'The standard’s so high here': After 52 NCAA titles, OSU seeking first women's championship

Berry Tramel

STILLWATER — The stately banners hang high in Gallagher-Iba Arena, celebrating Oklahoma State’s athletic success

Fifty-two NCAA championships. Fourth-most in America. Only California sun gods Stanford (128), UCLA (119) and Southern Cal (109) rank ahead of the land-grant institution in Payne County. 

But there is a hole in OSU’s athletic success. All those national titles — 34 in wrestling, 11 in golf, four in cross-country, two in basketball, one in baseball — have come on the men’s side. 

The Cowboys have won 52. The Cowgirls have won none. 

“Everybody wants to, on the women’s side, be the team that gets it done first,” said Karen Hancock, who in 1996 was hired to be OSU’s women’s soccer coach and now is the athletic department senior women’s administrator. 

“Man, it would be so huge. It’s no secret that it’s a goal around here.” Athletic director Mike Holder “has planted that seed in everybody’s brain on the women’s side. I think you’re seeing the coaches respond to that, putting together teams that will be competitive enough to do that.” 

The Cowgirls indeed have contended. 

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Oklahoma State's Isabella Fiero tees off Friday during the NCAA women's golf championships in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The OSU women’s tennis team made the 2016 national finals but lost 4-3 to Stanford. 

The equestrian team four times has been Western-style champion but never national champion. 

The OSU women’s soccer team twice has made the NCAA quarterfinals. The basketball team thrice has made the NCAA Sweet 16. 

The OSU women’s golf team Monday qualified for the NCAA quarterfinals in Scottsdale, Arizona. 

And the OSU softball eight times has made the Women’s College World Series, including a fourth-place finish in 1993 and a third-place finish in 1994. The Cowgirls made the most recent WCWS (2019) and are favored to return this season; they host Texas in the Super Regional starting Friday. 

“I feel like we’re trying to keep up here,” softball coach Kenny Gajewski said. “The standard’s so high here. You could feel good about yourself, but we don’t have any championships. There's not a female national championship here at OSU yet. So there’s this constant grind in wanting to be part of that.” 

The NCAA didn’t start conducting women’s national championships until the 1980s. But some schools caught on quick. 

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Texas has 24 women’s national titles, tied for fifth all-time, trailing Stanford (60), UCLA (44), North Carolina (33) and Louisiana State (25). Elsewhere in the Big 12, OU has eight, Baylor three, Kansas one, Texas Tech one, Texas Christian one (plus three in rifle, a coed sport), Kansas State none, Iowa State none (though the Cyclones won five women’s cross-country titles in the previous era of AIAW) and West Virginia none (though the Mountaineers have won 19 in rifle). 

But there seems little doubt that a title is coming soon for an OSU women’s team. Facilities are first-rate. Quality is rising. Expectations are soaring. 

“You’re just seeing across the board, every women’s sport being more competitive,” Hancock said. “Everyone’s creeping up nationally. I think there’s a belief that, why not at Oklahoma State? We can do it here.  

“We look to the men’s side. Just trying to find a road map to where you can get there, too.” 

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Successful programs can feed off each other, and that camaraderie crosses gender lines. 

Wrestling coach John Smith, an OSU icon, was in the centerfield seats of the softball game the other day. Men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton was at one of the Bedlam games. Gajewski spotted men’s golf coach Alan Bratton at a Cowgirl game. 

“One of the coolest places I’ve ever been,” Gajewski said of his employer. “And I’ve been at some really neat schools. OU, Tennessee and Florida. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything like it ever. 

“I want to achieve what most of these teams have done, and that’s win at a high level for a long time.” 

Smith and Bratton have coached NCAA championship teams. The coach who gets a Cowgirl squad to the summit will have a special place in OSU history. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.