Independence, Missouri, native Paige Parker, a pitcher for the Oklahoma Sooners, is again competing in the Women’s College World Series. Last year, she was named the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s Women’s World College World Series.
Parker, a junior, is making a name for herself beyond Oklahoma.
When Parker was a freshman at Truman High School, the left-handed pitcher was already well-known locally for her abilities. But her talents had also caught on with coaches around the country, including Patty Gasso, the head coach at the University of Oklahoma. Already sold on the Sooners, Parker verbally committed to attend OU.
Think about that: Barely a high school freshman, Parker decided on where she would accept a college athletic scholarship.
“It was a little bit overwhelming because of the fact that you’re thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is has already started.’ For her, it was a huge decision in her life,” says her father, Terry Parker. “For my wife and I, it was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is already happening.’ Or even that it’s happening at all.”
But Terry and Kim Parker were forewarned about their daughter’s big-time potential since she was nine.
Christie Ambrosi, an Olympic gold medalist who runs the area’s only all-girls softball academy in Overland Park, remembers Parker’s pitching lessons.
“It’s funny because when I gave lessons to her when she was little, you just know when somebody’s got it. Not many kids have it, but she had it,” says Ambrosi. “I remember looking at her dad and mom saying, ‘You’re going to see your daughter’s name in lights, ‘Paige Parker,’ one day. I swear it. They just laughed.”
In high school, Parker carried the team on her back. Truman finished as the runner-up in the Missouri state tournament during Parker’s freshman year. Two years later, Truman won the state title. When Parker moved on to Oklahoma, she made an immediate impact by tying an NCAA record with four perfect games as a college freshman.
Paige Parker and her OU teammates didn’t make it to the 2015 Women’s College World Series despite her outstanding freshman season. The Sooners’ season ended against the University of Alabama at the Super Regional, the weekend before the WCWS.
Parker calls it one of the most disappointing moments in her career.
“Thinking about that wasn’t going to define me and I was going to break through from that and just learn a lot of lessons,” Parker said during last year’s WCWS. “Just go on and push forward from that.”
She did. Ironically, the Sooners opened against Alabama in the WCWS last year. They won that game and went on to capture the third NCAA championship in OU softball history.
Gasso cites the disappointing finish at Alabama the year before as a turning point in Parker’s career. “I’ll never forget that moment with Paige at Alabama,” said Gasso after last year’s championship. “Truly, she went from a girl to a woman in one weekend. I knew that things would change for her once she started her sophomore campaign.”
Shortly after Oklahoma’s national title, Christie Ambrosi held a clinic where Parker was one of the instructors. But there was a catch. Ambrosi couldn’t promote Parker’s name in advance because of NCAA rules. So Parker showed up, unadvertised, and Ambrosi remembers the frozen expressions on the young girls’ faces.
“They were like, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s almost like a famous person walking into a restaurant and you’re like, ‘Omigosh, is that…?’ Then you just stop. That’s them. In person,’” says Ambrosi.
It reminded Ambrosi of when she decided to play softball at UCLA in the 1990s. “I remember that feeling when I met Lisa Fernandez for the first time. She was the most famous softball player back in the day. I remember going on my recruiting trip. It was the same thing. It was just like, ‘Omigosh.’ You just feel stupid because you’re stuck,” recalled Ambrosi with a laugh.
Ambrosi and Fernandez ended up being teammates when the U.S. won gold in 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Ambrosi says the Olympic fame benefitted her, “It’s been life-changing. It opened up so many doors and so many opportunities.
Ambrosi hopes the same thing can happen for Paige Parker.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.