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May 29, 2014

Sooners focused on 2014, not defending 2013 title

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- One day before No. 7 seed Oklahoma plays No. 2 seed Alabama in the Women's College World Series, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso was adamant that her team's intention is simply to compete and enjoy the experience.

She said it's an honor to have yet another opportunity to play at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and be just four wins from repeating as a national champion. But that's not her team's focus.

They don't intend to look past Alabama, the 2012 national champ, and the program that beat the Sooners in the Championship Series of the WCWS two years ago. In that way, the match at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday is unique to the other three games that will be played that day.

"Alabama knows how to win here," Gasso said. "That's important. They know the history. These are two teams that have won national championships. So, having won it, they are teams that understand how to do it."

The Crimson Tide players also know what it's like to press too hard as the defending champion. Alabama wasn't able to reach the 2013 WCWS after being snuffed out in the Super Regional stage of the NCAA softball tournament.

Gasso admitted her team was trying too hard to live up to the standards set by her historic 2013 squad. The 2014 team hadn't taken enough time early in the season to find out who they are. Because of that, they were battered early.

The Sooners dropped five of their first 15 games. Later, they lost junior and third-team All-American selection Lauren Chamberlain to a back injury that kept her out of the lineup for several weeks.

Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy said he could relate to the Sooners early struggles and having to play each game with an invisible target attached where the school emblem is.

"There are a lot of expectations out there when you are the defending champion," Murphy said. "You are playing with a lot of new kids. It was the perfect storm for us. It was a lot for our players to handle. It was a lot for me, too."

Through that time when the Sooners were figuring themselves out, though, they dropped games to Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky -- two members of this year's WCWS field.

"It was the end of March and we were getting into the Big 12 and this team was starting to jell," Gasso said. "We just had to try and find ways to make things happen. We had to piece together some things."

The return of Chamberlain has given the Sooners an edge they played nearly the entire month of April without. However, it's been junior Shelby Pendley who has been OU's anchor this season.

Pendley, who endured a dismal postseason last year, has emerged as one of the Sooners' best hitters, its second-best pitcher and starting third baseman.

She stopped pressing and started having more fun. Her efforts this year earned her NFCA All-America first team honors and high praise from Gasso.

Perhaps, it took those kinds of losses to help jar Pendley and the Sooners loose from the lofty expectations they had for themselves and others have for them. After all, in the preseason USA Today/NFCA coaches poll, the Sooners were ranked No. 2.

Now, having won the right to defend their title in the WCWS, the Sooners have the freedom to simply play the game they love. Maybe that's the kind of attitude you have to have to go back-to-back.

"It is especially pleasing to be here after how we started the season," Gasso said. "To see where we are at now is pretty amazing."



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