OKLAHOMA CITY — Just as she did in 2018, junior pitcher Mariah Lopez spent her time in the dugout at the Women's College World Series, until Sunday night.
Last season, she sat behind superstars Paige Parker and Paige Lowary, and this season she was poised to be the Sooners' ace. But with the arrival of Arizona State transfer Giselle Juarez, Lopez found herself in the dugout again.
Through Oklahoma's first three games in the WCWS, Juarez pitched 20 out of 21 innings. The Arizona State transfer threw 109 pitches in 7.1 innings in Oklahoma's 1-0 loss to Alabama on Sunday afternoon, which forced an elimination game between the two teams, the winner advancing to the WCWS championship.
Once again, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso went with Juarez. It appeared she hadn't lost a step, throwing two strikeouts in the top of the first inning. But in the second, Juarez gave up a solo home run to Alabama's Reagan Dykes, prompting Gasso to finally hand the ball to Lopez with a 2-1 Sooner lead.
Oklahoma left with a 7-3 victory and a berth to the WCWS championship against UCLA. Lopez finished with 4.1 innings pitched, four hits allowed and three strikeouts. She's had more impressive statistical performances in 2018, but her preparedness to come in on the team's biggest stage and lead Oklahoma to a win impressed Gasso.
"Mariah's the veteran of the staff, and I wanted to give her an opportunity to pound the zone and go hard at them," Gasso said. "She did a phenomenal job, and I'm so happy for her because she's really been waiting patiently for her time, and this was the biggest game of her career."
Her time to shine came in the team's biggest moment of the season, but, as it usually goes for this Oklahoma pitching staff, she wasn't focusing on herself. Juarez has credited Lopez in the past for being a crucial part in helping her adjust to her new team, and Lopez said the camaraderie among the pitching staff helps her be ready to come in when Gasso calls upon her.
"I'm out there not only fighting for myself, but also (Juarez) and (junior pitcher Shannon Saile), so it's nice to have them," Lopez said. "Regardless of the outcome, we're all going to be there for each other. We've worked really hard and coming together in these moments has been really cool."
It wasn't just Lopez's performance that propelled the Sooners to victory. The bats finally came alive in Sunday's second game. Oklahoma's 111 home runs is the most in the nation in 2019, but they had yet to hit one in the WCWS. That changed quickly in the bottom of the fifth inning with sophomore Jocelyn Alo. The NFCA Second Team All-American blasted a home run into the parking lot to extend the lead to 4-1. Shortly after that, junior Nicole Mendes hit a two run shot of her own, quickly followed by a solo homer from freshman Grace Lyons.
"We had a couple really good hits throughout the first and second game, but we couldn't really string together too much," Mendes said. "Once (Alo) hit that home run, it was like a spark was ignited. Once this team gets a spark, it's really hard to stop us."
Game one of the Championship Finals will be against UCLA at 6:30 p.m. CT on Monday at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.