Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 9 Oklahoma
Last season: 47-12, lost in Seattle Super Regional
Who returns: The battery of Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults returns, and you'll have to excuse Sooners fans if they're a bit giddy in realizing this is just the first of three times they get to say that about two sophomores already playing at an All-American level. Shults played more first than catcher last season, but with an opening behind the plate she'll move back to a position her natural leadership skills will be of the most use. Her bat (1.145) speaks volumes, no matter what kind of glove you give her. Haley Nix (.972 OPS) and Brianna Turang (.317 BA, 20 SB) also return as the core of a batting order that also includes Ricketts.
Who departs: It might not draw as much attention as Danielle Lawrie, Megan Langenfeld or Jen Yee, but the departure of Amber Flores after four seasons is a major loss. And as good as Shults is, it will take someone of precisely that quality to step in for Lindsey Vandever. Karolyne Long, who started 59 games as a sophomore, mostly at short, is no longer with the program.
Who arrives: Destinee Martinez may make the loudest impression out of a six-player freshman class with plenty of potential to make noise. Coach Patty Gasso appears to be penciling, and perhaps inking, Martinez in for center field. Brittany Williams could also make the lineup card for the opener at first base, while Javen Henson and Ali Vandever are dueling for shortstop duties.
Statistically speaking: Pitchers who hit are generally not among the most patient people at the plate, but despite somewhat limited plate appearances Ricketts missed the top 10 in walks in the Big 12 by two free passes.
Preseason question: Can Ricketts carry the Sooners 25 miles?
That's the distance, give or take a wrong turn, between the University of Oklahoma and Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Yet, since the Sooners last made the trip in 2004, their fifth in a row, it might as well have come with a stopover on K2 for the frustration involved.
After persevering through those postseason disappointments, waiting a few months for Ricketts to work through freshman growing pains is a small price to pay if the result is an ace worthy of Oklahoma City.
Ricketts put together phenomenal numbers as a freshman, finishing with a 32-10 record, 1.24 ERA and 346 strikeouts in 259.2 innings. But even for a pitcher who picked up two wins on the first day she ever threw a college pitch, there was a learning curve.
"We had to change some of the windup a little bit because we felt like she was exposing her pitch too much," Gasso said. "That was an adjustment for her. She kind of had her guard up with that. If it's not broke, you don't fix it, but it was enough that people were able to see some of what she was doing. She started to realize that and kind of surrendered to us, and we got her to trust that we know what we're doing. It's just that -- having been so dominant and feeling like you can bring that right into the Division I level -- there's a lot of things you've got to learn, a lot of adjustments you have to make. And it was getting her to recognize that a little change is good."
The result was evident on the stat sheet, as Ricketts' strikeout rate rose nearly a strikeout per seven innings in conference and postseason play. It was also evident in the demeanor of the pitcher, who went toe-to-toe with Danielle Lawrie on the road in a super regional. Lawrie got the best of her in the end, but Ricketts left little doubt she could carry a team to the Women's College World Series. No matter how short a trip it is.
"Keilani handled everything like a veteran," Gasso said. "I thought she was outstanding. And although we didn't get the outcome we wanted, I felt like we walked away a little more grown up, a lot more mature. She was in the closest thing you can be to being in the World Series, and I think she did a great job."