OKLAHOMA CITY — Will and Dulcinea Juarez stood in section seven, four rows from the field, surrounded by Sooner faithful at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.
As Oklahoma was one strike away in the seventh inning from victory, Will found himself watching his daughter, senior Giselle Juarez, pitching in her 31st inning of the Women’s College World Series in front of 10,830 fans.
Juarez reared back and fired her 112th pitch of the game with her parents eagerly watching. The pitch softly popped up off the bat, and Juarez was camped under it. She caught the ball with a smile, before sophomore catcher Kinzie Hansen met her in the pitching circle with a hug. The rest of the team shortly followed in celebration.
Juarez led the Sooners to become the fourth team to win the national championship after losing their WCWS opener in a 5-1 win over Florida State on Thursday. She pitched a scoreless Saturday against Georgia and UCLA, gave up one run against James Madison on Sunday and pitched back-to-back complete games to make OU the fourth team to ever win the national championship after losing game one of the series, which it did on Tuesday.
In the moment of the final out, a teary-eyed Will and Dulcinea embraced from their seat near the third-base dugout, above where OU was stationed in the Oklahoma heat that reached close to 100 degrees.
“When that ball went to her, I almost fainted,” Will told The Daily shortly after the game. “Look at her, she has no fear. It’s hard to believe it did what it did, that ball. It’s a culmination of her hard work and determination for that moment right there.”
Juarez sports a scar on her hip from a labrum tear suffered her senior season of high school and the lasting memory of her bicep tear in 2020. All of Juarez’s scars, tears, hard work and adversities were afterthoughts in the moment. Juarez willed OU to victory, and her parents, who’ve been with her through every step of her life, had every moment flash that got her to the stage where she made the final out of the 2021 softball season.
It made Will relive a memory in the family’s car, driving five hours to California for a club tournament, before Juarez was a two-time All-American. It reminded him of driving back to their home state of Arizona after the tournament, with Juarez resting in the back seat past 2 a.m. so they didn’t have to rent a hotel to save money.
It was one of the memories Will credited for Juarez’s ability to keep working hard and getting up after receiving punches that life threw her way.
Juarez wasn’t her best in 2021, as she was just a few months removed from rehabbing her torn bicep she had surgery on in March of 2020. Juarez wasn’t sure if she could ever return to her former self, the pitcher that led OU to its 2019 national championship appearance against UCLA with a 1.39 earned-runs average.
But when the WCWS came around, Juarez let everything go, according to Will. It allowed Juarez to leave her injury in the past and forget that freshman Nicole May and senior Shannon Saile started over her in Oklahoma’s super regional games against Washington. Juarez’ ERA was a 3.35 entering the WCWS, highest amongst the three typical starters.
Juarez was back to being who she was, Despite the injury and despite back-to-back losses in the 2019 national championship against the Bruins. Juarez finished the 2021 WCWS with a 5-0 record, 38 strikeouts in 31.1 innings pitched and allowed just four runs. Her ERA for the tournament was .89, better than her 1.39 mark in 2019.
She had reached postseason form, and in each start she made, the Sooners faced elimination, but Juarez wouldn’t allow their season to be over.
“I’m just overwhelmed with joy for that young lady,” head coach Patty Gasso said. “She was very diligent and fought through it and didn’t have her best season, and she would tell you that, but I don’t know that it matters right now to her because she had that moment in the course of about seven days. It caps off her career in the most ultimate way you could ever think of.”
Senior right fielder Nicole Mendes, who also played her last collegiate game at OU, remembered Juarez feeling like she may have never been able to return to her past form, and when she lost to UCLA.
“To see her come back from both of those two big adversities and to be where she is, I just can only smile because it's such a G thing to do,” Mendes said. “To come in and to say, ‘Okay, you know what, I'm going to own this one, and I'm going to bounce back from this injury, and I'm going to carry my team to this championship.’ Such a special moment.”
Will credited Juarez’s return to greatness to her ability to forget about her injury. He said that previously in the season, her arm didn’t extend back as much, which hurt her velocity and spin on the ball. But in the WCWS it changed, with full force and the whip of her wrist back.
However, overcoming an injury wasn’t new to Juarez. She played through her torn hip labrum as a senior in high school with the Birmingham Thunderbolts travel organization and coach Richard Shea, after Will was recommended to Shea’s team by former Arizona pitcher from 2019 Tamara Statman’s dad.
Those past instances of playing through injuries groomed Juarez for Thursday, when she wanted to back her teammates.
“She’s a competitor, and that’s what competitors do,” Shea told The Daily. “No matter how much she was ever hurting, she would do it for her teammates. You could look at somebody like Troy Aikman, just because he got concussions, and you couldn’t keep him off the field. She would put her body on the line for teammates.”
Juarez went into the WCWS not wanting to be runner-up again. She’d done it twice in 2014 and 2015 in high school, and was third-place twice in 2015 and 2016 with the Thunderbolts. It also happened again in 2019 with OU.
When she lost in 2014 and 2015 with tears rolling down her eyes, Will told her to keep grinding, and when it happened again with OU in 2019, he said the same thing.
Then, Juarez, during the postgame press conference Thursday, said she “kept grinding” after having the start to this season she had.
But in 2021, it was different. Juarez battled through the adversity of not feeling like she could be herself again, or not being there when her teammates needed her wicked-pitch movement in the circle. Like freshman center fielder Jayda Coleman said after the game, Juarez was “G Juarez” this week.
“She busted her butt to go get that,” Will said. “It’s always about the right people, at the right time, at the right moment. That was a heck of a moment right there. What a story. I can’t wait until she tells it to her kids, or the people that think they can’t overcome whatever they’re going through.
“She’s an inspiration to me.”