Unseeded, snubbed Texas softball playing with a chip on its shoulder entering WCWS finals

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OKLAHOMA CITY — If we’re going to talk about Texas’ magical run to the finals of the Women’s College World Series and the David vs. Goliath matchup against No. 1-ranked Oklahoma that will begin on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), we need to first rewind the tape a month to the beginning of the NCAA tournament and unravel the slights and snubs that led to this Longhorns team feeling as if it had everything to prove and nothing to lose.

Before Texas could become the first unseeded team to ever reach the WCWS championship series on Monday, coaches and players first had to tune in to Selection Sunday on May 15 and try to make sense of not being awarded a top-16 seed. When their name was announced during the television broadcast, only about half the team clapped, and even then it was less than enthusiastic. The other half looked to be a mixture of surprised and annoyed.

They’d planned on hosting a regional all along. They had 29 total wins over top-100 RPI teams and were the only team to beat Oklahoma during the regular season. But, nope, instead of enjoying home-field advantage in Austin to get the tournament started, the NCAA sent the Longhorns as far away as humanly possible, to Seattle.

So they went clear across the country, and they beat Weber State and skirted elimination during a nail-biter of a game against Washington in which they nearly blew a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning by giving up two runs. Their reward was a trip to the Fayetteville Super Regional, home to No. 4-seeded Arkansas. And after losing the first game to the Razorbacks, Texas shook it off and won back-to-back contests to advance to the WCWS for the first time since 2013.

From the outside, the celebration on the field that day — hugs, happy tears and a Powerade bath — looked normal. But something sunk in later that stuck in players’ craws. Longhorns pitcher Hailey Dolcini was upset enough by it that she unlocked her phone, opened Twitter and took care to tag the NCAA and NCAA Softball accounts in a draft of a message. Then she hit send. Alluding to celebration photos from other super regional sites, Dolcini pointed out how Texas was given, “0 shirts, 0 hats and no ‘ticket punched’ sign.”

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte quote-tweeted Dolcini, apologizing for the lack of WCWS swag and saying he was going to have the NCAA look into what happened. (He later tweeted that a shipping issue caused the gear not making it to Fayetteville in time.)

For Longhorns coach Mike White, the “why” didn’t matter. It was just another thing his team could feed off of. When they weren’t given a top-16 seed, he spun it and told players, “We can be a Cinderella story.”

But this Cinderella is wearing steel-toed boots and spurs. This is a team that’s been fortified by close calls and comebacks and has an edge about itself. How else could it climb back from five runs down as it did against Oklahoma State on Monday night? Yeah, the Longhorns were the beneficiaries of a two-error play in which three runs scored, but luck in sports is earned and not given.

Don’t look past their aggressiveness on the basepath and how they’re able to force the issue with Janae Jefferson creating chaos from the leadoff position. Don’t forget how Dolcini came on in the third inning against the favored Cowgirls, gave up two runs and hung tough, not allowing another runner to cross home plate the rest of the way.

Estelle Czech was ecstatic afterward. She’d thrown a complete-game shutout to keep her team alive earlier in the day and held nothing back when she spoke to reporters just before midnight.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling. And I wouldn’t want to go through it with anyone else. Our pitching staff is stacked. Our hitting is stacked. Defense is stacked. We’re so hyped. No one thought that we would be here, but we proved everyone wrong, and we’re going to play very hard.”

Czech was indeed hyped, so much so that she took a breath and apologized. As it turns out, she did hold something back.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was trying not to use bad words.”

Dolcini, sitting to her right, laughed.

“We’re in a position we can’t lose,” Dolcini said.

Sure, Oklahoma has only three losses all season and a formidable lineup with three players sporting 20-plus home runs: Jocelyn Alo (32), Tiare Jennings (27) and Grace Lyons (22). Texas, meanwhile, doesn’t have a single player with more than a dozen home runs; but what it does have is the ability to play small ball — four players have double-digit stolen bases — and 17 total come-from-behind wins.

The Longhorns don’t seem bothered by the noticeable home-field-like advantage the Sooners enjoy in Oklahoma City, some 20 miles north of Norman. Dolcini said there’s a trick to overcoming it: “We just tell ourselves they’re cheering for us.”

After a month on the road, Longhorns catcher Mary Iakopo said, they’re used to having the crowd against them.

Oklahoma has shouldered the weight of championship expectations ever since the national title celebration ended last year. Coach Patty Gasso said its fans are wonderful and supportive but also a little spoiled. There’s no mistaking the sentiment, she said, that, “You’re the No. 1 team, go win it all. You should win it all because you’re No. 1.”

“I’m like, wait a minute,” she said. “Now, it doesn’t quite work that way.”

Texas doesn’t have to deal with that can of worms. The program has never been to finals of the WCWS, let alone won it all. White has never coached in the finals, either, which can be viewed as a gift or a curse. Players, who have talked about being relaxed and carefree, have leaned into the latter.

They’ve taken heed to their coach’s mantra: “Be dangerous.”

There’s no unknown between the two teams that make up the Red River Rivalry. They’ve already faced one another four times this season, with Oklahoma holding a 3-1 advantage. Texas snapped Oklahoma’s 40-game winning streak in April. Last Saturday, the Sooners got their revenge, beating the Longhorns on the second day of the WCWS.

Dolcini, who started the past two games against the Sooners, said it couldn’t be viewed as a true rivalry until the Longhorns had beaten Oklahoma. The fact that they did, she added, “You can kind of start to call it that again and keep competing with them.”

At the beginning of Tuesday’s news conference, White was asked whether he believed in the concept of playing with house money. He smiled and joked, “When I go to Vegas, I’m a donator.”

The room filled with laughter, and White tried to explain his gambling philosophy, which mirrors his own team’s run in Oklahoma City.

If you make a little money, he said, “You might as well spend it and try to get more.”

As long as Texas has a chip to play — even if the only one left is the chip on its shoulder — don’t count the Longhorns out.

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