SOFTBALL RULES: Moore Makes a National SplashJul 02, 2021
PHOTO COURTESY: PHIL KELLY
2020 was not a year to remember for spring sports. Southmoore Sabercat alum Sydney Sherrill remembers the painfully devastating impact on her and her Florida State teammates all too well.
"It really puts things in perspective," said Sherrill. "You realize that literally, anything can happen and that something can be taken away from you in an instant."
Another former Sabercat softball star was also wrestling with the COVID-shortened season just up the road in Stillwater. Karli Petty and her Oklahoma State teammates were gathered in one room when they got the bad news.
PHOTO COURTESY: OSU ATHLETICS
"It was just heartbreaking because, at the time, we didn't know what was going to happen for the seniors in the room," said Petty. "People always tell you to live every moment like you'll never get a chance to be there again, and this was one of those times when I finally understood what that meant."
The pain of a lost season was shared across the sporting world as athletes at all levels of play saw their games erased by the COVID pandemic. But for college softball, the return to competition in 2021 was marked by an explosion of interest in the women's game, especially the Women's College World Series (WCWS) at the newly renovated Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
SOFTBALL DOMINATES THE NATIONAL STAGE
PHOTO COURTESY: BRANDON MALONEY
The three-game championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State blew away previous broadcast records, averaging 1,840,000 viewers. That's up 15% over the 2019 Championship series. Overall viewership of the WCWS was an average of 1,203,000, a 10% increase from the previous record in 2015.
In addition to television viewers, the WCWS blew past old attendance numbers. The previous record was 78,361 fans in 2019, an average of 8,700 fans per session in the old 8,400-seat configuration. The 2021 numbers were staggering: 115,514 total attendance for an average of 11,551 per session.
PHOTO COURTESTY: OSU ATHLETICS
Hall of Fame Stadium is a familiar place to play for Sherrill and Petty. But they both agree that they've never seen the venue like this.
"It was just crazy to see the stadium packed with thousands of people," said Petty. "It was a little overwhelming at first to have all these little girls wanting my autograph.
"I'd seen pictures of the renovations on Twitter and some looks at the new upper deck,"
said Sherrill. "But it's so much more impressive in person. We're so grateful to have a chance to play in front of a lot of fans in that full-capacity stadium."
PHOTO COURTESY: RYALS LEE
Sherrill was a crucial part of Florida State's 2018 WCWS championship team as a freshman. This year she faced off against Petty when FSU and OSU collided in an elimination game. The Seminoles came out on top in a hard-fought 4-2 battle. The former teammates say they relished the chance to be on the same field again, even though they competed against each other this time around.
"I'm so happy for Karli and seeing all that she's accomplishing," said Sherrill. "We were good friends in high school, and she's been great for Oklahoma State this year. That's been cool to see."
Petty said, "I'm not gonna lie, it hurt losing that game to Florida State. But I'm happy for Sydney. We had a chance to chat a little bit after the game, and I congratulated her and wished her the best of luck."
PHOTO COURTESY: OSU ATHLETICS
Sherrill and Petty are the latest in a long line of great collegiate softball players who played for one of Moore's three high schools. They are part of the legacy of excellence that has seen regular appearances in both the fast pitch and slow pitch state tournaments by all three teams and state title game appearances and state championships won. Moore High School won state fast pitch championships in 2005 and 2007. Southmoore brought home the state trophy in 2013, 2016, and 2020. Westmoore won a state title in 2018.
MACU CLAIMS SMALL COLLEGE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
PHOTO COURTESTY: PRO SHOT STUDIOS
Mid-America Christian University head softball coach Robert Wakefield had a hand in those two Moore High School state titles. He came to Moore from Ardmore and Plainview and coached the Lady Lions from 1998-to-2011. Wakefield says the game has grown from his early days coaching in the 1980s when schools saved money by hiring one coach to handle baseball in the spring and fastpitch in the fall.
