By JOSH HYBER
Hannah Sparks sat in the stands at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on June 8, 2016, her eyes peeled on the final game of the College Softball World Series.
As Auburn grounded into one final out and Oklahoma players stormed the field after a 2-1 victory, Sparks — a former Northwest Florida State catcher — watched her future Sooners teammates and had one thought: I want this to be me.
"It made me want to work harder to be a part of that," Sparks said in a recent phone conversation. "I wanted to be a part of a national champion."
Two days shy of the one-year anniversary, at the same Hall of Fame Stadium, Sparks was in uniform as a reserve when the No. 10 Sooners knocked off No. 1 Florida to repeat as national champs.
"It's a dream come true. It really is," Sparks said.
It was a long time coming for the Thomasville, Alabama native, who had 38 home runs and 124 RBIs in two seasons at NWFSC. The catcher was named a 2016 NJCAA All-American second-team honoree as a Raider after hitting .401 with 16 home runs, 28 RBIs, 63 runs, 20 steals and 29 walks as a sophomore.
Sparks' exploits in Niceville earned her a shot at Oklahoma, a perennial D-1 power that has won three of the past five national titles.
But the catcher admitted she struggled this season.
In 29 games (13 starts, including one in the Big 12 tournament), she had five hits in 33 at-bats and struck out seven times. She did go 1 for 1 with an RBI and two walks in the Sooners' 9-0 victory over Western Kentucky and 1 for 2 in a 2-1 win over the Hilltoppers.
She also scored the game-winning run in a 1-0 extra-innings victory over in-state rival Tulsa and doubled in an 8-0 victory over Omaha.
"I'm just proud I was able to contribute to the team," Sparks said. "It was a lot of fun to be a part of."
Sparks arrived in Norman in the summer of 2016 and immediately got to work. It wasn't overwhelming and not too much of a culture shock, she said, but it was "different."
She wasn't star struck by All-Americans Paige Parker and Shay Knighten, but it took her a while to realize, "I'm here for a reason. I'm just as good as these girls. I belong."
Shortly after Sparks arrived for summer workouts, a fan approached several Sooners players wanting to take a photo with the defending national champs. Although Sparks wasn't part of that team, a teammate called her over to get in.
"But I wasn't part of the team," Sparks said.
Responded the teammate, "It doesn't matter because you're part of our team now."
Sparks was present at the preseason banquet when the Sooners received their 2016 title rings.
"Seeing the look on their faces when they opened them...They opened the boxes in front of everybody," Sparks recalled. "For me and (fellow-transfer) Paige Lowary and all the freshmen, it was just kind of like, OK, we want one of those. Let's go get another one."
Though Sparks played a mostly reserve role for the Sooners, she knew her job: Come in and be someone head coach Patty Gasso could count on.
Sparks either pinch hit or pinch ran in 16 games. She caught when needed.
Though Oklahoma started the season 9-4 (a struggle by Sooner standards), the team knew it was on the right track. Soon came the Sooners of old, with wins of 20-0, 16-1, 15-0, 14-0 and 13-3. The Sooners swept Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament before winning four-straight must-win games in the NCAA regionals.
"With this team and how we approached the World Series, it felt like any other game," Sparks said. "We didn't try to make it bigger than what it was."
After a classic 7-5 victory over Florida in 17 innings on June 5, the Sooners responded with a 5-4 victory over the Gators the next day to clinch the championship.
"It was kind of a shock to a lot of us. After the game everyone kept asking, 'Did we really just win? Did that really just happen?'" Sparks said. "It was kind of one of those things where we had to make sure it wasn't a dream that we were going to wake up from."
In the phone conversation Friday, Sparks reflected back and looked ahead.
Her time in Niceville made her stronger as a player (no NCAA limit on practice time) and as a person.
"I came in to Oklahoma physically ready because of what I had done at NWF," Sparks said. "I felt very prepared when I got here."
Going forward, Sparks said her goal will be to get stronger, get batter and earn a starting spot. However, incumbent catcher Lea Wodach is also a junior, and utility player Alissa Dalton, a rising sophomore, can also catch.
"I can't try to do too much," Sparks said. "I've just got to do what I do and let the cards fall where they fall."
But one thing's for sure: The next time a fan asks for a photo with the defending national champs, Sparks will be able to proudly say she belongs.
And when championship rings are distributed next winter, Sparks will gladly take her place in Oklahoma softball lore.