Clemson softball vs. Oklahoma is a clash of new and old. The No. 16-seed Tigers aren’t new to the big stage: They’re playing in their third straight NCAA Tournament and second super regional in a row. But compared to Oklahoma’s 29 consecutive tournament appearances and nearly 50-year history, Clemson’s four seasons of play make it a youngster opposite a softball giant.
Clemson’s rapid rise toward the top of the sport is remarkable, and the people behind that success know it.
“I pinch myself all the time,” Clemson coach John Rittman said. “(I’m) just very blessed and grateful to be able to come to work with the people that are on our staff. We’ve got a great group here, and they’ve worked extremely hard.”
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Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso is the one who has led the Sooners to those almost 30 straight tournaments, including six national championships. She faced a different situation when she took over the program in the mid-90s, but she also oversaw a rapid turnaround.
When she got the job before the 1995 season, the program had been around 20 years. It had never won a conference title, in the regular season or the tournament, and never had been to a national tournament. Gasso took it to new heights, making the NCAA Tournament in her first season, winning the Big 12 in her second and its first national title in her sixth. After almost 30 years, she has almost 1,400 wins with the Sooners.
Gasso has watched from afar as Rittman took Clemson from startup program to annual entrant in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the Tigers and Sooners will meet for the first time.
“(Rittman) is just a really good coach, creates a good environment, goes after the right players, coaches the right way,” Gasso said Wednesday. “He’s done a phenomenal job building that program and will continue to be a team that’s in contention for a national championship.”
Is Clemson softball’s rise unique?
A better comparison for Clemson’s meteoric success is ACC rival Duke. The Blue Devils played their first season in 2018, two years before the Tigers. They reached their first NCAA Tournament in their fourth season of play in 2021, the same year Clemson reached the tournament for the first time in its second season. Like the Tigers, Duke has made the tournament each year since. The Blue Devils are hosting a super regional this weekend as the No. 8 seed.
Clemson outfielder Caroline Jacobsen was part of those early Duke teams before entering the transfer portal as a graduate. She was there for Duke’s early struggles and ultimate breakthrough, and she was playing against Clemson as it rose.
“Coming from somewhere where you’ve been through that part where it’s a struggle, and (seeing) they didn’t really have that much is pretty impressive,” Jacobsen said. “I think what we were all thinking was, ‘They figured it out fast. What did they do to figure it out so fast?’ There wasn’t that big of a learning curve.”
The next step for Clemson is making its first Women’s College World Series. The Tigers have the chance to do it this weekend, but to get there they have to go through the No. 1-seed Sooners, who boast the nation’s best lineup and pitching staff.
Christina Long covers the Clemson Tigers for the Greenville News and the USA TODAY Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at email@example.com.