Baylor Arizona Softball

Kyla Walker (left) hugs Ari Hawkins as they celebrate Baylor’s defeat of Arizona last weekend.

No matter where it goes, Baylor can never seem to escape Oklahoma’s expansive shadow.

The Sooners have ruled the Big 12 with six straight conference championships, and they’ve been a major player on the national scene with NCAA championships in 2000, 2013 and 2016.

The Lady Bears will face the Sooners in their own backyard on the opening day of the Women’s College World Series at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

“They’re on a stage they’re very comfortable with and it will be like a home game for them,” said Baylor coach Glenn Moore. “We know what we’re up against. But we just played a game with about 3,000 fans wearing Arizona colors. So it’s not anything that’s going to freak us out. We’ll be ready for them.”

Both the Lady Bears (48-13) and Sooners (56-9) reached the World Series the hard way by going on the road in Super Regionals to beat higher ranked opponents.

After opening with a loss, the No. 15 Lady Bears rallied to win beat No. 2 Arizona in the last two games in dramatic fashion in Tucson. Baylor is making its fourth World Series appearance and first since 2014.

The No. 10 Sooners swept two games at No. 7 Auburn to get a chance to defend their national championship.

In the regular season matchup in Norman, Oklahoma won two of three games against Baylor in late April. But the series could have easily gone the other way as the Sooners outlasted the Lady Bears in a 3-2 win in 10 innings in a series opening win.

“We feel we can compete with Oklahoma, but we also have a lot of respect for them,” Moore said. “We felt like we had a great series with them up there. That’s a multi-dimensional team that has a lot of options in the circle and we’ve got to prepare for a lot of different things.”

Baylor ace Kelsee Selman (24-8, 1.69 ERA) will match up against Big 12 pitcher of the year Paige Parker (23-5, 1.29 ERA).

Parker carried the Sooners to last year’s national title as a sophomore with a 38-3 record, but they have much more pitching depth this season. Like Parker, Missouri transfer Paige Lowary (15-3, 1.61 ERA) is a left-hander while freshman Mariah Lopez (17-1, 2.06 ERA) is a right-hander.

“We’re in two different worlds than we were last year,” said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso. “Having options and having a little bit deeper staff takes a lot of stress off Paige and keeps her mind a little more free and strong, and I think our team feels that as well.”

The Sooners are loaded with exceptional hitters, including freshman Nicole Mendes who is hitting a team-high .438 with five homers and 21 stolen bases.

Shay Knighten was named Big 12 player of the year by the league’s coaches as she’s hitting .359 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs. Sydney Romero is hitting .349 with 11 homers and 57 RBIs while Nicole Pendley is hitting .325 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs.

Baylor will counter with Lindsey Cargill with a team-high .430 average and 34 stolen bases. Kyla Walker has been hot in the postseason as she’s raised her average to .422 while stealing 19 bases.

Shelby Friudenberg has also delivered a superb postseason with homers in both the regional and Super Regional. Friudenberg and freshman Shelby McGlaun are tied for the team lead with 11 homers.

Batting behind Friudenberg in the fifth spot, McGlaun came through with the biggest homer of the season when she blasted a three-run shot in the seventh inning that gave the Lady Bears a 6-5 win over Arizona in the series finale.

“It’s huge because now people are watching film where they pitched around Friudenberg to get to Goose (McGlaun), and they don’t feel they could do that,” Moore said. “So maybe Shelby Friudenberg will see a few better pitches. Both of those hitters are extremely respected, so we should get some production out of them.”

The Baylor-Oklahoma winner will face the Oregon-Washington winner at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The losers will play at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the double elimination tournament.

In Thursday’s other opening games, No. 1 Florida faces No. 9 Texas A&M at 11 a.m., No. 13 LSU meets No. 5 UCLA at 1:30 p.m., and No. 3 Oregon meets No. 6 Washington at 6 p.m. The two teams left standing will play a best-of-three championship series beginning Monday.

Though the Lady Bears have a solid No. 2 pitcher in Gia Rodoni (18-3), they know the importance of beating Oklahoma in the opener to stay in the winners bracket.

“We’re going to win,” Cargill said. “I believe this team will fight every inning, every pitch.”

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