Heat's on Oklahoma to deliver title
Last season's record: 54-10
Key returnees: Georgia Casey, Lauren Chamberlain, Destinee Martinez, Keilani Ricketts, Jessica Shults, Brianna Turang.
Key departures: Katie Norris.
Tournament finish: Lost in WCWS championship series.
1. Keilani, Keilani, Keilani
Danielle Lawrie was the last pitcher who returned for her senior season as the reigning national player of the year, and she did just fine with the expectations by repeating as the award winner. The Canadian ace also was about as ruthless a competitor as the college game has seen in the past decade. The presence of a similar killer instinct is the only remaining question about Keilani Ricketts' place as an all-time great. Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso swears her ace has it. But fair or not, after the final two games of the championship series last season, some people would feel more comfortable with Lawrie in the circle with the bases loaded and nobody out than Ricketts with two outs and the bases empty. She proved last season she's not only the best player in the country but also the best player on the best team in the country. All that's left is for her to show she can brush off the rare moments of adversity.
"She went last year to a place mentally that you rarely see, as a coach, athletes get to that place, where she was locked in and so unconscious of what's around her," Gasso said. "It's a great, great thing, but it also could be a hard thing because sometimes you're so locked in you don't hear what is being said around you. You're in such a competitive place, and it's worked for her -- but in a couple of instances, it really didn't work for us. And those are things, as well, that we've talked about. ... When it gets to a place when we have to talk, [she has] to hear us."
2. Georgia on my mind
On most teams, a freshman second baseman who hit .346 with a 1.087 OPS, 10 home runs and more walks than strikeouts would be kind of a big deal. Georgia Casey, Oklahoma's Australian import, was almost an afterthought surrounded by sluggers like Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain and Jessica Shults, especially as she suffered through a postseason slump that her coach attributed partly to nerves. Still, her debut season in total was a smashing success, and someone who pitched for Australia at the youth international level could see more time in the circle this season. One reason to think Oklahoma could be better is we haven't even seen the best of Casey.
"She is probably one of the smartest players I've ever coached," Gasso said. "She really understands the game very well and was taught very well. Because she came here from Australia, I thought, 'OK, I wonder how much she knows?' And she knew more than most of my team. She's very game savvy."
3. Questions left to answer
By the time you read this, Gasso will have put at least one starting lineup on the field, giving us at least an initial indication of how the left side of the infield will look. Chamberlain and Casey appear locked in place on the right side, and as recently as a week ago, Oklahoma's coach claimed she didn't know who would occupy third base and shortstop. It's a problem a lot of coaches would like to have, and Shelby Pendley's arrival complicates the depth chart.
Javen Henson and Jessica Vest each started at least 53 games a season ago, mostly on the left side. Henson had a rough defensive line with 17 errors, but she showed the kind of power potential (.483 slugging percentage) that is hard to stash on the bench. Pendley could simply slide in at shortstop, the position she played at Arizona, but incumbent Vest is a quality defensive prospect on a team that certainly has some leeway to sacrifice hits or defense.
4. Turning the page
Last season was not the most successful in program history, but you could be forgiven for thinking so with all the attention the Sooners received. Oklahoma won a national championship in 2000, but the local reaction, in Gasso's words, went along the lines of, 'Bless their hearts.' It was a cute story for an underdog that knocked off the mighty Pac-10. Given the dramatic increase in attendance, television coverage and general media exposure for the Women's College World Series in the intervening years, it's fair to say Oklahoma received a lot more attention for finishing second last year than it did for finishing first in 2000. That means there are a lot of people paying attention this spring and expecting this team to take the next logical step. It's an opportunity to revel in the kind of attention few softball teams receive, but it's also pressure.
"Now there's just so much more attendance, attention -- the papers, the television -- so you get a lot of attention," Gasso said. "And at Oklahoma, in any sport, they want you to win. Once you win it all, you feel like every year you're expected to. Do the people make us feel that way? It's more on me. Any coach who is coaching, if they've got the players, they expect to win it all -- or that's the goal. I think we gained a lot of fans and a lot of respect after last year."
5. Going local
The core of this team and its championship aspirations remain firmly rooted in California. Chamberlain, Destinee Martinez, Ricketts, Shults and as many as seven potential starters are from California. But all seven members of the freshman class are Oklahoma products, bringing the total to 10 in-state players on the roster. There may not be much playing time available to the newcomers. And while geographic cliques are sometimes grist for the rumor mill across the college softball landscape, it seems unlikely this particular mix will clash. But it will still be interesting to look for glimpses of how much of the homegrown talent looks capable of leading the program in future seasons.
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