By Michael Kinney
NORMAN, Okla. — Back in early March, Northwestern traveled from Chicago to Norman. The Wildcats were part of a strong field the Sooners had assembled for their annual OU tournament.
That was the first time Northwestern had gotten a chance to be on the same field with the then-No. 3 ranked Sooners. Oklahoma was still in the early stages of its record-breaking 41 game win streak and was still trying to figure out what type of team they were going to become.
Despite that, the trip didn’t go well for the Wildcats. In two head-to-head matchups, Oklahoma decimated NU by a combined score of 15-0.
Yet, as No. 16 Northwestern (47-11) prepares to face No. 1 Oklahoma (52-3) again in the NCAA Super Regional, it looks back on those March encounters as learning experiences.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to have already played here,” NU’s Rachel Lewis said. “Five games I think we played, with this crowd. That’s a huge advantage coming in. And have already played them, I think it defiantly helps us.”
Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan said the experience of being able to play the best team in the country on its home-field helps erase any fear of the unknown.
“This is a great venue,” Drohan said. “This is a great venue in college softball right now. And for us to have experienced the fans, the environment, I think it’s a real plus for us. We understand what to expect. It’s still going to be a challenge to manage that in the moment. Especially as the momentum of the game really takes over. But I think we’re more prepared than we were in March.”
Since losing to Oklahoma, the Wildcats have dropped a total of five games.
“I think we really (over the year) have developed as a team as far as playing together and knowing what each other’s role is on the team,” Lewis said. “We all kind of figured out where we fit and how to play together.”
While the Wildcats said they have changed the first matchup in Norman, the Sooners believe they have matured and transformed during the past three months as well.
But it was over the past week that the Sooners may have grown the most. After losing to Wisconsin in the regional round and having to come back to win a game to keep the season alive, everyone in the program said it has been a learning experience for them all.
“It’s something we kind of talked about,” OU senior Caleigh Clifton said. “We kind of needed that game. It sucks at the time. But I think it sets our mindset and takes us to another level. Now we talk about not taking anything for granted. Not just coasting. So I think that was important for us.”
In the Sooners final three games at the Regional Tournament, they scored a total of seven runs. Coach Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso does not expect to see that offensive performance again.
“We learned. What we need to do is learn,” Gasso said. “I think you’ll see a different attack mode. I think you’ll feel a little more energy. They absolutely know, not that we were lucky, but when you have your back against the wall and you know your season could be over, it’s uncomfortable. And they fought through that. They know this is the most important weekend of their season because it will either send you home or you go to the promised land.”
Gasso has not named who will get the start on the mound for the Sooners in Game 1 of the Super Regional, which tips off at 2 p.m. at Marita Hynes Field. While many believe it will be junior Giselle Juarez, she says any of their top three hurlers have the ability to take the ball in a big game.
“We all have each other’s backs,” Juarez said. “We can fight back-to-back. And I think when we fight with each other back-to-back, nobody can attack us from our weak side. I think that’s something we have talked about, working together. We have each other’s back if one of has to come in and take over. I think that’s something special about all of us.”
One of the tone-setters for senior Sydney Romero. The senior infielder was named one of three finalists for the 2019 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year on Thursday.
However, the California native said individual awards don’t mean too much to her. She is focused on winning for her teammates and enjoying the journey. That has rubbed off her team as well.
“This team loves to have fun,” Romero said. “We don’t go in with fear. I just think we go all out. It just makes it so much fun. And you have so much joy with each other. That’s just our main goal, to just have the best time we can.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Copywriter