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The Next Evolution: How Jayda Coleman Kept the Oklahoma Dynasty Moving Forward

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A monument in the small town of Rugby, North Dakota, marks the geographic center of the North American continent. Yet despite a previous generation’s attempt to settle any debate by making that claim in stone, the designation remains disputed. There is no such uncertainty about the center of the softball world. It’s wherever the Oklahoma Sooners are that day. 

On a spring night earlier this season, the Sooners were in Oxford, Ohio, to play in the University of Miami’s tournament. Oxford is about an hour from Cincinnati and two hours from Indianapolis, which means it isn’t really near much of anything. It certainly isn’t anywhere close to Norman, Oklahoma, more than 800 miles distant. But you wouldn’t have known it on this night. 

Admission is free for most Miami home games. For this tournament, you needed a ticket. And good luck if you didn’t buy one in advance. A line of people snaked away from a folding table, waiting for any unclaimed advanced purchases. One mother who made it inside said she and her daughter drove several hours from Indiana. Oklahoma was her daughter’s favorite team. A trip to the World Series was too steep an investment, so they picked the Miami tournament as a Christmas gift. 

After rolling to wins against Louisville and Miami, routing eventual NCAA tournament teams by a combined 23-2 margin in just 11 innings of softball, Oklahoma made its way toward the team bus beyond the third base line. For most college softball teams, the end of a road game means a few quick words with the handful of friends and family in attendance, conversations that often unfold as the home team’s fans walk past oblivious to their presence. For Oklahoma players, it meant running a gauntlet of perhaps a hundred kids and their parents, team staff left to clear a path through which players could pause and sign autographs without being enveloped. 

The Oklahoma uniform made every player popular. But as suggested by the coordinated cheers meant to attract her attention, one player was most in demand. They all wanted a moment with Jayda Coleman.

She gets that a lot. The Sooners have a lot of stars. They only have one Jayda Coleman.

Coleman may be the person most singularly responsible for Oklahoma being on the verge of history—a juggernaut marching toward a third consecutive title with a record winning streak and a traveling carnival and softball revival drawing fans by the thousands wherever they go. 

That’s true on the field, to the degree that any individual Sooner can be singled out from the All-Americans around her. Coleman does everything. She’s the leadoff hitter ranked in the top 20 in the nation in slugging (.816) and on-base (.543) percentages. She’s the centerfielder who controls so much of the outfield. She’s the metronome whose passion sets the beat for teammates to follow. 

“She is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sooners coach Patty Gasso said. “There’s nothing that kid can’t do. And she knows it.”

But it’s not just what she does that makes her so responsible for the program’s continued excellence. It’s who she is. Oklahoma has few challengers these days, maybe none. For an afternoon, maybe. For a season, not so much. But rather than stagnate, trapped living in past glory instead of innovating, the Sooners keep evolving. And for Gasso, the challenge to grow came from the same person who does much to make her team unbeatable. 

Rather than settle into autocracy, Gasso has learned that the old-school attributes she values are still out there. She can hold players to the same standards. She just needs to meet a new generation halfway when it comes to how they express themselves and manage the demands of the sport’s growing profile. Letting Coleman be Coleman was a blueprint for the Sooners remaining the Sooners. 

“I think she’s the one that taught me, to be honest,” Gasso told D1Softball recently. “She’s outspoken. She’s always been that way. She’s the voice that you hear above all others.

“She has taught me to understand the importance of the time that they need to just come down.  Because softball, it’s not what it was 10 years ago. In 2013, even when we’re winning a national championship, it didn’t feel anywhere close to what it is right now. There are so many demands on them. There’s just a lot of exhaustion on their side. I have to be mindful of giving them an opportunity to do something or be something other than a softball player. I think she is the one that made me most aware of that.”

Coleman is unapologetically herself on the field. As record audiences watched and debated just months ago, as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark swaggered through the NCAA tournament and LSU’s Angel Reese answered in the final, boisterous confidence and eager showmanship often rub against the norms of sportsmanship in previous generations. Never more when the athletes are women. Coleman’s energy after some walks makes Sam Show’s bat flips look tame by comparison. And she could power the stadium lights with the energy radiating from her after a home run or web gem. 

When it comes to expression, she is very much a child of—and for—the 21st century. 

Kevin Shelton knows all about the debates Coleman inspires. Founder of the Texas Glory travel program and father of former Baylor standout Kathy Shelton, he first encountered Coleman when she made a typical Coleman play in a youth championship game—barehanding a grounder as a 12-year-old left-handed shortstop and flipping the ball to start a double play. Soon enough, she and her dad, Cedric, agreed that she would join Shelton’s elite club.

“She was always big time, and she knows it—she’s very confident, very capable,” Shelton recalled. “But the cool thing was it was always very intellectually curious. She was always excited to learn and grow and was open to coaching. Primarily because her mother and father coached her and weren’t easy on her. They didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense.

“She was not a prima donna, but she was not oblivious that she was usually the best player around.” 

