For the first time in four years, the University of Tulsa’s pursuit of its first trip to an NCAA softball super regional doesn’t go through Norman.
The Hurricane, runner-up in the American Athletic Conference, is instead playing in the Stillwater regional as part of a field that includes Oklahoma State and Arkansas, two teams TU has enjoyed great success against in recent history.
“It’s nice to have a change of scenery. We’ve been to Norman the past three years I’ve been here,” catcher Rylie Spell said. “But we’re excited just to be in a regional, in general, and excited to be a place that is familiar.”
TU opens regional play at 5 p.m. Thursday against Arkansas, a team it has beaten in nine of the past 11 meetings, including a 2-1 victory in March in Fayetteville. The winner advances to a noon Friday matchup against OSU or BYU.
“(Arkansas is) super competitive and we always put up a good game, so it should be a fun one to watch,” outfielder Julia Hollingsworth said. “They know what to expect, but at the same time we know what to expect. It will honestly probably turn out to be a dogfight and that’s the type of game that I like playing.”
Hollingsworth, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, and Spell, last year’s league defensive player of the year, are part of a senior class that has stumbled in three consecutive regionals. Is this the year the Hurricane gets over the hump?
“That’s program history and we’re really excited to have the opportunity to make it as a senior class,” Spell said. “We think we can do it this year. I think we really have the girls on this team that can go very far.”
En route to that second-place finish in the American, TU didn’t rely on a dominant pitcher as it has done in the past. Instead, the Hurricane capitalized on across-the-board talent to prevail in all of its three-game conference series.
“I think that this year we’ve really had to work together as a team more than we have in the past few years,” Spell said. “It’s fun when everyone does their job and you get to win a game and it’s a true team win.”
TU, which weathered a difficult schedule to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, has reached a winner-take-all final game of a regional on three occasions, most recently suffering a heartbreaking loss to eventual national champion Oklahoma in 2017.
“I think (coming up short) is definitely there,” Hollingsworth said. “We’ve felt that and it’s something we definitely don’t want to feel again. If anything, that’s just fuel that fires us up (and gets us) ready to go into the weekend.”