To all the Vince Young touchdown runs and James Street fourth-quarter heroics, to all the Darrell Royal and Mack Brown moments of glory, and to all those nights when the University of Texas tower blazed orange, we present the latest, greatest addition to Longhorn lore: flipping the bird.

Unless someone has a better explanation for how the UT softball team has revived a disappointing season and carried it to the threshold of what would be one of the most improbable and inspiring national championships in school history, this is what we’re going with.

Ever since Longhorns softball coach Mike White flashed the dirty digit at the umpire who tossed him from a loss to Oklahoma State during a Big 12 tournament game last month, UT has been on a postseason tear.

“He has our back,” senior catcher Mary Iakopo said of her coach. “That’s what that meant to us.”

https://twitter.com/Randy4OU/status/1525229016818540547

Now the Longhorns have made it to the best-of-three championship round of the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) for the first time. Wednesday’s game one, in Oklahoma City, will feature a familiar foe in the opposing team’s dugout: the Oklahoma Sooners.

When asked how the Longhorns would respond to all those screaming OU fans that are likely to pack the place, Texas ace Hailey Dolcini said: “We just tell ourselves they’re cheering for us.”

Oklahoma is favored—big-time. Texas is the first unseeded team to advance to the championship round in WCWS history. The Longhorns were such a long shot that, well, the NCAA wasn’t prepared for UT to make the season-ending softball tournament. Texas was the only one of eight teams not to be handed a “Ticket Punched sign and commemorative hats after clinching a berth. The apparel was stuck in a warehouse in Memphis. Or so they were told.

“We smelled a hint of disrespect,” Iakopo said. Dolcini unleashed the following tweet:

The Sooners are 57–3, held the number one ranking from wire to wire this season, and don’t hide from the Best Team Ever label. The Sooners won four of five against the Longhorns this season, including a 7–2 victory on Saturday at the Women’s College World Series that was the first women’s college softball game to be nationally televised on ABC. Those who tuned in may have discovered for the first time a compelling product, played at a brisk pace and featuring high stakes, electric personalities, and major expectations.

Texas is riding high thanks to an assortment of players who have been at their best on the sport’s biggest stage. Outfielder Courtney Day has homered in three straight WCWS games. Pitcher Estelle Czech has a 1.11 ERA in three appearances. Texas has put constant pressure on opponents with at least one runner on base in 25 of 33 innings at the WCWS. Freshman third baseman Mia Scott has 26 stolen bases this season, and senior second baseman Janae Jefferson has 39 NCAA tournament hits, a Texas record.

The Sooners have been such a softball powerhouse this season that their three defeats were news, especially the first one. Oklahoma opened the season with a record 38 consecutive victories before losing to Texas on April 16. Some of the Sooners found the Longhorns’ celebrations to be excessive that night.

That was OU’s postgame theme after Saturday’s 7–2 win over the Longhorns. “We had something to prove,” sophomore infielder Tiare Jennings said. “No team beats us twice.” Well, Texas will have to beat the Sooners twice more if the Longhorns are to somehow complete their improbable journey and hoist the national championship trophy.

And if they pull it off, then every coach, manager, and team captain worth his salt will be studying Mike White’s middle finger. Years from now, when future Longhorns fans look back at this softball season, they probably won’t be able to explain how it happened.

Sports can be like that. That’s why we love competition and why we’re forever drawn to it. That’s also why every player, coach, fan, mascot, and hot-dog vendor believes in possibilities, even the most improbable and far-fetched of them. The Longhorns are a reminder of what can happen when a team keeps plugging along, even when things aren’t going well and when hardly anyone outside of the locker room believes in the group.

Take a bow, Mike White, you sly devil. Amid a season when Texas simply didn’t seem good enough to compete with the country’s best, your middle finger changed everything.

The Longhorns are 9–3 since White told that umpire what he thought of him after White was ejected from a Big 12 tournament loss to Oklahoma State. UT has reached the championship series by winning six elimination games in the WCWS.

Along the way, Texas has gotten a string of lights-out performances from its starting pitchers, most notably Dolcini. Sophomore Sophia Simpson delivered a complete-game shutout with the season on the line in a super-regional final against Arkansas. Czech held Oklahoma State scoreless in the first game of Monday’s doubleheader. When Czech stumbled in the winner-take-all second game, Dolcini delivered five season-saving innings of relief.

Nothing the Longhorns have done was more impressive than rallying from a 5–0 deficit in that second game on Monday. Day’s three-run homer in the fourth inning got the Longhorns back in the game, and then, with the season on the line, Texas capitalized on a pair of Oklahoma State errors to score three runs in the fifth and win 6–5.

White has mixed and matched lineups, fielding four different starters at first base, five at third, seven in left field, and nine in right. Along the way, he constructed a team that is deep, resourceful, and poised. If teams are judged by how they perform with the lights bright and the stage large, Texas has passed every test. 

This Longhorns team does not resemble the one that suffered a 17–3 loss to Baylor on May 7 in its penultimate regular-season game. That was the most lopsided loss in school history, and things were about to get worse. In the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, the Longhorns were on their way to a 6–1 loss to Oklahoma State when White got himself thrown out of that game, and on his way off the field, he turned and flashed an umpire the old middle-finger salute.

“You don’t want to have distractions, and I caused a distraction,” he later said

Or perhaps that’s exactly what Texas needed. Much wringing of hands followed. White was reprimanded by the Big 12—not that!—and then came all sorts of apologies. What White’s gesture did—whether or not he expected it to have this effect—was redirect the Longhorns’ focus. Instead of talking about a disappointing season, the players were asked about their coach.

The Longhorns failed to get one of sixteen regional host spots in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead, they were sent two time zones away to Seattle. Players later said that being sent away from home—where it’s just players and coaches together, with fewer distractions—turned into a certain kind of advantage.

“Even us not hosting a regional, I honestly think it played out in our favor,” Texas second baseman Janae Jefferson said.

Beating a 57–3 juggernaut twice in three games might seem nearly impossible. It should seem that way, because it is. But just about everything Texas softball has accomplished in the weeks since White flipped off that umpire has seemed almost as unlikely as beating Oklahoma for the title would be. So why not flip off the odds one more time and see if the Longhorns can take home this trophy?