Tramel: Time to end midnight softball in the Women's College World Series

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman

The clock struck midnight, and the first inning was only half over. 

The OSU-Florida State game, which started 10 minutes before Sunday, was a gateway to the Women’s College World Series semifinals. That made it the most important game ever for most of the Cowgirls and Seminoles. 

But the players were fine. The shortstops and pitching aces and sluggers putting on the NCAA’s week-long softball show are teenagers. Or young 20somethings. 

“We were treating it like any other game,” said Cowgirl senior Syndey Pennington. “We weren't discouraged by the time we were starting. We were probably more amped up.”  

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Middle-of-the-night softball is harder on the coaches and the bleary-eyed ESPN crew and the hearty souls who stayed ‘til the end at Hall of Fame and even the there-in-spirit crowd, trying to stay awake at home.  

“This is about the time these kids wake up and go out at night,” OSU softball coach Kenny Gajewski said after the game ended at 2:18 a.m. “I don't think it affected them as much.” 

I think Gajewski was exaggerating. I hope he was. But we get his point. 

The sun sets early during Saturday night's OU-UCLA game in the Women's College World Series at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. The game was delayed by more than two hours due to a storm.

Here’s what was affected. The NCAA’s persistent posturing that the student-athletes come first. 

Just because you can play softball at 2 a.m. in the late Oklahoma spring, doesn’t mean that you should. 

“I just am shocked that Oklahoma State and Florida State had to play (start) a College World Series game that advances you to the semifinals at close to midnight,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. 

“If we're about the welfare of the student-athlete — that is what is being preached to all of us — then do something. Do something.” 

We know why the game stretched well into Sunday morning. To fit ESPN’s schedule. What we don’t know is the alternative. 

Delaying the game would have created a logjam Sunday, which could have spilled into Monday, when the NCAA championship series starts. Is that ESPN’s call? The NCAA’s?  

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Oklahoma State's Kiley Naomi (5) is tagged out by Florida State's Anna Shelnutt (13) in the fifth inning early Sunday morning in the Women's College World Series. Florida State won 4-2.

It doesn’t matter. We’re all in this together. There has to be a better plan. 

This is what coaches, including Gasso, told my pal Jenni Carlson a few weeks ago when she wrote about possible improvements to the World Series format. Notably, a day off between bracket play and the championship series. 

A free Monday could have absorbed a postponement or two. 

“It doesn't make sense,” Gasso said. “We can't delay it for another day? That's what we need to do. 

“I don't know who needs to do something. But having these guys get home at three in the morning and then prepare for the next day, it completely throws off your rhythm of sleep, hydration, of eating. It wasn't fair to either team to sit around and wait that long.” 

Florida State eliminated the Cowgirls 4-2, advancing the Seminoles to a semifinal scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, about 12 hours after their OSU game ended. 

Gasso’s Sooners had a quick turnaround, too – a 10-3 victory over UCLA in a rain-delayed game that ended about 11:20 p.m. Saturday, followed by a noon Sunday first pitch against James Madison. 

“Does it make you tough? Yeah,” Gasso said. “Does it show like, 'Wow, we're going to fight until the end?' Yes. But you want to see a World Series where every team is rested and at their best. We've been doing this for so long, it's tragic. It's just ridiculous, really.” 

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Sometimes, outdoor sports endure the elements. NCAA golf tournaments can have near-dusk finishes, with near-dawn tee-off times the next morning.  

And television can dictate some dubious start times indoors. Eddie Sutton was seething back in 1992, when his OSU basketball team drew a 10:30 p.m. local time tipoff in the Sweet 16 against Michigan and its Fab Five. That game in Lexington ended at almost 1 a.m. Kentucky time. 

Heck, these Cowgirls don’t even win the all-time Night Owl Award in OSU lore. After a weather delay in September 2011, the Cowboy football team kicked off against Tulsa 16 minutes after midnight. OSU won 59-33 in a game that ended at 3:35 a.m. 

But that wasn’t a national championship quarterfinal.  

OSU-Florida State was the softball equivalent of an Elite Eight game in March Madness. And it was played in the middle of the night. 

How can that be good for softball? The sport has made remarkable gains in the American sports consciousness over the last three decades. But same as when the rain-delayed OU-Alabama national title game finished after midnight in 2012, witching-hour softball is not the least bit charming. 

OU celebrates after beating UCLA 10-3 late Saturday night at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.

“As it started to get a little later, I kind of felt like we may not play,” Gajewski said. “But you’ve just got to be ready to play. And you know, it is what it is. It's tough.” 

But the NCAA/ESPN/National Fastpitch Coaches Association mantra was, play ball. 

Gasso said coaches are starting to grumble more. You wonder if OSU-Florida State could be a watershed moment for the World Series schedule. 

“It's very uncomfortable when we are talking to our players about standing up for what is right,” Gasso said, “yet, what is happening around us is not right. 

“The players will do whatever you put in front of them. They're not going to complain. They're going to go to bed at three, wake up at seven, because it's the World Series. But that's not the memory they need to have.” 

There’s an easy fix. Work with ESPN to schedule the championship series Tuesday through Thursday. Stamp Monday as an off day or a buffer for rain delays. 

Let’s remember that “Play ball!” has its limits. 

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.