'They want to be champions': How OU softball built a pipeline to renowned Batbuster program
In the business park just off the Orange Freeway running through Anaheim, there’s an indoor softball training facility, and above the batting cages often filled with girls from Southern California, there’s a TV.
It will be tuned to Bedlam softball this weekend.
When Mike Stith has time between lessons and practices, he’ll stop and watch. He’ll coach a bit, too.
“Why do you take that pitch?” he might wonder.
“What are you trying to do here?” he might think.
He never stops coaching his kids, as he calls them, even when they leave the renowned Batbusters program and head to college. And when Oklahoma is playing, his kids are everywhere.
“I love sending my kids there because I know what’s going to happen,” Stith said. “I know they’re going to grow and get better and become great.”
They are making OU great, too.
How many former Batbusters are on the OU softball team?
This season, nine former Batbusters are Sooners, constituting more than a third of the roster. What’s more, they are some of the biggest contributors for top-ranked OU. Jocelyn Alo. Tiare Jennings. Kinzie Hansen. Nicole May.
During a weekend the Sooners can claim their 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season crown and further solidify their standing as the best team in the nation, you can pinpoint lots of reasons for OU’s success. But prime among them is a pipeline to one of the country's premier youth softball programs.
“A lot of these kids,” Sooner coach Patty Gasso said, “have bloodlines through the Batbuster organization.”
So how was the Batbuster-to-Sooner pipeline built?
And why is it so strong?
Before we get to that, a little history: the Batbusters were founded in 1979 in Westminster, California, between Long Beach and Santa Ana. The program quickly grew to include multiple teams for various age groups.
Over the years, some teams splintered off while others merged with the Batbusters.
Stith had a program that did the latter. Even though he had started a club program in 1996 and won three national championships in five years, he still found himself losing players to the Batbusters. In 2003, Stith decided to stop fighting against Batbusters and joined them.
A few years later, the program expanded to nearly two dozen teams.
“And then it took off from there,” Stith said.
Batbusters program produces some of sport' biggest stars
Now, Batbusters has grown into a mega program, fielding more than a hundred teams in 14 states and producing some of the sport's biggest stars, including Olympians Jennie Finch and Laura Berg.
But for many years, OU didn’t have any Batbusters.
That changed with Sydney Romero.
Gasso spent several years recruiting Romero’s older sister, Sierra, who ultimately chose Michigan.
“My heart broke,” Gasso said. “But I felt like I was a little late to her recruiting party. So, I made it a point that I was going to be first in line for Syd Romero.”
Romero was playing for Stith, so Gasso called him.
It would be the first of many conversations, and when Romero committed to OU, Gasso had a feeling Stith’s teams might produce even more Sooners. She felt a connection between the programs, like they were kindred spirits.
“They have a coach that’s very much like me,” Gasso said. “He’ll say to these guys, ‘Do you think you’re gonna get away with this with Coach Gasso at Oklahoma? No, you’re not!’”
“Really good teacher,” she said of Stith. “Really prepares them for college.”
That was evident from the jump. Romero and Fale Aviu, the first Batbusters who became Sooners, started as freshmen in 2016, and they became meat-of-the-lineup anchors on OU’s national championship team that season.
Their successes laid the Batbuster pipeline.
Mariah Lopez came to OU a year after Romero and Aviu. Then came Alo. Then Grace Green, who played for one of the Batbuster teams in Northern California. Then, the steady stream of Batbusters became a torrent in 2019 as the Sooners got four alums, Taylon Snow who transferred from Auburn and prep recruits Hansen, Alanna Thiede and Olivia Rains.
In the 2020 class, another big haul — Jennings, May and Zaida Puni.
“I am not the queen recruiter,” Gasso admitted. “It’s the players that … say, ‘Let me tell you what’s happening over there and what I’ve learned and who I become.’ They become your best recruiters.”
And Stith believes the recruiting pitch is easier for the Sooners because the Batbusters have a similar culture. The players are used to high expectations and uncompromising standards.
“It really comes down to an unwillingness to settle for second,” Stith said. “They expect to do well, and they are expected to do well.”
That's the case even though they play for a program with a huge bullseye. Having won dozens of national titles and sent hundreds of players to the college ranks, the Batbusters are arguably the biggest name in club softball.
That draws opponents’ best shot.
“When they go to Oklahoma, the pressure that the program, the tradition and Patty put on them is not a factor,” Stith said. “It doesn’t bother them. They’re ready to compete at that level.
“They thrive in that environment; that’s why it has worked.”
Jennings said, “Having older girls that were coming to OU definitely set a high expectation for us younger Batbuster girls. We kind of use that to motivate us and strive to be like them.”
Jennings was the topic of conversation between Gasso and Stith recently. The freshman is leading the nation in RBI (70), ranks third in homers (22) and was recently named a finalist for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
“I’m trying to get her to crack,” Gasso told Stith. “Not run out a ground ball. Not run out a flyball. Not do something.”
Gasso and Stith laughed.
“She doesn’t do it. Because that’s who she is.”
It’s the kind of thing players learn as Batbusters. The Batbuster Way, if you will.
Thing is, it’s the Sooner Way, too.
Because of that commonality, Stith can look at his players and see the through line to future Sooners. He currently has three players signed or committed to OU, and as he talked one evening earlier this week as players worked at his indoor facility, he spied Hannah Coor, who is already signed with the Sooners.
“She’ll be one of them,” he said. “She’ll be an All-American.”
Lofty expectations, but then, successful is what a vast majority of the Batbusters turned Sooners have been.
“They want to be champions, they want to be great players, and they want to be great people,” Stith said.
“It has been a good fit.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
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