There are dominant sports franchises, and then there’s University of Oklahoma softball.
The Sooners are unstoppable, even by the standard of a sport that’s seen its fair share of dynasties. The team has won the past two NCAA tournament titles, and it’s a heavy favorite to become the second team ever to three-peat (UCLA was the first, winning three in a row between 1988 and 1990; the Sooners decimated this year’s Bruins squad 14–0 in February). Name a statistical category and Oklahoma probably leads the nation in it: batting average, earned run average, fielding percentage, home runs per game—the Sooners run them all, with 5 of the 25 finalists for 2023 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year on their roster.
“Other athletes here are like, ‘Oh, you’re playing OU—that’s exciting,’ because it’s a rivalry,” says Dariana Orme, a junior pitcher for Baylor. “They don’t understand. It’s like, ‘No, this team doesn’t lose.’ ”
Except when they do: Orme, as it happens, is the only pitcher in the country who can claim a win over Oklahoma this season. Thanks to her gritty performance, her teammate Aliyah Binford’s equally gritty save and Baylor’s tough, relentless offense—capped by a three-run homer from sophomore Shaylon Govan (a Katy, Texas, native)—Baylor took down the Sooners back in February. The victory produced 49–1 Oklahoma’s sole loss of the regular season and the sport’s biggest upset of the year so far.
Now the number fifteen Bears are hoping to channel that same energy as they head into the postseason with an outside shot at making their first appearance in the Women’s College World Series since 2017. First, they’ll likely be forced to go through the Sooners once again as they chase the Big 12 tournament crown.
“Being the only team to have that dub . . . they are an amazing team, everyone knows that,” says Orme, who has a 1.70 earned run average this season with 148 innings pitched. “But we were able to do it then, and we can still take on any team that comes in front of us.”
Baylor had a shot at a similar upset last season, when they found themselves up 1–0 in the seventh inning against the Sooners in Norman—just a couple months before Oklahoma would claim its second-straight NCAA championship. Orme pitched the entire game, getting five strikeouts (including two against Oklahoma’s record-setting slugger Jocelyn Alo, who has since graduated) and holding Baylor’s slim lead until the final out. But the Bears dropped a foul ball that would have ended the game in their favor, and Tiare Jennings (who’s hitting .430 this season) slammed a walk-off three-run homer.
A heartbreaking loss—and yet Orme and the Bears took it as a win, of sorts. “We were able to kind of come together and be like, ‘This is just another game, let’s go play softball,’ ” she says, describing an attitude that’s harder and harder to come by as Oklahoma’s dominance seems to grow ever more suffocating. NCAA softball games end if a team has an eight-run lead after five innings; almost half of Oklahoma’s games this year resulted in run-rule wins for the Sooners. Knowing that their close 2022 loss went seven full innings “took weight off our shoulders,” as Orme put it, “because we knew we could do it.”
“We’re not putting ourselves on a pedestal, saying that we’re an Oklahoma and we deserve that same type of respect,” says Baylor coach Glenn Moore. “But we know that we’ve had many competitive games with them. If you look at the record, it’s horrendous. [Since 2000, Oklahoma is 48–7 versus Baylor.] But if you were to take it game by game, you’ll see a program that doesn’t cower to their reputation.”
The Bears kept that in mind as they took on the sport’s Goliath back in February. “Make sure that they play good ball if they’re going to beat you,” Moore told his team before the game. “Don’t let them come in here with less than their best effort and walk away from here with a victory.”
“Heading out to the field, it was just another day—like, ‘We’re gonna have some fun,’ ” says Orme. A woman and a little boy were watching her warm up that day, and she overheard the woman say, “Get ready, because you’re about to watch two of the best teams in the nation.”
“Hearing that as I was about to take the field, like, already pumped me up,” she says. “I told myself, ‘Whether we win or lose, there are little kids out there that are just happy to be here—let’s put on a show.’ ”
A show is exactly what those kids—and anyone who, like I did, checked the score and tuned in to see if Baylor could hang onto the lead—got to see. Orme was certainly one of the stars, holding the Sooners to one run through four innings and getting out of some serious jams.
“It wasn’t me alone,” Orme insists. She would know, having watched the game “so many times,” as she puts it with a self-deprecating laugh. “We had bases loaded in the first inning, but my team made outstanding plays then and through the entire game,” she adds. “Just being able to trust that my sisters had my back made it so much fun. It’s a lot easier to play that way.”