"Baseball's a great game, but softball is so much faster," said Wakefield. "I fell in love with the game while I was coaching at Plainview, and it's been a blessing to be able to be still involved at the collegiate level now.
PHOTO COURTESY: PRO SHOT STUDIOS
Wakefield took over the MACU program in 2012 and has steadily improved the Evangels. They compete in both the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) post-season tournaments. This year's Evangels team brought home their first NCCAA national championship, and Wakefield was named the NCCAA National Coach of the Year.
"We were the number one seed this year, and we definitely played up to our seeding," said Wakefield. "It was a great tournament, and we had a great game for the title against Concordia out of Michigan, the two seed, to win it all. It was a great experience for our kids."
PHOTO COURTESY: PRO SHOT STUDIOS
The Evangels barely missed out on a spot in the NAIA post-season, dropping a 10-inning game to USAO on a throwing error following a sacrifice bunt. Wakefield says he's proud of his team's performance against one of the nation's best small college teams.
"We actually beat USAO twice during the season, and they're ranked third in the nation," said Wakefield. "I feel like our program is on the way up. We've had some great success, and we're improving our facilities, so I think we're going to have more success in recruiting great players here."
MACU'S new O'Brien Family Training Center is expected to open in August of this year. The multi-million dollar facility features new locker rooms, coaches' offices, training rooms, batting cages, and lighting for outdoor athletic fields. Wakefield says the center will be a great recruiting tool that he hopes will help him continue to lure some of the talent playing at all three Moore High Schools.
PHOTO COURTESY: PRO SHOT STUDIOS
"We've had several Moore kids on our teams," said Wakefield. "Brooklyn Wilson is coming in from Southmoore this year. Mikaylee Allen from Moore is our starting shortstop. We had Amber O'Bryant from Moore graduate last year, and we've also had Jackie Hilterbrandt and Larie Amos from Westmoore."
Wakefield says MACU is an excellent choice for those softball players looking to continue their careers after high school in a smaller environment.
"We have a great Christian atmosphere and a great staff," said Wakefield. "The classes are smaller in size, so you get more personal attention. And we're continuing to build a winning tradition here. If you're looking for a small college experience in a Christian atmosphere, this is as good as it gets."
IMPACTING THE NEXT GENERATION OF PLAYERS
Karli Petty, still shaking off the sting of that 4-2 loss to Sydney Sherrill and Florida State, finds some solace as she reflects on the surge of interest in softball.
"It's such an amazing feeling to know that our generation is having such a great impact on softball and women's sports in general," said Petty. "I love the idea of inspiring those little girls out there who are just starting to play the game. Women's sports are fun and exciting to watch, and we deserve the recognition because we work just as hard as any other athlete."
Sherrill says one of the things she believes players will appreciate is the close-knit sense of family softball players experience with each other. That's something that helped get them through the challenging "year of COVID."
"We had to stay in this bubble over the past season as we dealt with all the COVID restrictions," said Sherrill. "And as hard as that's been, it's been so awesome for our team because we are so close-knit. There's this family aspect of softball that's hard to put into words. Coming to Florida State and knowing how big a part that plays and the connections you have with your teammates plays such a big role."
Petty and Sherrill say that family feeling of connectedness began before their high school years and continued at Southmoore. If you're lucky enough to watch all three local high schools play the game in the fall (fast pitch) and the spring (slow pitch), you'll likely see for yourself the kind of relational magic these athletes are talking about.
"I guess we got lucky because we all lived near each other growing up and were such good friends as we played ball together," said Sherrill. "Those kinds of experiences teach you a lot about continuing to create a family when you go off to college."
Petty said, "Being around people you love and enjoy playing a game you love is special, but it won't last forever. Softball has been a great way for me to make those deep friendships and spend time with people you care about, and that's a great way to learn how to become that kind of person in every area of life."
Those are the kinds of lessons being absorbed by thousands of young softball fans who have had the chance to be swept along by the growing surge of softball's popularity. And Moore, Oklahoma, has a role in that surge as it unfolds locally and nationally.