Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new, $47.1 million ‘palace’, got the opening day it deserves

At long last, the Sooners have landed in their new home. On Friday, Love’s Field got an introduction worthy of the occasion.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Mar 1, 2024, 9:43pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Mar 1, 2024, 9:43pm CST

(Eli Lederman’s “OU Week in Review” newsletter hits inboxes every Saturday morning. Subscribe here.)

NORMAN — The crowd was seated well before 11 a.m. Friday morning.; a sea of administrators, donors, fans, coaches and current and former Sooners on hand for a formal dedication of Love’s Field, Oklahoma’s new softball home on South Jenkins Avenue. 

Among them, in a crimson and cream letterman jacket, was Jocelyn Alo. 

The two-time OU national champion sat alongside the 2024 Sooners, a group that includes seven of Alo’s former teammates. When the ceremony called for cheers — and there was ample opportunity for them — Alo’s was one of the loudest voices in the crowd. Later, speaking from a concourse inside the new stadium, the slugger who became the NCAA’s all-time home runs leader during her five seasons at OU, summed up her feelings in those moments as “pure joy”.

“Joy for Coach (Patty) Gasso. Joy for our program. Joy for our alumni. Joy for the school,” Alo said. “We finally made it. Patty finally got the palace she deserves.”

At long last, Gasso and the Sooners have the stadium they deserve. Love’s Field opened Friday with 4,450 in attendance to see the No. 1 team in the nation christen its new field. And once the morning’s festivities turned to the afternoon doubleheader, the stadium got the opening day it deserved; one befitting the $47.1 million ballpark, the largest on-campus softball venue in the nation. 

“It feels surreal,” Alo said before first pitch. 

Minutes later, OU’s Nicole May fired her first pitch from the circle and the story of Love’s Field began with a scare. 

Miami (Ohio) arrived in Norman having hit 34 home runs in 11 games this spring. On Friday, the RedHawks launched five more, dragging the Sooners into a nine-home run, scoring bonanza, capped with a walk-off blast from the bat of Sooners co-captain Kinzie Hansen to secure OU a 9-7 win.

Seven innings into its history, Love’s Field officially had its first “moment”.

“The Lord made that game to be the way it was to break in the stadium,” Gasso said. “It was a thriller. Fans were in it. There was a lot of hitting. A lot of dramatics.”

Game 2 with visiting Liberty would have felt more familiar to the home crowd. “We were much more ourselves in the second game,” Gasso said afterward. OU’s fastest win of the season came with 5.0 innings of scoreless, two-hit work from Kelly Maxwell and Alynah Torres’ two-RBI, game-ending double that sealed the Sooners’ seventh run-rule win of 2024. 

By day’s end, OU was 16-0, the program’s NCAA record win streak stood at 69 games and the Sooners were formally settled into their new home. Like most move-in days, the occasion — which began well before the 11 a.m. ceremony and ended at 6:45 exactly — proved exhausting.

“It was tough,” Gasso said. “I’m going to be honest. It’s no excuse — I think (the players) would tell you that. But the expectations, the anxiety, the build-up of it all. Then we’re out and we’re going through the gathering of people and the whole ceremony … it’s a little emotional. It was a lot. It felt like a lot of chaos. Good chaos. But I don’t know that we knew that it would drain us that much. 

“The team made a comment that it felt like we were playing at an away field. But it just felt so different.”

A very different sort of game day began in the morning with a well-attended dedication outside of Gate 1. 

University president Joe Harroz’s speech focused on the softball program’s half-century journey from Reaves Park to Marita Hynes Field to the program’s new home. Athletic director Joe Castiglione noted the count of 1,110 donors from 38 states who funded the project with more than $37 million. Jenny Love Meyer, the principal donor to the stadium project, outlined her family’s close relationship to the program as a driver of their support.

“This has been built on the shoulders of people who believed something special could happen,” Castiglione said. “And today, it’s happened.”

Said Gasso: “This is the final piece to complete the OU softball program. This is it right here. And everyone is going to follow the lead.”

The energy flowed from the outdoor concourse into the stadium before the 2 p.m. first pitch, but gave way to a sluggish Sooners’ start. OU landed in an early 3-0 hole after May conceded home runs to the third and fourth Redhawks batters she faced, and the Sooners entered the fifth inning trailing 3-1 after stranding five runners over the initial four frames.

“We definitely felt like we were the visiting team for a second,” said Torres, who drove in three runs across the doubleheader. “We had to throw the balls against the wall and the nets and kind of feel it out, which is really not a home team thing. Once we got comfortable, as you can see, we were just fine.”

Comfort came in the later innings, beginning with Ella Parker’s RBI sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth and Alyssa Brito’s game-tying shot into the left field seats that drew the Sooners level at 3-3 in the fifth. OU’s first lead inside its new ballpark came an inning later when Riley Ludlam’s RBI single and back-to-back home runs from Jayda Coleman and Kasidi Pickering gave the Sooners a 7-3 advantage.

The offensive turnaround, Hansen explained afterward, came with a nudge from hitting coach JT Gasso. 

“He said, ‘Be you,’” Hansen said. “Like let’s be us. Be you. Be who you are. This is the same game that we’ve been playing whether it’s at Reaves or Marita or at Love’s Field. It’s all the same game.”

The sixth-inning scoring spurt sent right-hander Karlie Keeney back to the circle into her third full inning of work with a four-run lead. The gap vanished quickly on three-straight Miami home runs that stunned the crowd at Love’s Field and knotted the game again at 7-7 in the top of the seventh.

SJ Geurin replaced Keeney and navigated the Sooners out of the inning, setting the stage for Hansen’s latest dose of homefield heroics.

Hansen’s last official at-bat in Norman before Friday was her game-tying home run against Clemson in last spring’s NCAA Super Regional, OU’s final game at Marita Hynes Field. Exactly two hundred and seventy-nine days later, Hansen prompted an even louder roar from the home faithful when she launched a 2-2 pitch into the bleachers.

“Our pitchers — they never do that. They never give up home runs like that. They never give up runs and walks and things like that,” Hansen said. “So for me going into my last at bat, I was thinking about Nicole and Keeney and SJ and how they were kind of going through the trenches a little bit.”

A win in walk-off fashion marked a proper start for a proper softball stadium. As Hansen rounded third with her teammates waiting 60 feet away, the players explained, Love’s Field firmly felt like home.

For Gasso, that realization came sooner than expected. 

As the Sooners prepared to unveil the stadium this week, Gasso said it wouldn’t be until the first pitch that the dream of the ballpark she helped get built truly felt real. Instead, that sense arrived for Gasso Thursday night as OU took one last look at the new field. 

Rain was falling and there was a tarp over the infield. Gasso was peering out from the concourse when she spotted Sarah Zeinalpour, a key member of the stadium’s project management team, nearby.

When I saw her we both kind of hugged and we both kind of cried. Because I was looking up at the lights on the stadium and it was just a wow moment. And it took that moment to make that happen.”

Gasso felt settled in by Thursday night. On Friday, the players needed a few innings to get there. 

As of March 1, 2024, the Sooners are finally home.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at eli@selloutcrowd.com.

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