Inside Oklahoma softball’s Jordy Bahl’s ‘whole other level of greatness’

FEW THINGS IN softball have the ability to surprise Patty Gasso anymore.

In her 28 years at Oklahoma, she has won five national championships and amassed more wins than anyone in Big 12 history. She has recruited and developed 20 first-team All-Americans, including stars like Keilani Ricketts and home run champ Jocelyn Alo. But a 2019 trip to a travel ball tournament in the Midwest would challenge the Hall of Fame coach’s idea of first impressions.

Jordy Bahl, a junior from outside Omaha, Nebraska, had been committed to the Cornhuskers since she was in the eighth grade. But the right-handed pitcher had recently reopened her recruitment, and everyone wanted a piece of her.

Gasso saw Bahl’s tape and is interested, too. Some pitchers have velocity and some have spin, but she has both. Plus, she can locate her pitches really well. One moment, she’ll touch north of 65 mph with her fastball, and the next she’ll throw a 50 mph drop ball that Gasso says “just falls off the table.”

Gasso found a spot in the parking lot at the softball complex, which is filled with out-of-state license plates. She guesses every top-25 program is here. But she steered clear of the crowd of coaches and assistants, opting for a quiet spot near the visitor’s bench to watch Bahl pitch, which began in an unusual way.

Instead of heading straight into her windup, Bahl walked methodically around the pitcher’s circle, pacing. Occasionally, she looked over at the batter with what can only be described as an unwelcoming expression on her face.

Then, only when she’s good and ready, she stepped to the rubber. Her eyes narrowed, staring straight ahead at her catcher’s mitt.

Gasso sized her up: 5-foot-7, lean, clearly no stranger to the gym. She felt a different energy emanating from her.

And, frankly, it comes across all wrong.

“You’re cocky, aren’t you?” Gasso thought to herself.

It isn’t until Bahl starts firing strikes across the plate that Gasso told herself to shut up because this is one of the best prospects she has ever seen. Letting her misgivings fall by the wayside, she noticed how Bahl’s teammates respond to her, feeding off her competitiveness.

These aren’t theatrics she’s witnessing. It wouldn’t be so intimidating if it wasn’t real. Bahl has an honest-to-goodness mental edge, Gasso says, that amplifies her raw talent.

Watching her operate, an image comes to mind of a lion stalking its prey.

“After one inning, you’re like, ‘What am I thinking?'” Gasso says. “This is a whole other level of greatness. It’s just her way of doing it. You just have to watch it and then get over it quickly and go, this is elite status right now.”

How’s this for elite: In May 2020, Bahl will win the first of two consecutive Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year awards. During that time, she’ll post a 54-0 record and a 0.13 ERA for Papillion-La Vista High School. In 276 innings pitched, she’ll allow only 54 hits and strike out 615 batters. She’ll also hit 42 home runs, earning the title of No. 1 prospect in the class of 2021.

Gasso wanted Bahl to come to Oklahoma. She’ll host her personally on an official visit, giving the full tour and sales pitch. Bahl, who eventually signs with the Sooners, was attracted to the coaching staff’s track record of success and the ability to walk in as a freshman and compete at a high level. It’s her dream to win a Women’s College World Series, she says, “and not just one.”

Gasso can sense what the future holds. There’s greatness in Bahl, of course, but there’s also a polarizing quality. Gasso believes every little girl is going to want to be like Jordy Bahl … and everyone who roots against Oklahoma is going to loathe the way she can come across as arrogant.

During the offseason prior to Bahl’s arrival, Gasso met with some upperclassmen and delivered a warning: “Get ready and don’t judge because the first thing you might do is that.”

Trust me, Gasso says, she’s special.

“You are going to fall in love with this kid.”

IT’S A WARM evening in late March in Lexington, Kentucky, and Bahl is in trouble. The fans inside John Cropp Stadium are on their feet and growing louder by the second. This is her first true road game and her first time in front of a hostile crowd. And after being spotted a 1-0 lead in the first inning against the No. 8 Wildcats, she’s on the edge of disaster.

First, she gave up a single through the left side, which was annoying but no big deal. But then she fielded a bunt and made a throwing error. Then came another bunt and another error, only this time she couldn’t field the ball cleanly and loaded the bases with no outs.

The steady simmer she usually competes with turns into a rolling boil, prompting a quick timeout and a visit from Gasso, who approaches the circle projecting a sense of calm.

Sure, this is a big crowd and things are going against you, Gasso tells her star freshman, but that tension you feel is completely normal.

“It happened,” Gasso says. “It’s over. Now we’re going to work out of it. So get that out of your mind quickly.”

Gasso returns to the dugout and watches Bahl transform before her eyes. Frankly, she’ll recall later, it was intense.

“She goes to another space now where she’s mad at herself,” she says. “And she is determined not to give up anything.”

Two pitches later, Bahl induces a groundout, cutting down the runner at home. Then, over the course of the next seven pitches, strikes out both batters swinging.

Bahl rips off her mask as she walks off the field, swinging it wildly in her hand before bumping fists with her teammates.

Gasso’s impressed. She wonders, did I even need to go out there?

It’s a lesson that catcher and fifth-year senior Lynnsie Elam has learned in short order. Some pitchers need her help on a fairly regular basis, whether it’s going over strategy or restoring order amid the chaos. But Bahl isn’t like that. The most she requires is a quick reset.

