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How Oklahoma City, home of the Women's College World Series, became the center of the softball universe

Recent expansion allows for 13,000 fans per session at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium for the Women's College World Series. John Fause/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Kinsley Washington's time in Oklahoma City is still a bit of a blur. Winning the Women's College World Series will do that.

The UCLA infielder remembers how she felt in the batter's box at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City last June, a runner on second with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning and the game still tied. But the actual images -- the ball leaving the pitcher's hand, the swing that sent it arcing gently into left field, Jacqui Prober racing around third and sliding home ahead of the throw -- those moments mix together like the sky and ocean converging at the horizon.

Less difficult to recall is the wave of Bruins rushing toward her in the aftermath, a surge of blue and white that washed over her somewhere around second base.

"I see Kelli Godin and Rachel [Garcia] storming toward me with the rest of the team behind them," Washington recalled. "They tackled me and I just remember everyone's weight on my body as I'm being smushed into the ground. At first it was like 'Oh my gosh, this is so great.' Then it was like 'Wait, I can't breathe. Wait, I'm being smushed and my neck hurts.'

"It was a lot of those feelings, but it was really fun. I would do it all again in a heartbeat."

The entire softball community feels the same way right about now. To be sure, most don't know the feeling of delivering a walk-off hit to win a national championship. But they know what Oklahoma City feels like this time of year. And as the final days of May pass without the Women's College World Series, they know it isn't just a place where champions are crowned. It is a place that has become synonymous with a sport.

"Oklahoma City is not a destination," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "It's a mindset."

There are other locations that transcend mere geography in women's sports. Wimbledon is more than part of southwest London to tennis players of all genders; Manhattan Beach, California, and beach volleyball no less linked. Even places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, in women's basketball and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in women's soccer merit pilgrimages because of a program's historical prominence. Oklahoma City stands alone even still. It doesn't share the spotlight with a men's event. It isn't about one team.

The Women's College World Series came to Oklahoma City as an event for and about female athletes. It took root and grew because of those athletes. It continues to break records for attendance and television ratings through those athletes. It matters because they made it matter.

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Women's College World Series cancellation ends streak for event's biggest fans

In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 'regulars' at the Women's College World Series can only reminisce about their annual treks to Oklahoma City.

So when Texas All-American Miranda Elish played in a travel ball tournament in Oklahoma City while still in high school, she already knew the surroundings well. Growing up in Indiana, not the center of the softball universe, she watched the World Series every year on television. She saw home runs sail into the same outfield bleachers. She saw the seemingly endless rows of seats that climbed out of the picture behind home plate. She watched Oklahoma City produce legends each and every year. Women she wanted to be like. When watching Tennessee's Monica Abbott mow down batters one year, Elish was mesmerized by the tall lefty's distinctive windup.

"I remember thinking 'OK, if I do her motion I'm going to throw really hard,'" Elish said. "So I went into the basement and told my dad to get the radar gun out. He was radar-gunning me throwing into a net and I remember I threw one like 2 mph harder than I usually did, so I did Monica's motion for a season or two."

A few years later, playing for Oregon at the time, Elish walked out on the same field and started a Women's College World Series game.

"I have never felt so amped on the softball field before in my life," she recalled of that game against Baylor. "I had the worst nerves that I've ever felt pitching. I mean, it's a big moment, but I was making it a lot bigger than it was. I had to get out of my own head and settle in."

Hers is hardly the first generation to grow up with that sense of Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma's capital was the administrative center of softball before the Women's College World Series arrived. Now known as USA Softball, and the sport's domestic governing body for nearly a century, the Amateur Softball Association relocated from New Jersey in 1966. Hall of Fame Stadium opened two decades later, the complex containing a main stadium and side fields still technically owned by the city and leased to USA Softball (minus the organization's offices, which USAS owns).

The complex wasn't built for an NCAA event that was only a few years old at the time, but it made sense for a local sports association to bid on a college championship to add to the growing list of amateur and international men's and women's events held there.

So after spending six years in Nebraska (in an Omaha park several miles from baseball's Rosenblatt Stadium) and two years in California, the Women's College World Series moved to Oklahoma City in 1990. With the exception of 1996, when it was played in Georgia at the venue that would host the Olympics later that year, it has been in Oklahoma City ever since.

There was women's softball history before there was college softball. There was a Women's College World Series before the NCAA sponsored the sport. There were World Series before Oklahoma City. All of that history shouldn't be forgotten. But in Hall of Fame Stadium, with its long, sweeping grandstand and room for additional outfield bleachers, it finally had its own stage.

