- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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AMHERST, Mass. -- The clouds parted over this patch of New England on Sunday, blue skies and warmth replacing three days of gray, gloomy chill. For No. 3 overall seed Oklahoma, the mellowing meteorological picture had to seem like a sign from above, that it had passed the first obstacle thrown in its path on the road to a championship.
After a weekend of wet fields, frigid wind chills and tough competition, Oklahoma advanced to the super regionals with a 6-3 win against Massachusetts in Sunday's first game, eliminating the Minutewomen and avoiding the dreaded "if-game" nightcap.
The Sooners advance to face DePaul later this week in a best-of-three series at Marita Hynes Field in Norman, Okla., where most expected the team to open the tournament by hosting a regional. Instead, the Sooners headed to Massachusetts (briefly leaving the country altogether when the team charter flew through Canadian airspace after refueling in Dayton, Ohio) to play against a Minutewomen team with the nation's longest active home winning streak.
So much for the perks of winning the Big 12 tournament and entering the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25.
"I knew we were coming to UMass and I know what their history is like and I was not comfortable at all," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "It was really a test of our adversity and character, and part of your road to the World Series is all about adversity. If we've got to go out and do that, it's part of what we have to do to prove that we belong there. I think it's going to make us a better team. The fact that if we can handle this and go back to Norman, we're going to be much stronger for it."
Beyond the gaudy offensive statistics, including the Big 12's three leading hitters in Norrelle Dickson, Samantha Ricketts and Susan Ogden, the defense's league-leading fielding percentage and the 37-game winner in the circle in junior Lauren Eckermann, it's the mental toughness Oklahoma displayed in weathering the weather, travel and opposition that sets this team apart as a championship contender.
Making it oddly fitting that the signature moment of the Amherst Regional might have come on the second pitch of the weekend, when a soft pop-up dropped to the ground a few feet in front of home plate, right between the outstretched gloves of Eckermann and catcher Lindsey Vandever.
After that miscommunication allowed Colgate's Kortney Hannah to reach base to lead off the game, No. 2 hitter Ashley Rowe deposited an Eckermann offering over the wall in left field for an unlikely 2-0 lead. In a matter of minutes, a repeat of last season seemed possible, with Colgate playing the spoiler role that its Patriot League rival Lehigh played last year in Amherst against Big 12 power Texas A&M.
Only Oklahoma didn't go to pieces, in no small part because of its ace in the circle. Eckermann didn't even flinch after the early lapse, striking out Colgate's leading hitter to end the top of the first and holding the Red Raiders to just one additional hit over the next six innings as her teammates methodically strung together five runs to earn a 5-2 win. A day later, she blanked UMass in a 2-0 win that kept Oklahoma in the winners bracket, and she earned the regional-clinching win by limiting the Minutewomen to three runs and five hits in Sunday's victory.
Eckermann, who over three starts struck out 19 in 21 innings, wasn't always the brightest star on the field, but she was always out there, hitting corners with precision when games were close and keeping the ball in the strike zone to avoid free passes when her offense gave her breathing room. After Oklahoma's offense staked her to a 4-0 lead in the top of the third on Sunday, she caught too much of the strike zone and allowed Massachusetts to score three runs on three hits and an error in the bottom half of the inning. Again she recovered, retiring the last 12 batters Massachusetts sent to the plate, allowing a three-ball count only twice in the final four innings.
In the vernacular of softball and baseball clichés, she's a pitcher who is noticeably adept at managing games.
"I think it's just all about maturity and understanding the game," Gasso said. "Lauren does a great job of not pondering or whatever -- if she gives up a big hit, she doesn't sit back and go, 'Oh gosh, how did that happen?' She just comes back right at you. You hear her talk, and she has so much trust in her team.
"She's not afraid to go out there and make mistakes, because every pitcher is going to make a few. She's not afraid to make mistakes, because she knows that her team will come back and make up for that. And they've been doing that all year. That's what is nice about Lauren; she understands that the weight is not all on her shoulders. There are some top pitchers out there that think that they have to carry the world on their shoulders."
College softball is a sport dominated by pitchers, often with larger-than-life personalities to match their larger-than-life strikeout numbers. But recent history suggests that it's the pitchers who best combine pure ability with an unflappable demeanor who enjoy success at the Women's College World Series. Aces like Jennie Ritter and Alicia Hollowell might not have been considered the single best pitcher in college softball at any point, but they were unquestionably the leading reasons their respective teams at Michigan and Arizona won titles.
"When you get into these big situations, if you are not emotionally and mentally stable on the mound, you're going to really, really struggle," Gasso said. "And when you look at Lauren, she doesn't look any different. There is no drama to her. She's just a really take-care-of-business type of pitcher out there. There's no talking, you very rarely see many meetings at the mound; she just knows how to handle her business. Even though she gets six or seven strikeouts, you don't need to have 15 to win a national championship.
"She's very poised, and we thrive on that defensively. Because we know that she's not rattled, we'll make plays behind her. But when you have a pitcher out there who is tight and rattled, it's hard to feel comfortable."
And perhaps because of Eckermann's poise, it becomes all the more apparent how much mental fatigue Oklahoma's hitters are capable of inducing in opposing pitchers. In the two games against Massachusetts, the Sooners saw an average of four pitches per plate appearance, working deep into counts through the order.
"I think we get in their head a little bit," Gasson explained, "because we're pretty good at hitting pitches out of the zone, too. So if you're trying to get us to bite on something, we will and we'll foul it off instead of swinging through it. So when things don't come as easy, and maybe you're averaging 12 or 13 strikeouts, and now you're getting two or three, we feel like we can get a pitcher to labor a little more."
As she talked about Saturday's win, Gasso explained a telltale sign of trouble brewing for an opponent when she said, "You saw a lot of pitcher conferences and coaches coming out, and that's what we want. When we see that, we feel like we are in command of things and there are problems and that we want to step up there and really attack."
Such was the case on Sunday, when UMass coach Elaine Sortino visited the circle to talk with starter Brandice Balschmiter with two on and no outs in the top of the third, following catcher Jessica Serio's trip to the circle the inning before. Freshman Amber Flores then worked a seven-pitch at-bat before driving in Oklahoma's first run with a fielder's choice. That unleashed a wave of hits and aggressive baserunning that gave Oklahoma a four-run lead it would never completely surrender.
The dark clouds returned and a few rain drops fell as Gasso and her players sat answering questions in the postgame press conference, but the Sooners didn't care.
They were heading for home having conquered the first challenge on the road to a title.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.