Very few, if any, softball coaches with the pedigree of Temple’s Kristen Zaleski would be willing to be a volunteer assistant for the powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners.
Zaleski already had a national championship ring as head coach of the Temple College Lady Leopards from 2018. She added another earlier this month when the dominating Sooners rolled to a defense of their national title at the Women’s College World Series.
If her resume wasn’t already impressive, being heavily associated with the best team in the country takes it up another notch.
“It was an amazing experience to have the opportunity to be part of this level of team and coaching staff,” Zaleski said. “Anybody tied to the program knows how next level it is.”
Anybody who played against the Sooners knows how good they are.
The Sooners, who went wire-to-wire ranked No. 1, were a jaw-dropping 59-3 en route to the title. They finished off rival Texas in the championship series with two routs to complete the seemingly inevitable. OU has entered dynasty territory, having won four of the last six titles and five of the last nine.
As first base coach, Zaleski garnered plenty of television time as the Sooners’ potent offensive players either paid her a visit there after a base hit or began one of their frequent home run trots beside her. Players such as the NCAA’s all-time home run queen Jocelyn Alo and a high-end supporting cast made the game look easy.
But they still had to fight their way out of an early hole in the double-elimination WCWS as the Sooners were tripped up by UCLA 7-3 in a semifinal game and had to face the Bruins shortly afterward facing potential elimination. OU obliterated UCLA 15-0 to reach the championship.
“It’s the culture here,” Zaleski said. “The players believe in themselves. They could always respond from a loss or an error or just something that didn’t go your way. We had to play UCLA (a second time) in 50 minutes with the season on the line. It’s like we needed that loss. To respond like that is next level.”
Of course, Zaleski brought tons of playing and coaching experience to the table when she joined head coach Patty Gasso’s staff after a couple of years as head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The 2000 Temple High graduate was a multi-sport standout for the Tem-Cats before moving on to an All-American career at Texas State where she was enshrined in its Athletic Hall of Honor last year, plus a long, stellar career as a professional softball player. In nine years as Temple College’s head coach, she led the Lady Leopards to five conference titles to go with the NJCAA Division I crown.
Yet Zaleski felt she had more to learn and when this chance presented itself, she jumped.
“What people think they know, they can always learn more,” Zaleski said. “Just being around that level of excellence on the field, off the field, in the batting cages or the athletic center or the support staff. It’s not just how much effort is put into the skill side of it, but the effort and preparation side of it.
“They help you grow as people and the way the community supports them and their connection to the community,” she said. “They built them as people first. That’s the priority. The focus on faith is real.”
Zaleski’s duties also included collaborating with outfielders, baserunning, scouting opponents, evaluating talent and throwing a ton of batting practice.
Gasso, who has been at the Sooners’ helm for 28 years and for all six of the program’s national titles, said to get a volunteer coach the stature of Zaleski is a rarity “unless she is someone who is committed to being the best she can be.” Gasso said of Zaleski that she has a “championship mindset” and an “elite softball mind.”
Though bright, Zaleski’s immediate future isn’t certain, whether she stays or lands another position. Zaleski was a hot commodity before being part of the OU staff and a second national title ring won’t hurt her prospects going forward.
“That was some of the reasons for me coming here is that I wanted to learn to be a better head coach or assistant,” she said. “I’m glad it worked out that I had an opportunity to do that and come here and work on specific things to make me better. It was an opportunity to grow as a person, not just as a coach.”