Wichita State practiced softball at 8 p.m. Wednesday night, music blaring at Wilkins Stadium. On Thursday, the Shockers practiced at the OU Softball Complex, with pop music again prominent during the 90-minute session.
“We know it’s going to be a pretty crowded environment, probably pretty loud and rowdy,” coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “Any time that OU gets a hit we expect them to be going nuts in the stands. It was important for us to play with some noise to make sure that our communication was going to be loud enough for our girls to be able to understand each other.”
No. 4 seeds get the worst of it in NCAA softball — a road game against a powerful opponent. Wichita State (35-19) drew as difficult an assignment as exists against Oklahoma, the No. 3 seed in the 64- team field, on Friday in the first round of the Norman Regional. The Sooners (47-7) bring a 22-game win streak into their home stadium, where they are 19-2 this season, and are hosting a regional for the sixth straight season.
Tough task for the Shockers, who are making their first NCAA appearance since 2005. It’s also a bit of relief. WSU was the Missouri Valley Conference favorite the past two seasons, which carried some pressure. Now that the Shockers are in the NCAAs, they can embrace life as an underdog.
“There’s a little nerves … but I think we’re trying to relax and go out there and have fun,” center fielder Ashley Johnson said. “We have nothing to lose.”
On Thursday, WSU practiced under cloudy skies before media duties.
“We’re just coming in here to try to knock someone off,” WSU first baseman Cacy Williams said. “All these teams are supposed to beat us.”
The Sooners went 17-1 in the Big 12, the best mark of coach Patty Gasso’s 22 seasons —including NCAA titles in 2000 and 2013. Sophomore pitcher Paige Parker earned Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors with a 28-3 record and a 1.45 ERA, striking out 211 in 183 1/3 innings. Right fielder Erin Miller hit .401 with nine home runs to share Big 12 Player of the Year honors, leading a team that leads the nation with a .359 batting average.
Parker, a lefty, held the Shockers to two hits, striking out four, in four innings in a 10-1 victory earlier this season. Last season, she struck out eight and allowed nine hits and two runs in an 8-2 win over WSU at Wilkins Stadium.
“She has great spin on her ball and it’s going to be important for us to pick a pitch and have a plan when we go into the box,” Johnson said. “Stay off her high stuff.”
Gasso wasn’t sure how her team would blend after losing four starters, including senior All-Americans Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley. OU starts three freshmen and a sophomore on the infield. First baseman Shay Knighten hit 11 home runs on her way to Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and sophomore shortstop Kelsey Arnold, who committed three errors in 54 games, is the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
“The word that describes this group is athletic,” Gasso said. “Plays that you think they may not make, they’ll make. Tough plays, bad hops. They’ll stand behind it, take it in the chin. Pick it up, throw somebody out.”
Bredbenner didn’t reveal if she would start Jenni Brooks or Katie Malone and both will likely pitch against the Sooners. Neither threw earlier this season against OU, which led 7-0 early and allowed Bredbenner to put away her best pitchers to prepare for a possible regional meeting.
“We kind of played it smart,” she said.
OU has won 32 straight games against WSU, its longest streak against any opponent. The Shockers last defeated OU in 1990.
Breakfast power — When Wichita State plays weekend softball series at home, Williams usually cooks out at the house she shares with teammates.
“I’m like the grill master,” she said. “I always grill. So we have a lot of extra food.”
Mostly hot dogs. And while Williams isn’t a big fan of breakfast, she does know how to stick with a superstition. She started eating hot dogs, chips and Kool-Aid for breakfast on game days and it worked.
“I played really, really, really well,” she said.
Williams plays that well most of her career at WSU. She earned MVC Player of the Year honors in 2014 and 2016 and is WSU’s career leader with 39 home runs and 134 RBI. In 2015, her numbers dropped a bit and she came into her senior season with a different mindset.
“I’m having blast this year,” she said. “Last year, I think I kind of pressed. As a team, we pressed a little. This year, we’re just kind of having fun and riding the train.”
Williams changes her breakfast routine in hotels on road trips. She plans to eat a bagel, two pieces of sausage and yogurt before this weekend’s games.
Williams, Hitz honored — Williams and designated player Macklin Hitz were named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Midwest Region teams.
Williams earned a spot on the first team. Hitz, a junior from Tulsa, was named to the third team after hitting .378 with 10 home runs.
Worth noting — Tulsa and Mississippi meet in Friday’s first game. Missisippi is making its first NCAA appearance and is the No. 2 seed after going 11-13 in the SEC. Tulsa wen 9-9 in the American Athletic Conference, winning the post-season tournament with three shutouts, 2-0 over East Carolina, 4-0 over No. 25 Central Florida and 4-0 over No. 24 South Florida. … Tulsa is making its fifth trip to Norman for a regional. In 2009, it eliminated OU. … Tulsa coach John Bargfeldt is the father of former WSU baseball pitcher Jeb Bargfeldt. … The Shockers went 2-0 against Tulsa this season, winning 11-3 and 7-5. … Sooners freshman Brittany Finney, from Bishop Carroll, played in five games and pitched in one. Tulsa freshman Ashley Kiser, from Trinity Academy, played in three games as an outfielder.
at Norman, Okla.
- Game 1 — Tulsa (35-19) vs. Mississippi (39-20), 5:30 p.m.
- Game 2 — Oklahoma (47-7) vs. Wichita State (35-19), 8 p.m. (ESPN)
- Game 3 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1:30 p.m.
- Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 4 p.m.
- Game 5 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 6:30 p.m.
- Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 3:30 p.m.
- Game 7 — If necessary