NORMAN — Oklahoma softball star Lauren Chamberlain calls it the Promised Land.
Speaking about what it means to be back at the Women’s College World Series, Chamberlain looked down at her arm and laughed.
“I’m getting goosebumps,” she said. “I’m really excited to be back. It’s cool.
“It’s just a special place.”
Having played for the national title in 2012, then winning it in 2013, it might seem like a foregone thought that the Sooners would be back in the tournament at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium this week, where they’ll take on Alabama at 8:30 p.m. in Thursday’s first round.
But back in March, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the Sooners’ WCWS potential was closer to long shot than sure thing.
“We were ranked 23rd in the nation,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. “We were living in that place early on, in February and March.
“To see this team work so hard to get to the place we are now, as one of the final eight with a chance to defend our title, is an incredible feat. I really had an emotional moment with this team because of what I saw them do. It was unbelievable.”
Since their championship celebration at Hall of Fame Stadium last spring, the Sooners have had their share of adversity. First, Gasso had to replace one of the best college pitchers of all time in Keilani Ricketts.
She turned to Kelsey Stevens, a sophomore transfer from Stanford, who had made 21 starts with a 2.99 earned-run average for the Cardinal last season.
In early March, the centerpiece of the OU lineup went down with an injury. Chamberlain, a junior who is 18 home runs shy of the NCAA career record of 90, missed nearly seven weeks in the heart of the regular season.
But Chamberlain and the Sooners kept their eyes on the ultimate goal, not letting their obstacles distract them from what they were trying to build toward.
Exactly when they need it, the Sooners are playing like a national title contender again. Though they had some struggles in the regional tournament, they came through unbeaten. Tennessee, with one of the nation’s best offenses, pushed OU to the brink in the best-of-3 super regional, but there was no doubt the Sooners were the better team that weekend.
Now, that No. 23 ranking has become a distant memory.
“We knew (early in the season) that we had work to do,” Chamberlain said. “We set our minds to it that we weren’t going to fall out of the top 25, and that we were going to make a stand at the end of the season. And I think you’re seeing that right now.”