Oklahoma freshman Tiare Jennings sent a two-run shot over the right-field wall, allowing senior Giselle “G” Juarez to finally relax.
Juarez, Oklahoma’s opening-day starter in the circle, had yet to pitch in almost a year after suffering a season-ending bicep injury early in OU’s 2020 season.
The two-time All-America selection naturally had nerves in her first game back, a late-morning tilt against Texas-El Paso at the Miners’ home park. And Jennings’ first-inning blast was the relief Juarez needed as she awaited her first start.
“I was like, ‘Oh cool, we have two [runs], I can relax and take that nervousness out, it’s been a while, [I’m] all good now,’” Juarez recalls thinking last week.
Following four more OU home runs, Juarez had to warm-up a second time as her teammates matched the NCAA single-inning record for home runs with five. And by then, the pressure was off and Juarez could play with a 13-run advantage as she eased back into game speed.
The Glendale, Arizona, native was just as strong in her season debut as OU’s offense. She struck out six batters over three innings and didn’t allow any hits or walks in the process.
“It’s been a long road for Giselle,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. “She’s had some experience with frustration [through her injury]. She’s probably had a little depression as anyone would to watch her teammates on the field and feeling helpless. … She had to be very patient. She’s followed the protocols that the doctors have given her very well.”
Gasso wasn’t certain she would get to see her 2019 ace in the circle again following her injury and if the NCAA would allow spring sport student-athletes to return for an extra year after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out most of last season.
Juarez saw the mound sparingly in five appearances last year, throwing just under seven innings and not pitching any more than two frames per game.
Her last meaningful pitches came as OU’s starter in the 2019 Women’s College World Series finals against UCLA. She finished the campaign with a 28-4 record.
If the Sooners (4-0) are to return to Oklahoma City this spring, Juarez is likely to be a major reason why again. She still is trying to find her groove, however, and avoid the pressures of living up to her 2019 performance.
“I can’t really compare myself to like ’19 me, and so just trying to adapt and get used to what I can do, just getting back into the swing of things because it’s been so long since I’ve pitched has been huge,” Juarez said.
“Just getting used to it, and obviously when I came back and faced our hitters, it felt good to face them and know that, hey, I’m facing one of the best offensive teams in the country, so to face that and that kind of competition just kind of put me at ease as well.”
Seeing Juarez pitch put her head coach at ease as well.
She saw Juarez lead the bullpen while sidelined with her injury. and to watch her back on the mound was the the highlight of last weekend, the OU coach said.
“She looked pretty dominant, and she’s probably still not maybe halfway, maybe 60% of her best,” Gasso said. “So she still has a lot of work to do. I think she was thrilled just to be out there and feeling pain-free. That was the most important thing.”
Juarez and the Sooners resume play in Texas this weekend, facing Texas-San Antonio and Sam Houston State in Huntsville on Friday and a doubleheader against Houston on Saturday.