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COLLEGE SOFTBALL: Walker faces tough homecoming as Duke falls to Oklahoma in WCWS

May 31—Editor's note: Lillie Walker was unavailable for comment after the game.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lillie Walker's return to her home state was a bittersweet occasion.

The Inola native, who has been Duke's third pitching option throughout the season, was thrust into a challenging situation against the three-time defending national champion Oklahoma. Walker pitched two innings, allowing three hits, three runs and one walk while striking out one on 43 pitches in a 9-1 loss to the Sooners in the first round of the Women's College World Series on Thursday at Devon Park.

With the Blue Devils' top pitchers Cassidy Curd and Jala Wright struggling early and surrendering a combined three home runs and six runs through three innings, Duke had no choice but to turn to the senior left-hander.

Walker, undoubtedly feeling the pressure of pitching in the biggest game of her career at Devon Park, found herself in front of a partisan crowd dominated by crimson and crème-clad Sooners fans.

Walker's nerves were apparent as she started her appearance in the circle with three-consecutive balls. However, she managed to regain some composure, forcing OU's Jayda Coleman to fly out shortly after throwing her first strike.

The shakiness returned briefly as she hit Tiara Jennings with the first pitch of the next at-bat and walked Ella Parker. An RBI single by Kinzie Hansen then pushed the Sooners' lead to 7-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning.

"I think the zone wasn't in her favor with not getting the down ball called for a strike, but she continued to work and fight and try to find ways to adjust," Duke coach Marissa Young said.

Despite the rocky start, Walker found her footing.

She quickly retired the next two batters, inducing a pop out and a fly out to end the frame. Her momentum carried into the fifth inning, where she struck out Kasidi Pickering on a full count before getting Owasso native Riley Boone to pop out and Cydney Sanders to foul out, keeping OU off the board.

However, the Sooners' potent offense reignited in the sixth inning.

Coleman led off with a double and Jennings followed with a single, prompting Young to replace Walker with Dani Drogemuller.

Drogemuller forced two outs, but an Alyssa Brito 2-RBI single to left field sealed the run-rule victory for OU.

"(It was) obviously a tough game," Young said. "Not the outcome we were looking for, but I think there's a lot of positive things we can pull from this. We scored first. We put a lot of pressure on their starter Kelly Maxwell, drew some good walks and lifted her from the ballgame. We played really good defense. Obviously their offense was lights out today and did a really good job handling our pitching staff."

Although the outcome was disappointing for Duke, Walker's performance under pressure highlighted her resilience and skill in a challenging environment.

Walker's season stats now include 63.2 innings pitched, 51 hits and 23 runs allowed (18 earned) and 40 strikeouts, culminating in a 1.98 ERA.

"She's done that all year," Young said. "We talk about Lillie having ice in her veins — she wants to be in the big moment for her team; she wants to get the job done."

Francesca Frelick put the Blue Devils on the board early, blasting a solo home run over the left-field wall in the top of the second.

However, the Sooners answered in the bottom of the third with a pair of two-run shots from Hansen and Alynah Torres to take a 4-1 lead. OU then tacked on another three runs in the following frame with another two-run long ball off the bat of Sanders and an RBI-single from Hansen to stretch a 7-1 gap.

The Sooners finished with 11 hits, and the nine runs surrendered by the Blue Devils were the most allowed in the 2024 postseason and the most since Clemson scored nine runs on April 12 in a 13-9 Duke win.

Despite that, Young remained positive about her pitching staff.

"Obviously they've done a phenomenal job all year long," she said. "It's tough to see them not get the job done today on this stage. Again, growing pains. They learn from it. They know what they're capable of. When you leave balls over the plate to a team like Oklahoma, they're going to make you pay. They can walk away from a game like today knowing they didn't hit their best stuff."

The Blue Devils, now 52-8, will look to bounce back in an elimination game at 6 p.m. against Alabama, while the Sooners continue their pursuit of a fourth-consecutive national title against UCLA on Saturday.