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Can Utah softball become a contender like Oklahoma? Here’s one coach’s dream

Utah’s pitching coach looks to build similar culture to the Sooners, after they clinched their eighth national championship.

A smile grew on Paige Parker’s face, as she watched her alma mater, Oklahoma, parade around blue and white confetti on her TV screen.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Sooners won the Women’s College World Series last week in Oklahoma City, their eighth national championship since 2000. Utah’s pitching coach is ever-familiar with OU’s dynasty. She was a centerpiece for the Sooners in the circle from 2015-18, serving as their pitching ace en route to two national championships and four All-American nods.

To this day, even more than 1,200 miles from Norman, Oklahoma, Parker supports her former team behind the scenes, but — even more — she uses it to influence her coaching style on the Utes.

“The relationships that they build with the players is something I take away,” Parker told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m still really close with coach Patty Gasso. The relationships that she builds and the culture that she instills every year is something I obviously try to take into what we’re doing here at Utah.”

For the second season in a row, Utah secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Utes fell short of advancing to the Super Regionals, however, after being defeated by South Carolina 5-1 in the Durham Regional. In 2023, the Utes advanced to the WCWS for the first time since 1994 before dropping back-to-back games to Washington and future Big 12 foe Oklahoma State.

Those increments of progress to Parker are a sign the Utes are headed in the right direction. She, like the Sooners, wants to create her own history alongside Utes head coach Amy Hogue in Salt Lake City.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Parker said. “Back-to-back years of making it into the NCAA Tournament is a really good start. Making it to the World Series is a goal every single year.

“I’m always instilling in our athletes that work ethic is what it takes to get there and also just the mentality. I think being able to do that these past two years is a really great foundation to build upon, and something that we want to do and continue to do each and every year.”

Parker’s pitching legacy still lives on in the minds of Gasso and former coaches. OU’s head coach uses lessons from Parker in even some of the most heated moments. During the Sooners Game 2 vs. In the WCWS finals, OU’s head coach opted to start Karlie Keeney over WCWS Most Outstanding Player award winner Kelly Maxwell, who had already started two consecutive games before that.

“We knew we couldn’t throw Kelly,” Gasso said after the game. “We just couldn’t. I did that one time with a girl named Paige Parker. I’d never do it again. It wasn’t worth it.”

While Parker’s playing days are over, those lessons she faced in the circle under Gasso are paying dividends for her own coaching now. She is entering her fourth season as Utah’s pitching coach and sixth overall, but her pitching staff is entering familiar territory as the Utes enter the Big 12.

Utah coach Amy Hogue, left, talks to her players during the second inning of an NCAA softball Women's College World Series game against Washington, Friday, June 2, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

Parker pitched against Big 12 competition for four years on the Sooners.

“It’s really exciting transitioning into the Big 12,” Parker said. “In terms of our pitching staff, we’re going to be a lot more youthful next year in our staff, which I’m really excited about. I think we have some really good freshmen pitchers coming in. We have a transfer from Salt Lake Community College that’s going to be a part of our pitching staff this next year. Then we have some returners who didn’t necessarily get a ton of time in the circle this past year.”

The next step in Parker’s mind is increasing fan engagement and receiving more NIL deals for Utah’s softball players through the Utes’ Crimson Collective. In 2023, even more signs of growth occurred when 3,023 fans attended the first-ever Salt Lake City Super Regional at Dumke Family Softball Stadium.

Parker has also pushed for more player-based meet and greets, an event that she says familiarized OU’s fans with their team when she was a player. Nowadays, softball is reaching national audiences, and that trend continued when the WCWS Finals recorded an average of 2 million viewers for each game.

“In 2024 we definitely saw a lot more fan engagement,” Parker said. “People just showed up to our games on a consistent basis. Throughout my time here, I’ve definitely seen that support and number go up every year. … Having been a player and now a coach, I love to see that.”

For the rest of the summer, the Independence, Missouri, native will move her focus to the recruiting trail. Those small efforts — finding hidden gems and players formerly like her — helps Utah’s roster improve year in and year out. Oftentimes, she’ll run into Gasso or former pitching coach Jen Rocha when on the trail.

Those subtle moments remind her how she once helped build a program from the ground up as a player and is now aiming to do it as the Utes’ pitching coach.

For the next couple of days, though, she’ll make sure to text her former coaches.

“I know how busy things are for them after,” Parker said of congratulating her former team. “I kind of let them have a little bit of time, and then I’ll shoot everyone a text. I’ll often see them out on the recruiting trail this summer as well and be able to congratulate them in person.

“The work ethic that they have and the relationships that they’ve built with their players is something that I really aspire to do.”

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