Oklahoma softball goes from second fiddle to second to none with Love's Field opening

Every time she drives down Jenkins Avenue on the south end of the University of Oklahoma campus, Marita Hynes can’t help but think about how far the Sooners’ softball program has come.

It’s still hard for Hynes, the former Oklahoma softball coach and senior women’s administrator, to fathom the growth in the program from its days of playing on a municipal field that needed to be cleared of beer bottles and more before each practice or game to Friday’s opening of Love’s Field.

“I can remember being able to count the people in the stands,” Hynes said. “I’d look back and count 40-50 people most of the time in the stands and it was mainly parents and friends of the players. I’m telling you, it’s quite the change.”

The Sooners open their new $48 million home Friday with a doubleheader against Miami (Ohio) and Liberty. This time it might take Hynes a little longer to count the crowd.

Capacity of the stadium is expected to be about 4,200 fans. Marita Hynes Field, where the Sooners played from 1998 through last season, has a capacity of 1,378, though temporary seating and standing room areas made attendance of more than 2,000 possible.

“It’s still a dream, and until the first pitch is thrown, that’s when I will really pinch myself,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso. “I go by it every day. I try to look over and see anything new.”

More: New OU softball stadium, Love's Field, is literally 'state of the art' with its scoreboard

Gasso did recently “sneak” into the stadium to get a view of the field.

“I wasn’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help it,” Gasso said. “And it is an absolute ‘wow factor’ empty. I can’t even imagine when you get excited Sooners fans in there what this is going to be like. I think we all feel a little anxious about it because we just don’t know what it’s going to play like, what it’s going to feel like. We may not know that until the first pitch.”

Like Hynes, Gasso coached the Sooners at Reaves Park, across Jenkins from both Marita Hynes Field and Love’s Field.

The opening of Love's Field is another reminder of just how far OU softball has come since the days of playing at Reaves Park.
The opening of Love's Field is another reminder of just how far OU softball has come since the days of playing at Reaves Park.

Gasso remembers some of her players having to sit in the front row of the bleachers, next to the few fans gathered.

“You can’t even fit a full team in the dugout,” Gasso said.

The teams changed into and out of their uniforms in the restrooms there.

“But no one ever complained,” Gasso said. “They just wanted to play. They don’t care where they changed. They’d go, ‘Let’s go over there and pick up trash before we practice.’ ‘OK, let’s go, grab your trash bags.’

“No one griped about it. It was the way of the world. You know why? Because we loved to play softball.”

More: Big 12 softball power rankings: Baylor joins OU with stellar outing at Mary Nutter Classic

Hynes remembers getting ready to host the Sooners Invitational Tournament at Reaves Park, when snow threatened to throw the schedule off.

Instead of groundskeepers, it was Hynes driving a tractor to try to dry the field. It was the players who rolled snow to the fence so that it could be lifted by forklift over the wall so the field would be playable.

Hynes sometimes kicks herself for not thinking bigger when developing the plan for the stadium that was named after her in 2004.

“I guess I didn’t have enough of a vision,” Hynes said. “Some old lady built what we thought was a state-of-the-art facility back in 1998. I just didn’t have that vision that we would need a bigger and nicer facility. It’s wonderful.

“It’s bittersweet because we spent 26 years I guess over at my field. I wish I had the vision when we built the first field, but I’m just totally excited about them having a great facility.”

Construction continues Wednesday at Love's Field, the new University of Oklahoma softball stadium in Norman.
Construction continues Wednesday at Love's Field, the new University of Oklahoma softball stadium in Norman.

Gasso couldn’t help but think of Hynes and others this week when she reflected on how far the program has come.

“I think of the 2000 team,” Gasso said. “I think of the team that was over at Reaves and never got a locker room. … I think about those athletes that are alums but never got to experience this. So what we’re really trying to do is embrace all of our alumni and say, ‘You’ve all built this.’

“I want to honor those that came way even before me because they played over at Reaves and they got this thing started.”

Plenty of those alumni will be in attendance for Friday’s dedication ceremony outside the stadium, and the opening doubleheader.

Hynes will be there, as well.

While Oklahoma will begin play at the stadium Friday, much work remains to be done. From cosmetic work in the public-facing parts of the stadium to work in team areas, construction will continue.

Hynes never imagined softball would take off the way it has, for Oklahoma and for the state.

But she started seeing a push forward after the Women’s College World Series first came to Oklahoma City in 1990.

That momentum continued to build with Gasso’s Sooners winning their first WCWS title in 2000, then a few years later continued a steady push forward that’s helped lead to regular sellouts, back-to-back-to-back national championships, and now the opening of Love’s Field.

“I could see the growth because of the growth of the World Series and the interest in softball,” Hynes said.

More: Oklahoma softball: How Love's Field stacks up with college softball's biggest stadiums

Friday’s opening is not only a big moment for OU and for softball, but for women’s sports.

“It makes a statement without any of us having to say anything,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “It’s our action. It’s the way we lead, the example we set. That’s what makes the difference.

“We’re not talking about what might be. We’re talking about what is.”

Hynes revels in the success of not only the softball program, but women’s athletics as a whole.

“That pleases me as much as anything,” Hynes said. “I certainly was there the days that it was not very good for women’s athletics.

Hynes does have one regret about the new stadium.

“I wish we had another 2,000 seats,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma softball stadium opening of Love's Field is a major milestone