“Big Play Shay.” You do not get that name for nothing, right? Shay Knighten certainly did not. Year after year, Oklahoma softball would make it to the biggest of stages, and year after year, Knighten would come up clutch. Walk-off home runs in the bottom of the final inning. Three-run round-trippers in the longest game in championship series history.
Again and again, Knighten made great moments from great opportunities, as former US Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks would say.
Here is a look at three of Knighten’s greatest Women’s College World Series moments:
1. Walk-off home run in the bottom of the 8th inning vs. Alabama in 2016
The situation: Oklahoma reached the opening round of the WCWS to face Alabama. The first time the Sooners faced the Crimson Tide that season, Knighten, a freshman, hit a walk-off home run off of Bama ace Alexis Osorio for a statement win. Now they were tied 0-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning on the biggest stage in college softball. Osorio had been dishing out rise balls all game, quieting the Sooner bats in a marvelous pitching duel with Oklahoma’s Paige Parker. Knighten stepped up to bat with two on base and one out, with Kelsey Arnold on second. Sydney Romero, another Oklahoma great, went up to Knighten before she stepped into the batters box and said to “step it up in big games,” as Knighten laughed. Knighten knew Arnold was speedy and that coach Patty Gasso would just “let her go.” Her plan was to put the ball on the ground, hard.
The result: Knighten stepped up to the plate against a familiar face, Osorio, in the circle. Osorio had gotten Knighten earlier in the game on a rise ball, but Knighten knew she needed to get her hands on top. Osorio dished her first pitch, a rise ball, and Knighten drove it out to the opposite field and over the fence. The three-run blast pushed OU into the winners’ bracket at the WCWS. It was her 12th home run of the season and her second career walk-off homer. Oklahoma went on to win the national championship, Knighten’s first title.
2. A game-winning three-run blast in the top of the 17th inning vs. Florida in 2017 – the longest game in championship history
The situation: Oklahoma and Florida were in Game 1 of a best-of-three series for the national championship in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma was facing Florida’s Kelly Barnhill in the circle, the USA Softball Player of the Year. Barnhill started the game and was replaced by Delanie Gourley to start the eighth before returning again in the 16th. The Sooners and Gators were tied at 4 in the top of the 17th inning with runners on first and second base and two outs. The Sooners had been struck out 26 times in the previous 16 innings and Barnhill was looking for the 27th to close the inning.
The result: Knighten stepped up to bat and Barnhill threw a strike on the inside corner, then a ball high and outside. The next pitch was a fast ball right down the middle and Knighten just missed it. On a 1-2 pitch, the All-American pitcher made a mistake, and Knighten made her pay. Knighten threw her hand in the air a moment after the ball left the bat, knowing it was gone without a doubt. The towering three-run home run to left field was her 11th of the season and third WCWS home run of her young career. The Sooners took a 7-4 lead in the top of the 17th, and closed it out at the bottom of the inning to take Game 1. Oklahoma ended up winning its second consecutive national championship.
3. A game-tying home run in top of the 7th inning in Game 2 of the 2019 championship series vs. UCLA – Knighten’s last collegiate at-bat
The situation: The Oklahoma Sooners trailed, 4-3, in Game 2 of the championship series vs. UCLA after suffering a 16-3 loss in Game 1 in the WCWS. Rachel Garcia, the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year (Honda Cup), USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, NFCA National Pitcher of the Year, and more, was in the circle for the Bruins. She was one out away from securing the title in the top of the 7th inning when Shay Knighten came up to bat with two outs. Knighten, a senior, was facing the best pitcher in the country with one more chance to make that big play.
The result: Knighten saw a pitch up in the zone and drilled a two-out solo home run just over the wall in left-center. She rounded the bases with tears streaming down her face as her teammates erupted out of the dugout. The home run tied it at 4, and gave the Sooners the chance to continue their pursuit of the title. The top-ranked, top-seeded Sooners were one out away from forcing extra innings when UCLA’s Kinsley Washington drove in the winning run in the bottom of the seventh. It brought an end to the most successful senior class in OU softball history. Knighten and her fellow senior teammates had won national titles their freshman and sophomore seasons, finished fourth as juniors and second as seniors. Although she did not win the title, Knighten finished her legendary collegiate career on her terms, with her last big play on the biggest stage.