Special to Gatorsports.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – It took an epic game to decide the opener of the Women’s College World Series championship round between two softball programs that have split the past four national titles.
Oklahoma took a huge step toward repeating as national champion with a 7-5 win over top seed Florida in 17 innings Monday before 8,337 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Shay Knighten provided the big blow for the Sooners (60-9) with a three-run home run in the top of the 17th to help end the longest game in championship series history.
Game 2 of the best-of-three championship series is scheduled for 8 p.m. today. The Sooners won national titles in 2013 and 2016. Florida won in 2014 and 2015.
The Gators (58-9) didn’t go down without a fight in the bottom of the 17th. Lily Mann and Sophia Reynoso singled, Chelsea Herndon hit into a fielder’s choice and Justine McLean hit an infield single to load the bases. Amanda Lorenz’s sacrifice fly made it 7-5. Kayli Kvistad then struck out to end a game that went more than five and a half hours.
Florida coach Tim Walton said he was impressed with his team’s resilience. The Gators extended the game twice after being down to their last strike.
“I told my team in about the — I don’t know if it was the eighth or the 21st, whatever inning it was, I told them great job, proud of you guys,” he said.
Florida pitchers had only allowed seven home runs in 66 games this season. They gave up three to the Sooners on Monday.
Paige Lowary (16-3) got the start, was replaced, then re-entered to claim the win. Paige Parker pitched 6.2 innings of relief.
Kelly Barnhill (26-4), USA Softball’s National Collegiate Player of the Year, took the loss for Florida. She pitched nine innings and struck out 13. Delanie Gourley struck out 13 in eight innings of relief.
“Epic, epic battle,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “I don’t know what else — that was it. This is one of the greatest games I think in College World Series history, I would guess. It was like two heavyweight fighters throwing punch after punch. Florida just kept answering everything that we put out there, and we tried to answer back, and it was a game of will, a game of team, a game of character.”
Facing defeat for the second time in the game with two out and two strikes, Lorenz hit a two-run double to tie the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the 12th inning after a walk to Jordan Roberts (Mann pinch-ran) and a Reynoso single.
Fale Aviu drilled a two-run home run in the top of the 12th inning to provide what appeared to be the winning margin for Oklahoma.
The Gators took the game’s first lead in the fourth inning on Nicole DeWitt’s double and Aleshia Ocasio’s two-out single.
The Sooners tied it in the top of the fifth on a Nicole Pendley double and Sydney Romero’s RBI single. It was the first earned run UF pitchers had allowed in 23.1 innings at the WCWS.
Nicole Mendes hit a solo home run in the sixth inning to put UF in the hole for the first time in the WCWS at 2-1.
Florida tied it in the bottom of the seventh after Ocasio hit into a fielder’s choice. Following the second out and with two strikes Reynoso hit a bloop double that fell in between the OU centerfielder and left fielder as Ocasio motored around the bases.
The Gators still feel they are in a good position.
“Tomorrow is a new day, and we’re still in the national championship,” Lorenz said. “We have two more games left, and I’m really proud to see what we have tomorrow because obviously we showed the softball world a really good game tonight, and we’re not done yet.”