her as much as any athlete,” Alexis said. “She’s quite in awe of all of them.”

“I got a high-five from Florida wide receiver Sam Roe,” Evie added proudly.

It’s a safe bet that this will be their last day trip for the WCWS. Alexis, who has four children between the ages of 2 and 11, can’t wait to bring the whole team back.

“Oh my God, I think that’s amazing,” she said. “I really want to bring my other kids and my husband next year because they would all love it. We’ve watched it on TV before, but it’s so much bigger than I imagined.”

Melissa Reeves and Missy McGee were from Arkansas. They originally hoped the Razorbacks would be there as well, but a Texas upset in the super regionals ruined that. To represent, they wore T-shirts that a friend had made with a Razorback logo on the front under the words “ANYONE BUT TEXAS”. McGee was making his first trip to the WCWS, which earned him praise from a native of the SEC country.

“I never really started playing softball until this year,” McGee said. “But it’s like a big game of football. It’s great.”

Texas coach Mike White acknowledged the buzz in the stadium Saturday night after the Longhorns’ loss to Oklahoma.

“Anytime you ask somebody to come watch women’s fastball, they want to come back,” White said. “Now you walk past a restaurant, you’ll see the game. People are invested in this game right now. They love it.”

Arizona coach Caitlin Lowe, who was a four-time All-American and won the WCWS as a player with Arizona in 2006 and 2007, marveled the day before the event began how it continued to develop.

“It’s crazy because you’re watching it now with the triple bridge, and it’s just a whole different vibe,” Lowe said. “It gets better and better every year. I think the grades get better every year. The competition gets better and better. It’s just cool to see the sport grow. Oklahoma City and the state of Oklahoma have really embraced this tournament and are just making it a Class A event.”

The rise of OSU adds even more fuel to the sport, pitting neighbor against neighbor, the kind of rivalry all fans can respect.

Oklahoma’s budding dynasty hit a speed bump last month in the Big 12 tournament when the Cowgirls pulled off a colossal upset, handing the Sooners one of their two losses all season — the other was in Texas, which the Sooners got revenge on Saturday — claiming the conference title.

With the Cowgirls’ success, even more Oklahoma can embrace the tournament. An OSU fan busy his two food trucks selling fried bologna sandwiches, sausages and spiral potatoes behind right field. He is so devoted that he has a 6-year-old son named Boone, named after Boone Pickens Stadium or the former OSU billionaire whose name adorns him. He also had dogs named Gundy (after Mike, the football coach), Pistol (after Pistol Pete, the mascot) and Bullet (after the horse ridden by the Spirit Rider after touchdowns in the game). ‘Oklahoma State).

His name: Brent Venable, as in the singular version of the Sooners’ new football coach, Brent Venables.

Her nine-year-old daughter, Josalyn, has been playing softball for years. Venable said he didn’t realize what a spectacle WCWS was until he was asked to bring his trucks there this year.

“It was an eye opener for her,” Venable said. “She’s kind of on the fence because we raise cattle and she shows cattle [besides playing softball] so she’s on the fence which way she wants to go. It makes me want to have brought them before now.”

Being able to walk around the stadium, see it before the crowds packed it out and see the players warming up was an added bonus.

“The perks of being a carnie kid,” he said. “You can come here when nobody else is around and it’s so cool to look around and really enjoy the moment.”

The Sooners and Cowboys look destined for a collision course in the Finals, with both winning their first two games. A Bedlam Series for a National Championship would be, well, bedlam.

This caused problems for the local teams. But these are good problems to have.

“I’m really happy for our fans,” Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski said Saturday night. “I’m really happy for our alumni, happy for our team. I mean, it’s wild. They’re all up there, all cheering. We’ve got an absolute mess with tickets, trying to take care of everyone “We’re in the secondary market trying to buy them. It’s absurd the prices. It’s great, but it’s absurd. We want everyone to be here, everyone to be a part of it.

At a tailgate for Oklahoma players’ families, Brandon Brito, father of Oklahoma’s Alyssa Brito, who grew up in California and played in Oregon before moving to Oklahoma, said looked around and was cheered on by the crowd that filled the stadium.

“It warms my heart because we’re part of a family trying to develop a women’s sport and show the rest of the world what it’s really about,” he said. “The outpouring of support is incredible. It’s overwhelming.”

Gayla Carnagey, mother of fiery OU outfielder Rylie Boone, added, “It’s exciting and it gives hope to all the little girls in Oklahoma.”

And not just in Oklahoma.

Kayla Baptist and Dakota Edlao were in Oklahoma City for a softball tournament from their Maui home, one of two Maui teams in the outside stands during Saturday’s Texas-OU game. The example set by Alo, a Hawaiian who is recognized as one of the all-time greats in softball history, resonates with them.

“It’s important because we share the same kind of culture and ethnicity,” said Baptist, who is 16. “It’s cool to see someone from a small state come and play big here.”

So while the Sooners have conquered America, the Cowgirls stubbornly give hope to others in the hometown crowd, like Venable.

He experiences the rivalry on a daily basis, mostly going about his daily life and showing up on dates or bookings, only to see disappointed faces when they realize he’s the wrong Brent. But with business booming and rowdy crowds every day, he’s thrilled to be part of a historic WCWS in Oklahoma City.

“My in-laws are die-hard Sooner fans, and I’m a die-hard Cowboy fan,” Venable said. “So it’s an internal deal all the time, a two-way rivalry. [The WCWS] was super fun. It’s a great atmosphere. I would like to see both Oklahoma teams in the Finals.

“But I will definitely support OSU, not OU.”

James C. Tibbs