EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is from Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) with an excerpt from an article in the February 2018 edition of FCA Magazine.
KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Patty Gasso is all about the wins, but not in the way one might think.
It would be easy for the University of Oklahoma (OU) softball coach to focus on the on-field wins. After all, the Sooners chalked up a 30-win streak earlier this season, not losing a game in all of March and continuing the streak into mid-April.
But Gasso shared that she’s focusing on other winning ways.
“I feel like I’ve arrived,” Gasso said. “I’ve figured out what my purpose is here. Many people, probably 99 percent, believe my purpose here is to win. And I get that. But I’m winning in other ways; our team is winning in other ways behind the scenes.”
Each week before their Sunday games, the Sooner softball players hold voluntary prayer services, Bible discussions and chapel services. This is where the winning behind the scenes happens, and after 28 years of coaching, Gasso can rest assured that she’s added more to God’s Kingdom than four national championships.
In 1995, Gasso was coaching at Long Beach City College when she hesitantly accepted the job at Oklahoma. She took a pay cut, and the Sooners didn’t even have their own field. Gasso was “scared to death” but wanted the opportunity badly. Before the move, Patty and her husband, Jim, who led her to Christ earlier in their marriage, sat in their California living room while her conflicting emotions poured out in the form of tears. They prayed together and knew it was time to fully put their faith in Christ.
By 1997, Gasso was inviting her Oklahoma players to a voluntary weekly Bible discussion. Three years later, she loved coaching and her players, but thought perhaps the 2000 season would be her last. She was under the demands of a long-distance marriage—Jim had moved back to California in 1999 to coach soccer at Fullerton Community College—was raising two sons, leading the Sooners and squeezing in time to recruit.
But despite these difficulties, the Sooners reached their first-ever College World Series that year.
“That’s when God really made it clear,” Gasso said. “‘You need to stay here, and this is where you need to do My work.’ I started to understand that my job is more to open the door for Christ to win souls. It’s not about me.”
And for 18 years since, Gasso has done just that, doing her best to glorify God along the way and instilling in her players something much deeper than wins and losses on the softball diamond.
Falepolima Aviu, a junior first baseman and outfielder from Oceanside, Calif., chose to play at OU because of Gasso. Aviu learned of Gasso’s faith from watching the College World Series in high school. She felt Gasso was a mother, counselor, mentor and coach in one. Aviu read the Bible growing up, but she was lukewarm in her faith until she arrived in Norman.
“Coach showed me who God is and connected it to softball,” Aviu said. “I felt this is where I belong. I grew up in the church, but I really didn’t feel God’s presence until I got here.”
Aviu was a freshman when, inside the team room, team chaplain Sarah Roberts, who served as FCA’s director of women’s ministry in Oklahoma at the time, shared the story in Ex. 17:8-16, how Israel—led by Moses—defeated Amalek’s army.
During the 2016 College World Series, Paige Parker, Oklahoma’s star pitcher, was fatigued from pitching on consecutive days. Roberts explained how Parker was playing the role of Moses, whose arms were fatigued from holding up the staff of God during the battle. Moses received help from Aaron and Hur, who held up his hands, helping lead Joshua to victory. The rest of the Sooners and their fans, Roberts told the team, needed to be like Aaron and Hur in supporting Parker.
In the championship series against Auburn, the Sooners frequently lifted their arms up in the air. Whether it was toward Parker after each inning or toward a teammate in the batter’s box, the symbolic gesture helped the Sooners encourage each other. The gesture was explained to fans, and soon a large portion of the more than 8,000 people inside ASA Stadium were also lifting their arms up in support—in front of a national TV audience.
“People, through sports, were going home and reading the Bible to find out what we’re doing,” Gasso said. “Then, they were crying while they did it in the stands.”
In the decisive third game, behind stellar pitching from Parker, the Sooners won their third championship.
“It was a sense of God’s power allowing us to play free,” Gasso said. “We had no business winning the championship in 2016, and everybody would tell you that.”
A few weeks later, Aviu shared the Sooners’ story with more than 1,000 high school student-athletes during an FCA Camp at UCLA.
Last year, before the regional round of the postseason, Roberts gave her final message as the team chaplain. Inside the team room, she spoke about David’s three mighty men in 2 Sam. 23. Each Sooner, she explained, possessed one of those three men’s qualities—leadership, strength and resilience—and could use it to help the team to victory.
Behind Roberts’ message, another symbolic gesture was created. The Sooners held up three fingers —the middle, ring and pinky—during games. Fans flashed the three fingers back to them. The Sooners won 11 consecutive games to win a second straight championship—Gasso’s fourth overall.
Hannah Sparks, a 22-year-old senior catcher from Thomasville, Alabama, joined the Sooners last year after transferring from Northwest Florida State College. Sparks respects Gasso’s sincerity and how she teaches through personal relationships with each student-athlete. Earlier this season, Sparks told Gasso she intends to become a high school teacher and softball coach after she graduates.
“I want to be the kind of coach she is because I want to reach people the way she reaches people,” Sparks said. “When she says it’s not just about softball and she cares for you on a personal level, she steps out and shows that.”
Last November, when the Sooners visited the White House to celebrate their championship, Sparks asked President Donald Trump if the team could pray—both with him and for him—during a break between photos. Trump appreciated and accepted. During Sparks’ prayer, Jim and Patty Gasso stood with their heads bowed in awe, grateful of how Christ, through softball, led them to experience such a spiritually powerful moment.
“Once they get into the Gospel, God does the rest,” Jim said of the Sooners. “(Patty and I) think about it all the time.”