After she’d thrown 82 pitches through four innings, steadily shutting down the Sooners every time they threatened (which was often), Orme handed the ball over to Binford. Binford allowed two runs—the point at which, usually, an Oklahoma landslide looks imminent.
Then, incredibly, with a smile on her face, Binford held Oklahoma scoreless for the rest of the game. She kept making the Sooners, who rarely miss, whiff ball after ball. “I was just really locked in on my teammates,” she says. “We talk to each other throughout the game. If she’s okay, then I’m okay. It was easy to keep my composure.”
The game ended in the kind of symmetry that only devoted Baylor fans would recognize: a fly ball during Oklahoma’s last out mirrored the one the Bears had dropped in 2022. This time, though, McKenzie Wilson—Orme’s best friend—caught it easily. “I couldn’t even contain the emotions and the joy that came from that out,” Orme says, “because again, it took every single one of us.”
There was a special significance off the field to the win, too. Orme and Binford are both Black, making them part of a severe minority in their sport. Just 5.1 percent of Division I college softball players identify as Black or African American, and Black pitchers make up a small portion of that percentage—just as they do in baseball. Odicci Alexander, the James Madison pitcher who led her unranked team’s upset win over Oklahoma State in the 2021 Women’s College World Series, went viral in part because of the attention her success drew to the sport’s need for greater diversity.
“Even in my decision to play at Baylor, I was trying to focus on how I could show other girls that look like me that it’s okay to play this position—not just play the sport, but be a pitcher in the sport and be good at what you do,” says Orme, who transferred to Baylor from Fresno State in 2021.
“[Aliyah and me] being that one-two punch as Black girls is just so much fun,” says Orme. Unfortunately, Binford injured her knee not long after the big win and ultimately needed surgery, requiring her to sit out the rest of the season.
“I’m so excited for next year, because it really is so much fun being able to show the world,” Orme adds. “You’re gonna get dominated by two very different pitchers. We’re good at what we do, and the color of our skin does not define that—it is the fact that we get to ball out just like anyone else.”
Binford just finished six weeks on crutches and is now back on the practice sidelines. She’s still helping her team from the bench—poring over film and scouting reports and sharing her observations on things the team might be missing on the field. “[Binford’s injury] was a huge blow,” says Moore. “She’s not only a great pitcher, she’s a great hitter and a great third baseman, so we lost a valuable part of our team.”
When Baylor met Oklahoma again last month in Big 12 play, the Bears got swept—though they’re proud to note that they forced Oklahoma to go a full seven innings in each win. “They certainly came in with a little vengeance in mind,” Moore says.
“They have a roster where every single one of them should be starters—which is honestly crazy, when you say it out loud,” Orme adds, laughing. “They are Michael Jordan as a softball team.”
“If they have an Achilles heel, somebody needs to reveal it to the rest of the softball world,” Moore concludes. “There’s no weaknesses in that program, and there has not been any over the last few years.”
Baylor wound up with a losing record in conference play—yet after sweeping then–number five Texas during the last weekend of the regular season, the Bears climbed to number fifteen in the USA Today coaches’ poll. For Baylor, the recognition feels like overdue justice for the Big 12, a conference that often gets overlooked in softball compared to the SEC or even the Pac-12. “Last year, teams with our résumé from other conferences were getting the [NCAA tournament] nod,” says Moore. “So I guess there’s a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to the lack of respect the conference has gotten. I think the last couple of years, it’s been the best conference in the country.” The program has been celebrated internally, though: at the Baylor athletic department’s “Golden Bruiser” Awards last weekend, the softball team took home Play of the Year and Team Performance of the Year for their win over the Sooners.
“This is one of my, if not my very favorite team I’ve ever coached,” says Moore, who is in his twenty-third season with Baylor. “The chemistry is really strong—they share in each other’s pain and each other’s joys. It’s just really a team that is all pulling in the same direction.”
And Moore is confident his team will be ready to play Iowa State Thursday in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament. Orme won’t call it a superstition, but she’ll have a fresh set of acrylic nails on for the postseason. “When I have a fresh set,” she says, “I know that we’re going to be doing pretty well.”