While acknowledging he’s from a generation that grew up hearing the “hand the ball back to the referee after a touchdown” mantra, Shelton challenged the idea that Coleman represents a new school. Certainly not in the relentlessness with which she competes or the almost obsessive commitment to winning and the work necessary to get there. In some respects, rather than a break with the past, Coleman is both a kindred spirit and the evolution of Lisa Fernandez, no shrinking violet. There is just a bit more flair and showmanship to the modern packaging. 

“I would suggest that 99 percent of the time people read her incorrectly,” Shelton said. “People don’t understand what she’s thinking or feeling or what’s in her head, so they see it from their point of view and they don’t know what she’s thinking.”

Yet as he began to have more and more conversations with Gasso during the recruiting process, he got the sense, if left unstated, that Oklahoma’s coach had some reservations of her own. As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong in that assessment. It’s not that Oklahoma had been a team devoid of strong personalities in years past—Lauren Chamberlain was many things but reserved and understated were never on the list. Still, Coleman plays with a bravado all her own. To go back to the basketball analogy, this was moving from Diana Taurasi to Clark. 

“She was so good when she was young that every team and every parent did not like Jayda Coleman,” Gasso said. “She would play around on the base paths and irritate them. They could never get her out. At times, she would let her attitude show, she’d get mad at herself. And I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to do a lot of work with this one. I’ve got to figure out how to manage her.’ And I’ve had people who were like, Oh, good luck with that.’ 

“We just sat down, and I don’t know that a lot of people have done that with her. I just told her ‘You’re going to have to work with me, but I’m also going to work with you.’”

It’s that last part, emerging out of the pandemic and in equal parts with the far more tangible, technical work of assistants Jen Rocha and JT Gasso, that launched this latest era of Sooners dominance. The teams of the past three seasons are more potent than even the champions that came before them—right up to the current team barely missing a beat in run production despite losing college softball’s all-time home ruin champion. They are deeper and more efficient in the circle, going from the tag teams of first Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne and then Paige Parker and Paige Lowary to an array of three-pitcher combinations. 

But the teams of the past three seasons are also just more everything. More self-assertive, more confident, louder. And more confident in the spotlight that shines ever brighter. 

“I think this new generation, we like to have opinions and we like to feel heard,” Coleman said. “And I think Coach Gasso has done an amazing job of just asking us how we’re feeling—not just assuming, I feel like a lot of coaches can just assume, ‘Oh, they’re not tired or they’re fine.’ She actually will sit us down every week and ask ‘Hey, how are you?’ Like, truly asking and wanting to know. I think she’s done a really good job, especially with the mental health side of just taking care of her athletes. 

“I think a lot of coaches might be missing out on those type of things and just learning that this new generation, we just want to be heard. And sometimes that’s all we need.”

For all the other words, the showmanship, swagger and style, what Coleman exhibits more than anything when she’s on the field is strength. She plays with the strength of her convictions. So does the slightly less voluble Tiare Jennings. So does Oklahoma State’s poker-faced Kelly Maxwell. So do players across the emotive spectrum. Strength doesn’t require you to act like anyone else. But it’s difficult to exhibit if you aren’t true to yourself. 

“She does not hold back anything that she feels, and I’m OK with that,” Gasso said. “It used to be that it was like ‘I’m the coach, just be quiet and do what I tell you.’ Those days are gone. It does not work like that anymore.”

It’s the strength to play the game the way that not only brings out the best in her but brings out the most joy in the game. And it’s the strength to tell Gasso she needs a day off to recharge. You don’t get one without the other, even if the former is the only one most of us ever see. 

“No one can tell you the life of an OU softball athlete,” Coleman said. “It’s really hard to describe. There’s hard times. There’s great times. We’re obviously blessed, and we get a lot of things, but it’s also a really hard life to live.”

Dynasties require tremendous amounts of energy to maintain. Success doesn’t get easier. Expectations mount, competition increases. Oklahoma needed Coleman. It needed a player who blends Amber Flores’ power, Norrelle Dickson’s running game and, well, there haven’t really been many centerfielders like her. But it didn’t just need a player made for the 21st century game it helped mold. The Sooners needed a person made for that world, a person who could prove to Gasso that modern doesn’t mean sacrificing old-school standards. 

It just means getting there in a different way sometimes. 

“There’s probably players that don’t like me and think whatever of me,” Coleman allowed. “But I have come to find out that my teammates love who I am. And those are my core people, And my core people, I feel like will tell me ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ But if they’re saying, ‘No, this is what’s firing us up, this is your role on this team. Regardless of how you do, have that energy and bring the energy to the team,’ then that’s my role. 

“I don’t care what people outside of my circle really have to say.”

Yet at almost the same moment she spoke those words, a chorus of young voices called out in unison for her attention. They nearly drowned out not just her voice but the Oklahoma team bus idling behind the scene. 

When they look at Coleman, they see themselves. They see the future.