May 13, 2023

WCWS: Softball traditions, new superstitions taking over

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When Tennessee catcher Rylie West hit a blast to left field Thursday to give the Vols a 10-2 fourth-inning lead over Alabama, the stadium erupted. But a bigger party started in the dugout.

West was greeted at home plate for the traditional celebration of high-fives. Then, she was outfitted with a baseball cap that says "Mommy" on it, grabbed a baseball bat and swaggered through the dugout, using a bat as a cane as she was showered with prop money.

It was West's fifth homer of the year, and thus her fifth time to walk the gauntlet. But her teammate Kiki Milloy, who has done it 25 times this year, said the celebration is pretty self-explanatory.

"Whenever you pimp a home run, you get to have the big pimping stick and walk through the dugout," she said. "It's just great seeing all of your teammates celebrating you. When someone who doesn't maybe hit as many home runs or hits a home run during a big moment, being able to celebrate with your teammates and throw the cash on them is awesome."

Baseball can have its debates about unwritten rules. At the Women's College World Series, everything is celebrated, from a sacrifice fly to a stolen base to a walk. Or a homer, with dollar bills cascading all around the dugout.

"The money is not real," West said. "I wish it was. But it has all our faces on it, so it's pretty cool. And it gives you power because you get to see everyone's faces flying when someone hits a home run."

It's not just a Tennessee thing. It's a softball thing. There are cheers, chants and dances on seemingly every pitch. No one is above it.

"We honestly just yell like maniacs," Oklahoma outfielder Rylie Boone, the Sooners' resident party-starter, said. "It just bleeds into teammates, and it also bleeds into the game, just being able to show that passion. It's not fake; it's all real."

There are also plenty of props. In softball, any team is one win or hot streak away from a new superstition.

The Oklahoma State Cowgirls, naturally, love their stick horse, named Bullet (along with plenty of feather boas). Stanford has taken to donning a pink cowboy hat called the Ooshka Hat (we'll explain later), with the fun spreading to the fans as well, who are easy to spot in their hats and "Nerd Nation" glasses with tape on the bridge of the nose.

Players and coaches say the raucous scenes are a big part of what is fueling the boom in popularity in softball across the country and on television.

"Softball is a game that's so fast, and milliseconds matter," said legendary Tennessee pitcher Monica Abbott, who won 10 wins in three appearances at the WCWS between 2005 and 2007. "That's why it's so important to have the focus, the energy, the vibe of it to be able to celebrate those little things. Baseball is a game that's a little bit longer and slower, and there's a lot more downtime. Softball, we don't have that luxury.

"If you're not celebrating a walk, if you're not celebrating moving runners or hitting a sac fly or getting a strike, man, that's not cool. We want that, because our game is so fast. And if you miss those little moments, you're gonna miss the big moment."

Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski encourages his players to remember how they found their love for softball in the first place. And that's where Bullet comes in.

"[Gajewski] always talks about playing the sport like you're in your backyard or playing it like the little girl inside you," freshman Tallen Edwards told The Oklahoman last month. "I think the props are bringing that out of us, because we get to be kids again. In the dugout, we literally act like 12-year-olds."

Every April, Gajewski takes his team on a retreat to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, for the Selection Show. Heading into this year's trip, the team had lost 11 of 13. When the team returned, it discovered that local elementary students had redecorated its facility, including the stuffed horse on a stick. It stuck. Then the Cowgirls dominated their regional, outsourcing opponents 20-2.

But on Thursday, in OSU's first game in OKC, Bullet didn't get out of the paddock during a dreary 8-0 run-rule loss to Florida State after a long weather delay. On Friday, the Cowgirls -- and Bullet -- came out of the gate hot in an 8-0 win over Utah.

"[Thursday] was the first time that we really hadn't seen Bullet make an appearance in the last three weeks," third baseman Morgyn Wynne said. "But today, he was out running around making his laps. So I think that that kind of brings the juice that we love in our dugout, and we don't want that to go away again."

Similarly, Stanford rebounded from a disappointing 2-0 loss to Oklahoma on Thursday with a 2-0, one-hit win over Alabama on Friday, its first WCWS victory in 19 years. It's safe to say Ooshka Energy was in abundance, starting from its founder, senior Tatum Boyd, a Texan who just happened to have a pink cowboy hat lying around and would present it to a player who made a big hit or had a big game.

Trying to come up with a name for it, Boyd recalled a cheer her teams did when she was a kid in a 10-and-under league. She couldn't remember the word that came after it, so she made one up.

"We got a rally going, Ooshka, Ooskha. Nothing you can do about it, Ooshka, Ooshka."

"About a week later, someone's like, Well, how do you spell Ooshka?" she said. "So then we figured out how we spell it. O-O-S-H-K-A. And now this same piece of tape has been on this hat for two years."

Boyd's teammate, Kylie Chung, invented her own traditions, befitting a Stanford student who just declared her major in management science and engineering Thursday while she was in Oklahoma City.

"Last year, in Alabama [in the Tuscaloosa Regional], they wouldn't let us bring our cowboy hats. So we had to improvise."

Chung rigged up hats made from cups and athletic tape, and they made their way back to the locker room in California. They did the same at the Pac-12 tournament.

"We're flexible," she said, while Boyd held an entire bag of props after the Alabama win.

Ooshka Energy is so infectious that even the parents in the stands have bought in, buying pink hats and beads of their own. Boyd's mom, Kelly, is often the ringleader.

"They almost are crazier than we are," Chung said.

Tennessee coach Karen Weekly acknowledges that teams never celebrated this way when she played. And she said she struggled with it at first.

"I love it," Weekly said. "The game has changed and evolved. The players have changed and evolved. The more fun they can have, the better. I've changed in that respect. I used to not even like cheering. Then I realized they don't stay in the game if they're not cheering. So whatever kind of keeps them engaged and connected. We're never going to allow anything that is directed at our opponent, but we'll celebrate us all day long."

Several players said a couple of years of pandemic restrictions that limited teams to their own dugouts -- the NCAA lifted restrictions on celebrations at home plate March 31, 2022 -- amped up the camaraderie.

"The dugout tradition started with COVID because we weren't allowed to go out," West said. "The value was just getting to celebrate with your team in the dugout and still have a celebration."

Fittingly, the "Mommy" hat started because baseball shut down the fun.

After Tennessee baseball player Evan Russell bought a hat that said "Daddy" on it, the Vols started passing it around after homers during their 2021 run to the Men's College World Series. The next season, they added a fur coat to the celebration. Then an umpire banned the whole getup last year during a series against Alabama.

"Baseball kind of got their little Daddy hat banned for a second," Milloy said. "So we were like, let's wear the Daddy hat. Then someone made us a Mommy hat."

It's enough to make siblings envious.

"We definitely didn't have anything as cool as the money," said Amirah Milloy, Kiki's older sister who played on three teams that won 50 or more games at Washington, including three WCWS trips 2017-19. "I'm actually jealous. I, myself, want to go through the tunnel with the money."

And despite the Cowgirls getting back on the proverbial horse with a win Friday, junior outfielder Katelynn Carwile said, despite her two hits and three RBIs, that her favorite part of the game was seeing teammate Bailie Runner hit the track.

"Honestly, it's probably the best part of the game watching Bailie run up and down with Bullet," she said.