“She goes to another space now where she’s mad at herself. And she is determined not to give up anything.”

Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso

Elam didn’t see a hint of panic from her against Kentucky. If anything, Elam was impressed by how she “flipped that switch and went straight back to work.” Bahl went on to throw a complete game, allowing one earned run, 12 strikeouts and no walks, improving to 11-0 on the season.

“She’s just an intense competitor,” Elam says. “And you can see it on her face. You can see it in her eyes. But the fact that we get to be with it and go against her and just see it every single day day in and day out, she’s very consistent with it and it’s awesome to see her do what she does.”

As a sign of the respect she’s earned from coaches and teammates since her arrival, Bahl was given the start in the season-opener against UC-Santa Barbara in February and pitched two scoreless innings. Two days later, in a marquee matchup against No. 3 UCLA, she started and won again, allowing one unearned run in seven innings pitched.

Opposing teams and fan bases have tried to push her buttons and throw her off her game. Because pitching rules are so stringent in softball, they’ll often dissect her windup and cry foul. They’ll say she’s illegally lifting her back foot off the ground, ignoring the fact that one of her toes is still in the dirt.

“It’s nothing,” Gasso says. “It’s so minute that umpires aren’t calling it. But the trolls on Twitter and coaches want to find out more about it — how can we stop her?”

Gasso has seen it happen to every elite pitcher.

“When you’re that legit,” she says, “everybody tries to pick you apart.”

And it’s a total waste of time.

“You’re not going to faze Jordy,” she says.

TRUTH BE TOLD, Bahl isn’t sure where her presence on the mound comes from. No one told her to behave that way.

“It just comes naturally,” she says.

But there are clues to its origin, starting with the fact that her dad, Dave, played football at Doane College in Nebraska, and she grew up with three brothers. All the boys played baseball at one point, and Hayden, the oldest, was a standout pitcher who signed with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“I’ve always been competitive,” Bahl says. “You have to be in that scenario.”

Family games of whiffle ball were especially intense. Instead of plastic bats, they used metal. And that nearly came back to bite them when one of the boys — who shall remain nameless — was called out on strikes and got so mad he threw a bat in the direction of one of their brothers. Bahl says it was such a close call that her brother could hear the “wump, wump, wump” of the bat flying end over end by his head.

So intensity is a something of a shared trait.

“Yeah,” Bahl says, “it runs in the blood.”

But when it came to everyone’s individual pursuits, there was never any sibling rivalry, only support.

Choosing to decommit from Nebraska was scary for Bahl. It was the only school she’d visited and it was 45 minutes from home. At the time, she couldn’t talk to coaches to get a sense of what opportunities were out there.

But she had faith. Oklahoma was her dream school, and a seven-hour drive to campus for her official visit confirmed her suspicion. She fell in love with how the program felt like family.

By joining the Sooners, she wouldn’t have to be the center of attention. They were the defending champs, after all. Alo was poised to break the career home run record.

Watching Alo navigate the attention that came with her home run chase gave Bahl a road map on how to handle the spotlight.

“She’s a boss just the way she handles herself,” Bahl says of Alo. “It’s never about her home runs. She’s always team-first. For someone with as much success as she has and she’s still breaking all these records, I’m definitely just learning a lot from her maturity and her poise.”

During a conversation with ESPN last month, Bahl leaned into that team-first attitude. She constantly deflected attention to her teammates. When asked about her transition from high school to college, she spoke about the entire freshman class instead of herself.

Earlier this season, Alo called Bahl “one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen.” But Bahl is steering clear of the hype. Gasso has tried to talk to her about name, image and likeness opportunities, but Bahl is brushing that aside for now.

“I don’t know,” Bahl says. “I just feel like I haven’t done anything.”

That’s simply not true. Oklahoma is undefeated and ranked No. 1, and Bahl is the ace of the staff. She’s 15-0 with a 0.73 ERA. Opponents are batting .124 against her and she leads the Big 12 in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.65).

Oklahoma pitching coach Jennifer Rocha says it’s been a joy working with Bahl. There hasn’t been a day where she’s had to ask her to put in extra work. She does it on her own.

If anything, she’s more mature than some upperclassmen in terms of time management. She’ll often get up at 5 a.m. to do her schoolwork, get a workout in, practice and leave the entire afternoon for recovery.

Rocha says the difference between good and great is preparation — understanding how to manage the game and prepare for opponents. And Bahl is ahead of the curve in both respects.

“She wants to be good,” Rocha says. “She wants to execute. I think that’s what drives her: wanting to win and wanting to be really good.”

The scary thing — at least for opponents — is that Rocha believes Bahl hasn’t come close to reaching her potential yet. While there are plenty of technical things left for them to work on, the biggest piece Rocha wants to see her master is resilience.

Which is why that moment against Kentucky was so important. When things went wrong — and she can rest assured that they inevitably will as the Sooners aim to defend their title over the coming weeks — she didn’t lose her cool. She focused and got herself out of trouble.

It’s why Gasso isn’t afraid to say, “I know how big this young lady’s gonna get.”

She didn’t understand what she was seeing in Bahl at first, but Gasso has come around.

“She’s special,” she says, “and she’s the most humble, level headed, organized, mission driven kid I’ve ever had, especially as a freshman. She’s just it’s a whole other thing. It’s a whole other something I’ve not seen before.”