A storybook ending for the five seniors who powered Oklahoma's unprecedented softball dynasty (2024)

  • Dave Wilson and Eli Lederman

Jun 7, 2024, 02:00 AM ET

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Four months before Oklahoma captured its unprecedented fourth consecutive Women's College World Series championship at Devon Park on Thursday night, Sooners coach Patty Gasso sat behind a table in the team room adjacent to Norman's Marita Hynes Field and contemplated five of the most important players in her program's history.

It was Feb. 5, days before Oklahoma began its 2024 title run. As the Sooners prepared to chase their eighth national championship, the faces of outfielder Jayda Coleman, infielder Tiare Jennings, catcher Kinzie Hansen, outfielder Riley Boone and right-handed pitcher Nicole May -- pillars in college softball's preeminent modern dynasty -- appeared at the front of Gasso's mind.

"I think about them more than I ever have because I know that this is the end," Gasso said three days before the season opener in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. "It is the end of one of the most elite classes that has ever -- and may ever -- play softball."

In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma's decorated "Core Five" earned its storybook ending.

Ten seniors lifted the trophy after the Sooners' 8-4 victory Thursday. Among them, Coleman, Jennings, Hansen, Boone and May represented the connective tissue to the most storied run in college softball history. The five Oklahoma stars signed with Gasso out of high school and remained on board for back-to-back-to-back-to-back national titles from 2021 to 2024.

"They've cemented this program in history," Gasso said. "They've cemented themselves in history. History can change, but these guys will never, ever be forgotten."

The group charted a journey from Marita Hynes Field to the Sooners' new $47.9 million home at Love's Field and emerged as the bridge to the next era of Oklahoma softball. Along the way, the veteran nucleus won three Big 12 tournament titles and as many national championships -- four -- as NCAA tournament losses, propelling the Sooners from perennial national contender to an unstoppable force.

They made the Sooners' lineup a force from top to bottom, with all four of the Core Five position players finishing their OU career in the top nine in career batting average, including Jennings, Coleman and Boone ranked at Nos. 2, 3 and 4 after legendary slugger Jocelyn Alo.

They were a fixture on the national stage, with Jennings, Coleman and Hansen tying former Sooner star Grace Lyons with 25 career WCWS games, the most ever, at the same moment college softball grasped the nation's attention. But individually, each authored a career on her own.

Upon receiving Jennings' national letter of intent in the class of 2020, Gasso offered a bit of an understated prediction.

"The game seems to come to her almost effortlessly," she said. "It's pretty to watch. She's going to make an impact, no doubt."

She leaves as one of the greatest players in college softball history. After sharing her early years with Alo, Jennings continued to strike fear in opponents, finishing her WCWS career with 31 hits and 11 home runs, one behind Alo in each category for second-best all time. She averaged one home run every eight at-bats in her Oklahoma career.

Coleman, who Gasso described as a "program-changer" when she signed with the Sooners, lived up to her coach's projection, finishing her OU career as the all-time program leader in runs scored and becoming a star for her defense, especially at the WCWS.

Hansen, the Johnny Bench Award winner, formed a strong battery with the Sooners' pitchers and became known as a fierce leader who came up big in some of the team's biggest moments, including a walk-off homer in the first game at the Sooners' new palace.

If there's a Sooner who knows how to meet the moment, it's Kinzie Hansen.

Her walk-off HR hands OU a 9-7 win in Game No. 1 at Love's Field. Who else but K9? pic.twitter.com/bATE5xi2Gr

— Eli Lederman (@ByEliLederman) March 1, 2024

Boone was a crowd favorite, with the entire stadium echoing "Boooooone" every time she stepped up to the plate or made a spectacular catch. She batted over .400 for her career, taking her job as the No. 9 hitter seriously in a lineup that had no easy outs.

Gasso leaned on Boone and Coleman as "chaos coordinators" to get the team in gear.

