OU was behind the eight-ball early in its do-or-die game against UCLA on Saturday night in the Women’s College World Series.
But Juarez worked out of a difficult situation in the third, keeping the Sooners from further damage not only in that inning but the rest of the way, giving OU’s high-powered offense time to break through against Rachel Garcia, the two-time national player of the year.
And OU’s offense did that handily, coming from behind for a 10-3 win over the Bruins at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium to keep the Sooners’ season alive.
OU (52-3) now advances to take on James Madison, the team that sent the Sooners to the loser’s bracket with a 4-3 eight-inning win in Thursday’s opener, at noon Sunday.
OU would need to beat the Dukes in that game and again in the if-necessary game scheduled for 6 p.m. to advance to the championship series. A James Madison win in either game would end the Sooners’ season.
UCLA’s season ends 47-7.
Juarez’s day was already spectacular before she entered the circle with a runner on second and no outs and OU trailing UCLA 3-0.
She went nearly the distance earlier in the day in an 8-0 win over Georgia that made Saturday night’s performance possible.
Before Saturday, Juarez’s role in the Sooners’ staff had diminished in the postseason, with May and Shannon Saile lining up as the top two options.
But coming into the week, Gasso insisted Juarez looked sharp in the leadup to the WCWS.
Then she rewarded Gasso’s confidence.
Juarez set the tone for the game against the Bruins right off the bat, coming in with a runner on second and no outs, which quickly turned into runners on the corners and one out before the redshirt senior escaped without further damage.
That was helped along by Jayda Coleman’s quickness in center field along with some questionable baserunning by the Bruins.
Anna Vines lined hard toward Coleman, who dove and appeared to snag the ball initially before it popped loose.
The umpire ruled Coleman hadn’t completed the catch, but the Sooners’ center fielder popped up quickly and fired to second for the force for the second out. The runner stayed put at third, allowing Juarez to get out of the inning by striking out the next batter.
“They are a great-hitting team all the way through,” Gasso said. “You could feel that they were scoring the ball really well early in the game. So we needed some kind of relief, some kind of momentum just in the way of a stop.
“It just brought a little bit of hope, like we are still in the game.”
The Sooners turned that speck of momentum into a snowball, scoring a pair in the bottom of the third with the help of Jocelyn Alo’s first career triple.
That snowball then grew into an avalanche in the fourth as the Sooners took advantage of a pair of infield errors before Tiare Jennings tied the 20-year-old national record for RBIs by a freshman with a two-run double to give her 90 RBIs for the season.
OU added one in the fifth and five in the sixth to turn a tight game into a blowout.
Mackenzie Donihoo hit home runs in each of the last two Sooners’ at-bats, including a two-run shot in the sixth to cap the scoring.
Donihoo hit three home runs on the day.
The last time Juarez faced UCLA was in the second game of the 2019 championship series, which ended with Garcia throwing a complete game in a 5-4 national-championship clinching win.
“A little bit of redemption,” Gasso said. “I know her season in 2019 ended with a couple tough outings against UCLA so this was, I think, something a little personal to her as well.”
Juarez battled fogging goggles throughout the game, as the humid Oklahoma air, following hard rain that delayed the start of the game by more than two hours forced her to take frequent breaks to wipe away the moisture.
Instead of being a distraction, though, Juarez appeared to benefit from the fogging.
“I was just trying to take my time in the circle, like if I needed a second to wipe them off, taking that second for myself,” Juarez said. “I had a couple times where I couldn’t see and I looked at the batter and was like, ‘Woof.’ So just trusting my pitch if I couldn’t see and taking my time in the circle to make sure I was good.”
Juarez finished the day having thrown 10 ⅓ scoreless innings.
“The mental switch has been tremendous for her,” Sooners catcher Kinzie Hansen said. “She came out on fire, and behind the plate, the battery today, it was unreal. It was something that I had yet to experience, and today I loved it.”