Playing with ‘house money,’ Texas softball ready for WCWS title clash with No. 1 Oklahoma

Iakopo: ‘Thank you to everyone that said we would go 0-2 in the World Series. That kind of fired us up in the best way possible.’

Brian Davis
Austin American-Statesman
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Estelle Czech still has the picture Texas icon Cat Osterman autographed for her back in the seventh grade. It’s still there on Czech’s bedroom mirror, “and I haven’t moved it since.”

One left-hander idolizing another. One Longhorn inspiring the future. “It’s just really funny how everything worked out,” Czech said Tuesday.

Time for some new history, new heroes.

A Texas team that’s been unseeded, unloved and stunningly underestimated is now barreling straight into the Women’s College World Series championship series. It’s a best-of-three affair at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. Game 1 is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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Standing in Texas’ way? It’s none other than No. 1 Oklahoma, widely considered the best team in college softball featuring the game’s best home-run masher, Jocelyn Alo. And yes, those in burnt orange welcome the Horns Down shenanigans.

“I don’t think everybody understands,” UT centerfielder Bella Dayton said. “They do it. They do it consistently. But they don't understand that actually makes us play better. That puts an even bigger fire in us to prove them wrong.”

Texas outfielder Bella Dayton screams after scoring on a wild play featuring two Oklahoma State errors on Monday that helped the Longhorns advance to the Women's College World Series finals. Texas will face No. 1 Oklahoma in a best-of-three series starting Wednesday.

These Longhorns encourage all doubters to watch while they turn yet another double play — 10 total since the NCAA Tournament began. Marvel how Courtney Day blasted a home run in three straight WCWS games. The Horns have seven home runs at this WCWS, equaling the same total they managed in five previous trips combined.

Wonder at the spectacle of Czech throwing a complete-game shutout against No. 6 Oklahoma State on Monday. And soak in the sensation of Hailey Dolcini shutting down the Cowgirls over the last five innings in a winner-take-all semifinal matchup.

More:Texas softball advances to WCWS final series behind slugging, Oklahoma State errors

The Horns are now 6-0 in elimination games this postseason and the first unseeded team to ever make the WCWS finals. But go on, doubt Texas if you must.

“Thank you to everyone that supported us when we went 0-5 in Clearwater (in February) and was down bad,” veteran catcher Mary Iakopo said. “Thank you to everyone that said we would go 0-2 in the World Series. That kind of fired us up in the best way possible.”

Texas is now 47-20-1 this season, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about stopping OU.

Janae Jefferson, right, gestures "safe" after sliding into second base before Arizona infielder Sophia Carroll could make a tag during the Longhorns' win in a Women's College World Series elimination game Sunday. Texas won three consecutive elimination games to reach the WCWS final series.

It doesn’t matter the Horns were a good-but-not-great 12-6 in Big 12 play during the regular season. That included going 1-2 against the Sooners, a victory that snapped OU’s 40-game winning streak dating back to last season.

It doesn’t matter that they got bounced by Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. Well, that particular 6-1 loss doesn’t matter, per se. What happened between the first and second innings may resonate forever.

Texas coach Mike White — possibly the most mild-mannered head coach at UT, according to school officials — argued a call and shot umpires the bird. White was ejected, he apologized and later had a mostly one-sided discussion with athletic director Chris Del Conte. White did the listening.

More:Texas coach Mike White apologizes for 'uncharacteristic indiscretion' at Big 12 tournament

“But he has our back,” Iakopo said. “That’s what that meant to us.”

When the NCAA bracket was unveiled, Texas didn’t get regional hosting duties. White’s bunch won the Seattle Regional anyway.

With no top-16 national seed, the Horns wouldn’t get to host a super regional. They went to Fayetteville and stunned Arkansas in a best-of-three series. Big crowds? Big deal.

“I feel like that was a lot of people out there,” second baseman Janae Jefferson said. “They were yelling, ‘Let’s go Hogs.’ We were saying, ‘Let’s go Horns’ in our heads.”

Texas softball coach Mike White motions to fans after being ejected during the Big 12 semifinals against OSU on May 13. White was tossed from the game after arguing an umpire's call and flashing an obscene hand gesture.

FedEx somehow got its wires crossed and a box full of WCWS celebratory shirts and hats got stuck in a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn. At least, that’s what NCAA officials told Del Conte, he said. Every other team that punched a ticket to Oklahoma City got some swag, but not Texas. The athletic department chalked it up to human error and moved on.

“I think we were pretty upset about it,” Jefferson said. Iakopo was diplomatic but noted, “We smelled a hint of disrespect.”

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Texas just waylaid its WCWS opponents. UCLA couldn’t stop UT. Nor could Arizona. Oklahoma State had two cracks at it along with home-field advantage and couldn’t get the job done, either. Miranda Elish, the former UT pitcher who transferred to OSU, will watch the rest of the College World Series on TV.

As Del Conte joked on Tuesday, “I said he was giving ’em the ol’ Mikey White.”

Said White, a little embarrassed: “He’s killing me with that!”

Just then, White’s cellphone rang. It was Texas track coach Edrick Floréal. “He calls me Finger Man now,” White said.

In retrospect, White was just pointing the way. Texas was headed up. Way up. It’s worth noting that with two more victories, Texas would indeed be No. 1.

White told his players the Horns were playing with “house money.” OK, so some of them didn’t even know what that meant. “Well, when I go to Vegas, I’m a donator, not a gambler,” White said.

They sure now understand the concept.

“We’ve been playing really free,” White said. “You know, we’re not supposed to be here. We play best when we’re relaxed and we’re carefree. And that’s what we've been doing.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or follow on Twitter via @BDavisAAS.

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