Patrick Murphy has been to the Women's College World Series 12 times in 22 seasons as Alabama coach. But his first trip came when he was a Southwestern Louisiana assistant coach in 1993 -- a time in the sport when he and head coach Yvette Girouard did field maintenance, washed the uniforms and drove the teams vans back in Louisiana. The practice fields in Oklahoma City still sit beyond left field of the main stadium, hidden from view by a hill that rises in the direction of the left field foul pole. Walking off one of the practice fields and looking down at Hall of Fame Stadium as they waited for their team's turn to play back in 1993, Murphy and Girouard stopped in their tracks.

"We get to the top of that hill and there is a game being played and it's just like, 'Oh, my God, this is unbelievable,'" Murphy recalled. "You've reached this pinnacle. It was like this combination of Christmas day and the 'Wizard of Oz,' all those feelings inside."

The attendance for that entire Women's College World Series was 21,963. It was a record at the time. It was also fewer people than likely would have passed through the gates on opening day alone this year -- a recently completed stadium expansion having added 4,000 permanent seats and increasing capacity to around 13,000 for each session of games.

The stadium is several miles from the heart of downtown. Other than a horse track, a science museum and the zoo, there isn't much within even ambitious walking distance of the facility, leaving day-of-game festivities largely confined to parking lot tailgates. But an influx of more than 80,000 people in a week -- potentially 100,000 with the expansion -- makes its mark even downtown. The Associated Press reported that the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau projected the event would bring in more than $23 million for the city this year.

The Women's College World Series can't take credit for the development of the downtown-adjacent entertainment district over the past two decades -- the NBA's Thunder arriving and Bricktown Ballpark opening as home of the city's Triple-A baseball team are more significant sporting factors. But it doesn't hurt that for at least one week a year, so much of the softball world takes the same stroll along the district's canal, stays in the same hotels and eats at the same restaurants.

An All-American catcher at Florida, having earned the same distinction at Minnesota before transferring, Kendyl Lindaman made her first trip to the WCWS last year with the Gators.

"It just surprised me how Oklahoma City brings in so many fans, even if their teams aren't in the World Series," Lindaman said. "We were walking up and down the streets, just in our normal street clothes and not even wearing anything that says Florida, and people still know who you are and come up to you."

The familiarity is part of the experience. People go to the Final Four. They return to the Women's College World Series. Alabama teams have dined at the same restaurant on the shores of Lake Hefner for two decades -- except for the year when it got hit by lightning in one of the ferocious storms that are often also part of the WCWS week. When able to escape the team training table, Michigan's Hutchins still goes to the same Mexican restaurant whenever she's in town. From the somber power of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, on the site of the 1995 bombing, to more idiosyncratic experiences, like the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, fans and teams alike follow the same traditions years after year.

"It might be one of my downfalls," Murphy said, "but we let them enjoy the entire experience because that's what it is all about. I want them to see the memorial. I want them to see everything that Oklahoma City has to offer -- go take a boat ride downtown and all of it."

As Washington suggested with commendable diplomacy, it is not necessarily a city many would have reason to visit without softball. It isn't near the population centers on the East Coast. It isn't right next door to California, still the source of so much softball talent. It isn't in the SEC footprint. The Women's College World Series isn't here because it's especially convenient. It's here because it works.

"I like the contrast it has with L.A. because it seems very untouched in a way," Washington said. "You can drive and the road is just a stretch of land. And on either side you see just tons and tons of grass, beautiful trees, beautiful sunsets, which is something if you were driving on the 405 in L.A. would not happen at all."

Like Washington and Elish, Lindaman's Women's College World Series debut did not mark her first trip to Hall of Fame Stadium. The Iowa native came to Oklahoma City for a youth tournament more than a decade ago and was able to get tickets for the World Series taking place at the same time.

"It was just something I had never experienced before, having that many people watching a softball game," Lindaman said. "I was at the top of the bleachers in the outfield -- it's not the best seat you could find, but I was just happy to be there."

Although locals will assure you it is nothing compared to the blast furnace of July and August, Oklahoma City in early June is not always an especially agreeable climate. Few places more so than the metal bleachers that offer no respite from the sun.

"In the middle of the day it was really, really hot," Lindaman said. "But I was just so excited that I wouldn't let my parents go stand in the shade or let them leave. I wanted to be there and I wanted to watch the game."

She didn't remember which team won the title that season. It hardly even matters.

Softball isn't just missing out on a championship this week. It is missing out on Oklahoma City. It is missing out on a chance to visit a place it transformed into home.

A place that Washington and so many women before her made synonymous with a sport.