Sooners to swing into season determined to claim championship
Ben Williams, The Oklahoma Daily
Coach Patty Gasso has had no shortage of success heading into her 19th year at the helm of OU’s softball program, but the expectation for this season’s squad is different.
It’s national championship or bust.
A 5-4 loss to Alabama in game three of last year’s national championship kept the Sooners from clutching the trophy they had coveted — the trophy OU won in 2000.
Gasso, who coached that 2000 team, knows how close they came.
“They tasted it, they had their hands on that trophy and they knew it,” Gasso said.
The Sooners enter the 2013 season ranked No. 2 in the country. They return three All-Americans, and only lost one position starter from last year’s team.
Senior pitcher Keilani Ricketts and senior catcher Jessica Shults are aware of the ranking but refuse to let it affect their mindsets as they head into their final seasons as Sooners.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Shults said. “Don’t worry about the numbers. Don’t worry about the polls. We just have to prove ourselves on the field.”
The proof is already there.
Ricketts has become a superstar in the softball world, coach Gasso said. The All-American was named 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year and received numerous other awards including 2012 Big 12 Player of the Year.
Her 2012 stats back the hype — 37-9 with a 1.08 ERA. The dominant pitcher also led the Sooners at the plate with a .395 batting average.
Shults — having already made her debut with Team USA — has cemented herself as arguably the best catcher to come through OU. Her career slugging percentage of .731 is a school record that she looks to continue this season.
Along with fellow seniors, pitcher Michelle Gascoigne and outfielder Brianna Turang, Ricketts and Shults look to be the leaders of this talent-heavy team.
With seven freshmen on the roster, the veteran leadership will be essential.
“This freshman group is talented, but they are raw,” Gasso said.
The first-year players are not expected to have a significant impact this year, but it is clear they are making their presence felt. And the upperclassmen have taken note.
“They are doing their jobs and working for a spot,” Shults said.
Along with the incoming freshman, another new name was added to the Sooners’ roster: sophomore infielder Shelby Pendley.
Pendley — who spent her freshman season at Arizona — transferred to OU and is eligible to play this season. Her pure talent has garnered excitement within the program.
An All-Pac-12 first team selection as a freshman and 19 home runs have Pendley excited to begin her sophomore season at Oklahoma.
“I absolutely love it here. I was really appreciative of being accepted into the program,” Pendley said.
Her coach could not be happier to have the addition of a player like Pendley.
“She is a tremendous athlete,” Gasso said. “I know she’s going to be something very special.”
However, the biggest compliment of media day was directed toward sophomore infielder Lauren Chamberlain — who Gasso said is the best player she’s ever seen.
Like Pendley, Chamberlain is anticipated to have a monster sophomore season following a year in which she was named the Big 12’s best freshman.
Chamberlain hit .357 and led her team with a Big 12-record 30 home runs last season. The All-American deserves every compliment she gets, but that does not mean she will stop getting better.
“There’s so much more I have left to do. There’s always work to be done,” Chamberlain said.
Good news for Oklahoma. Bad news for Oklahoma’s opponents.
With the season just over a week away, the Sooners are eager to get back to their winning ways. Gasso has instilled a work ethic within her players that keeps them from settling for anything less.
“If you don’t have passion, and you can’t put softball as a priority, this isn’t the program for you,” she said.
The Sooners begin play Friday against Stanford and Oregon State at the Kajikawa Classic in Phoenix.
OU will play its first home game March 1 against Nebraska at Marita Hynes Field.