OKLAHOMA CITY — The face of Florida State tenacity is a 19-year-old freshman with a seven-line bio, with “dreams of becoming a dentist” being one of the main highlights, with a .167 batting average in 10 NCAA tournament games heading into Tuesday night’s Women’s College World Series championship series.
Kalei Harding was batting last in the order, which was supposed to alleviate some pressure, and then all she had to do was play in front of 12,000 fans, with roughly 11,500 screaming for No. 1 Oklahoma.
“Less pressure in the No. 9 spot definitely helps,” Harding said. “But honestly, it’s just keeping a short memory and knowing I can do it. It only takes one pitch.”
Harding took one pitch over the left-field wall and another to the gap in right-center field. She drove in four runs, threw out a runner at third and led tenth-seeded No. 10 Florida State to an 8-4 upset over top-seeded Oklahoma on the opening night of the best-of-three championship series.
The Sooners came into the night with the video-game offensive numbers, the six batters hitting over .400 and the single-season home run record in sight. They did hit two homers — drawing within one of Hawaii’s 2010 record of 158 — but they wound up being irrelevant in a game in which they were outran, outscrapped and outhit by a team that featured just one .300 hitter in its lineup.
The 49-11-1 Seminoles were the aggressors, pounding out 11 hits and speeding along the basepaths all night, diving around the field. The warm, humid night was loaded with drama, and even though Oklahoma fell behind 7-0, the Sooners never seemed truly out of it — not until FSU’s Josie Muffley collided violently with OU catcher Lynnsie Elam in the top of the seventh inning.
It seemed as if OU had escaped the inning when Hansen tagged Muffley as she plunged toward home plate. But the home plate umpire called her safe because of obstruction, putting the Sooners into a four-run hole they could not overcome.
Muffley, who in her career has endured a separated shoulder, a broken back and a broken ankle, laid in the dirt for a few terrifying moments. But she eventually got up on her own and went through concussion protocol. She did not return to the field, though FSU coach Lonni Alameda said Muffley was checked by a doctor and is “going to be OK.”
The Seminoles shuffled around their infield after Muffley, their shortstop, left the game, but didn’t miss a step. When Jocelyn Alo blasted a double to the right-center field wall, Sydney Sherrill, who is normally the third baseman but shifted to second, rifled a relay throw home that nailed Tiare Jennings at the plate.
“You can’t wait,” OU coach Patty Gasso said after the game. “You can’t sit back and wait. And when you’re on a stage like this, you just gotta play well. We just wasted time; not quite ready, not very loose in the way of swinging.
“Now, (I’m) not taking away anything from Florida State. They just stuck it to us, bottom line. I mean, they were good tonight. Everything they did was solid. Defense was pretty solid. Pitching, very good. Their offense, just absolutely was on point with about everything they did. Aggressive base running. We’ve got to make plays. We didn’t make plays.”
The Sooners tried to be aggressive in the bottom of the second inning, when Nicole Mendes tagged up on a popout and sped to third base. But she was foiled by a rifle from the right fielder Harding. A few minutes later, Harding hit her homer, and she made it 4-0 in the fourth inning with two-run double.
Three years ago, when Florida State won its only national championship, Harding was a high schooler watching the game on her cell phone during travel ball. Alameda is not surprised that she’s now at the center of the Seminoles being within one win of a national championship. The freshman has played various positions this season and batted all over the order. Alameda said Harding is so seasoned at this point that she’s essentially a sophomore.
Like Oklahoma, Florida State had to win four straight elimination games to reach the championship. It didn’t have the potent offense to fall back on like the Sooners. Alo and Jennings themselves have combined to out-homer the Seminoles over the course of the season.
They pinned their hopes in the circle on Danielle Watson, a pitcher who statistically shakes out to be FSU’s No. 3 starter. Watson held the Sooners hitless for the first three innings, and when she faced trouble in the sixth inning, she paved way to Kathryn Sandercock, who pitched out of a two-on, two-out jam.
“(The crowd was) incredible. It’s incredible for the game,” Alameda said. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever played in this environment unless you’re playing Oklahoma at home for a national championship. It’s a different story with that second level. It echoes. It’s really, really cool. And I was so proud of all of us, even me. I know that I’ve coached a lot of games and been in a lot of places but there are many times I’m like, wow, this is so loud, this is so cool for our sport. And all of our kids just took it in and were completely comfortable in the moment.”
Even with the home crowd, Oklahoma faces a daunting task that, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information, only 1 in 5 WCWS teams that lost the first game have ever done.
But no team has beaten the Sooners twice this season.
“I choose this team no matter what,” Mendes said. “This team is one of the most talented teams that I’ve ever been a part of. And we know how to fight. So I think tomorrow whenever we come out, it’s not just our backs are against the wall, it’s I know who is on my team. I know who is in my lineup. I know who can come in and pinch-hit. And I know who is in our bullpen. And I see that and I’m, like, this is the team I want to go with. This is the team that can do it.”
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