I'm not given to hyperbole when discussing "greatest" anything in athletics.
I saw Barry Sanders play, and I'm fairly sure that's the greatest running back that has ever laced up a pair of cleats. I've seen the 2011 LSU-Alabama games, and I'm reasonable certain no two college defenses will ever face one another that accomplished, that talented, that deep, that well-coached, with that much on the line, and with that much animus and pure hate. I saw Mariano Rivera close out a World Series game in the Ted, and -for now, I can say that he is probably the best closer to ever play the game.
Friday and Saturday, I saw Lauren Chamberlain, college softball's all-time homerun queen, will the Sooners to a Game One victory over the Crimson Tide and almost pull off the feat in the rubber match. I saw Haylie McCleney keep Alabama alive in a deciding Game Three with two defensive gems in centerfield. I saw true freshmen pitching phenoms Alexis Osorio and Paige Parker duel one another, pitch for pitch, over three hundred times in 24 hours. I saw Patty Gasso and Patrick Murphy, luminaries in their field, play a fascinating cat-and-mouse game with pitching substitutions and highly unorthodox lineup changes. I saw three highly emotional games, palpably intense, agonizingly-close, all decided on late-inning herioics by late-inning homeruns.
Are any of those plays, these coaches, these players the best ever? Probably not. "Best ever" is ephemeral and the bar is consistently redefined. But, for sheer pathos, emotion, drama, top-to-bottom talent and heart, I've never seen a better three games.
And, I doubt I ever will again.
Because the seven innings of a softball game pass so quickly, allowing as few as 21 offensive opportunities, there is a special sort of pressure to the sport. Magnify that with good pitching and the pressure is almost audible, hissing and seething like steam out of near-bursting pipes. Mix in Alabama vs. Oklahoma — a great softball rivalry over the past five years — and it can border on the unbearable, on both sides.
Nearly 4,000 people jammed into Rhoads Stadium expecting something special.
They got it. And a little more.
* * *
"Did that really just happen?" Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said as he entered the postgame news conference.
Alexis Osorio was tired.
The right-hander pitched a one-hit shutout earlier to keep Alabama softball’s season alive.
She already struck out the career home run leader Lauren Chamberlain with the bases loaded in the first game of the day. She had already survived two scares in the first inning of the rubber match.
Osorio was tired. It didn’t matter.
"(Alabama has) an unbelievable — McCleney — and what she can do … I mean, who has their franchise player in center field? Normally they’re on the mound or they’re at shortstop or catcher," Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso said. "The stuff that she did out in the outfield was amazing and literally won the game for them many times."
Take a look at the shot that sent Alabama to the Women's College World Series, first from ESPN's vantage point.
This link has ESPN's video of the Runyon blast, a shot of it from the Rhoadshouse, as well as the full game three on YouTube. It's worth watching again.
Joining Alabama in Oklahoma City are Florida, Oregon, Michigan, Auburn, LSU, UCLA and Tennessee. Five of the final field of eight are from the SEC, which ties a WCWS record for teams from a single conference as the Pac 12 previously sent five teams in 1999.
Emotional as it was, the Super Regional was just a stepping stone to bigger things. Win or lose, everything seems anticlimactic at the point, but it's time to face Michigan -- a team that handily defeated a younger, less mentally-tough Tide team to open the season.
* Alabama-Michigan will be shown on ESPN2.
Have a good Holiday and be very careful on the roads and highways. The point of the holiday is to remember America's war dead -- not to become a drunken highway statistic yourself.