How Texas softball used 2021 finish to fuel 2022 run to WCWS finals

Jacob Parr, Sports Reporter

After being eliminated from the 2021 postseason by Oklahoma State, Texas softball entered the 2022 season with something to prove.

Fueled by offseason acquisitions like pitchers Hailey Dolcini and Estelle Czech, the Longhorns looked ahead, eager to find success this year.

“We’re gonna learn from our past experiences throughout this entire year,” junior pitcher Shea O’Leary said after Texas’ Game 3 defeat in the super regional round last year. “I think losing to OSU again is just gonna fuel us even more for next year.”

Despite a talented roster, Texas struggled out of the gate. The Longhorns committed at least one error in nine of their first 10 games and went on an early six-game losing streak, including a brutal five-game sweep at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational in Florida.

“It’s just (about) making sure we do the small things correctly,” head coach Mike White said  March 3. “(We’re) just preaching those little things that we can control, and making sure that if something (bad) does happen, that it doesn’t get too big.”

Then the streak began. After a loss to Alabama on March 5, the Longhorns did not lose another game until March 30. Walks went down, strikeouts went up and fielders committed fewer errors during the 16-game win streak.

Sophomore Courtney Day led the Longhorns with 12 home runs on the year, but Texas was not exactly a powerful team. The Longhorns succeeded not by overpowering opponents with their bats but with solid fundamentals. While senior second baseman Janae Jefferson led the way offensively, becoming the Big 12 career hits leader on April 24, Texas never led the conference in any offensive categories. Instead, timely hits at key moments led the Longhorns to success.

Texas finished with a 12-6 record in conference play and advanced through the Seattle Regional by upsetting No. 11 Washington twice. The Longhorns then took down No. 4 Arkansas to advance to the Women’s College World Series despite not being seeded by the NCAA. 

There’s usually a level of pageantry surrounding a team earning a spot in the WCWS. Teams take pictures with custom hats, shirts and large, novelty “ticket punched” signs. Yet, as Dolcini pointed out on Twitter, none of that was ready for Texas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While Chris Del Conte, Texas director of athletics, later clarified that there was a logistical error that kept the items in the warehouse, the fact that Texas was unseeded going into the NCAA Tournament made the team feel like it was snubbed. Texas was an unseeded team in uncharted waters.

Needing two wins to go to the championship series, the Longhorns ran into a familiar nemesis in No. 6-seeded Oklahoma State. The Longhorns cruised to an easy 5-0 win in the first game, powered by a dominant performance from Czech.

The second was a microcosm of the Longhorns’ season as a whole. Texas fell behind to a five-run deficit but clawed its way back with good pitching and even better hitting. The Longhorns won when it mattered and became the first unseeded team in history to make the WCWS finals, in the process defeating the team that eliminated the Longhorns last season.

The only thing that stood in Texas’ way of a title was top-ranked Oklahoma, one of the most dominant softball teams in recent memory — but one Texas beat in April.

“No one had us being here at all, let alone going and competing for a national championship,” Dolcini said before the final series. “So, for us, we’re playing free. We’re playing for each other, and I think that’s the best part of all of this.”

Despite being swept by the Sooners and ending the season in defeat, the Longhorns won six elimination games in the NCAA Tournament. They played with their backs against the wall, and although they failed to achieve the ultimate goal of winning the national title, they never gave up.

“This here is a scrappy bunch of young women who stood up to Oklahoma,” White said after the Longhorns finished runner-up. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”