Coach rescues softball program & players' souls
Friday, May 26, 2006
By Joshua Cooley
NORMAN, Okla. (BP)--The empty beer cans and litter strewn across the field were the least of Patty Gasso’s concerns.
When Gasso took over as Oklahoma University’s softball coach in October 1994, the program was in disarray. Her predecessor had been acting on an interim basis because the previous coach had resigned for health concerns. Some players rebelled, skipping the fall training period because they had wanted an assistant coach to get the head job.
The former staff left behind virtually no information on any recruits for the following season. The disorganization was so bad, in fact, that Gasso got a call one day from a high school senior in Texas, who basically said, “Hi, you’re recruiting me and I haven’t heard from anyone in awhile.”
Then there was the softball stadium -- if you could have called it that. The Sooners’ home field was a collection of slow-pitch diamonds at a recreation park near campus.
“When we’d bring recruits in,” Gasso said, “we’d drive by the softball fields at night: ‘That’s where we play, but let me show you the football stadium, the basketball stadium, the baseball stadium.’ For home games, we’d have to have the team there 30 minutes before warm-ups to pick up beer bottles and trash. We’ve come a long way.”
Talk about an understatement.
Now in her 12th season, Gasso has built the Sooners into a national powerhouse, with the 2000 NCAA championship as the cornerstone. Coming into this season, she had compiled a remarkable career record of 705-238-1 in 16 years, including a 544-179-1 mark at Oklahoma. She owns more Big 12 Conference wins than any other coach in conference history, and she has been named Big 12 and Midwest Region coach of the year three times. Her teams have won five Big 12 Conference titles (regular season or tournament) and have made five appearances at the Women’s College World Series.
The Sooners now play at the OU Softball Complex, a state-of-the-art facility with a seating capacity of 1,000, batting cages, a physical training center and a plush locker room.
The pitfall for every coach in Gasso’s enviable position is to survey the grand athletic empire they have built and boast, like King Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel, that it came from their hand. Gasso, though, has a completely different perspective.
“As I’ve been here, and as you win more, the pressure to win goes even higher,” she said. “That alone has made my faith stronger. All this isn’t happening because of me. It’s happening because of my faith and belief in God and what He allows me to do. I’m slowly understanding that there’s more to life than winning softball games, being on TV and winning the College World Series.”
Ironically, God used softball to bring Gasso to faith. In 1986 she married Jim Gasso, a Christian who had grown up in church. With the persistent witness of Jim and a friend, Shelley McCall, who was an assistant coach under Gasso when she was at Long Beach (Calif.) City College from 1990 to 1994, she began to realize something was missing in her life. Finally, in 1992, she surrendered to Christ during a LBCC softball game, of all times, while she was coaching in the third-base box.
“It was undeniably what it was supposed to feel like,” Gasso said. “It ran through me. It was so joyful. It felt like I was able to exhale and move forward.”
Now, Gasso uses softball as her own spiritual platform. During the off-season, she hosts a voluntary Bible study at her house for softball players and other Oklahoma athletes. During the busy spring season, Gasso and some of her players attend a pre-game service on Sundays led by Kent Bowles, FCA’s representative at the university, and a Thursday evening service at the home of the team’s Christian sports psychologist.
Last spring, Gasso invited Oklahoma athletes and the campus FCA group to her house and held a service in the family’s backyard, where a golfer and assistant baseball coach were baptized.
“She’s highly successful, she’s committed to her profession, but she’s also committed to what’s going on in her spiritual life,” Bowles said. “That’s refreshing to see, especially from [a coach] at that high of a level.”
This school year, Gasso has gotten involved with Oklahoma’s FCA Huddle. She shared her testimony in November and has spoken to the group a few times since then. Her assistant coach, Howard Dobson, is the Huddle’s sponsor, and a handful of softball players also attend, including junior utility player Jamie Fox, who is on the Oklahoma FCA leadership team.
“I think she has two sides to her,” Fox said. “She’s intense on the field, and like the rest of us, she’s out to win and get the job done. But off the field, her door is always open. She’s there for you.”
In practices, Gasso sometimes uses passages of Scripture to help motivate the team, but never in a pushy manner towards unbelievers, according to some of her team members. God has blessed the fruit of her labors. Over the last few years, a handful of softball players “have really committed their lives and are working as ambassadors to help other softball players,” Gasso said.
One would be junior first baseman Stacia Aleman, who said she came to Oklahoma a spiritual wanderer. As a freshman, she checked out the weekly team Bible study at Gasso’s house out of curiosity. By her sophomore year, she was soaking it up every week and growing quickly in her faith.
“I was just recently talking with my mom,” Aleman said, “and she was saying, ‘You’re not just here for softball and all the opportunities you have. The main reason you’re there is to get that relationship with God.’ And that’s through Coach Gasso. I know I’m here for a reason, and it goes beyond me.”
Stories like that are what make Gasso’s heart leap for joy. She admits it was once a heart too bent on softball glory. But now, while the luster of the 2000 national championship trophy is still dazzling, Gasso knows her heavenly rewards will far outshine any earthly prize.
“What gives me more satisfaction is working with players and in their lives,” she said. “I’m trying to open doors to bring the Word of God into players’ lives. Maybe they’ll latch on, or maybe they won’t, but my job now as coach is not only to make them better players but introduce them to the Word of God.”
Joseph Cooley writes for Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ “Sharing the Victory” magazine, online at www.sharingthevictory.com.
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