"I shout out to Boone and Coleman because those two make this program go," Gasso said. "They are full of energy, and that energizes everyone. When they aren't energized, we aren't energized. ... It really sparked this team."

May became a reliable arm throughout the Sooners' title chase, going 62-6 over her career with a 2.22 ERA in 106 appearances. Gasso turned to May in a clutch situation to earn a save against Texas to win the Big 12 tournament, and she retired all five batters she faced, with three strikeouts. Then she did it again in the super regionals, slamming the door on Florida State, finishing the season at Love's Field with a save and sending the Sooners back to the WCWS.

"There's no one in that moment that I would rather have than Nicole May because of her hard work and her professionalism as an athlete, but her absolute commitment and loyalty to this program," Gasso said after the game.

Behind her stars' dominance, Gasso made history of her own, tying legendary Arizona coach Mike Candrea with her eighth championship, the most in NCAA softball history.

In the process, Gasso's program became the envy of Sooners legends eager to proclaim her as the greatest.

Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, who played at Oklahoma from 2014 to 2017, returned to Norman for his youth football camp in 2023 wearing a shirt that said "GASSO = GOAT."

"This one was custom-made," Mayfield told reporters at his camp. "Went out to the softball game and had it under my jersey. She was not happy when she saw it. She is the GOAT, though."

Former Sooners football coach Barry Switzer, 86, and 70-year-old "Little Joe" Washington, the legendary Sooners running back, caught up on Wednesday and marveled about Coleman's walk-off homer against Florida and the upcoming series against the hated Longhorns.

Switzer noted that softball has become probably the second-most-heated sport in the Red River Rivalry series, behind football, as a result of the Sooners' dominance and Texas' attempts to catch up.

"What [Gasso] has achieved has never been done before, and therefore it sets itself alone," Switzer told ESPN. "I'm proud of her for doing it, and I'm proud of her doing it at our school."

Coleman is engaged to former five-star recruit Billy Bowman Jr., a safety on the Sooners' football team who was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award last season. Even Bowman's own coach couldn't help but tweak his player over the hierarchy among the power couple.

Hey 2🗣️I'm going with 24 @jaydac00 SHE got That 🥶in them VEINS & ⭕️UDNA...CONGRATS‼️ https://t.co/drQHN6CinY

— Brent Venables (@CoachVenables) June 4, 2024

The Sooner seniors will exit as legends, leaving the program better than the one they inherited. But they'll also leave behind a group of underclassmen who saw and studied their greatness up close every day.

A sixth-inning, two-run double off the bat of freshman Ella Parker on Thursday night delivered the latest evidence that the future in Norman remains bright well beyond the departures of Oklahoma's outgoing seniors. Parker and freshman outfielder Kasidi Pickering were both named to the all-tournament team.

Parker said she has idolized the seniors since she was 12 and made it her mission to follow them to college.

"[They're] passing the bat, passing the torch to us. It's now our job to keep passing that leadership down," Parker said. "I'm so happy that I got to play with them."

Coleman, Jennings, Hansen and Boone sat to Gasso's right at Thursday's postgame news conference, taking in the significance of a four-peat. After they left, she realized just how remarkable the moment was.

"What's really weird for me is in four years, I've never had a cry up here," Gasso said. "But I did anyway, because they were all sitting here. When they're out, it's easier. It's like I haven't felt the hurt of the last loss. That is just incomprehensible at this level."

Gasso said next season will be a return to getting her hands dirty, saying she can't wait to coach again, "because I don't have to coach this" with the exceptional amount of experience this team carried.

"As much as I'm going to miss them, they've been here for a long time," Gasso said. "They've done everything you could do and more. It is time for them to fly. So Olympics, pro, marriage. There's lots of things coming their way. I'm really excited for them."

And history will bind them forever.

"I just think, 'Oh, gosh, I'm going to miss 'em,'" Gasso said. "[But] we're going to be at championship reunions like four years in a row. We're going to see each other a lot."

A storybook ending for the five seniors who powered Oklahoma's unprecedented softball dynasty (2024)
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