Keilani Ricketts leads by example
OKLAHOMA CITY -- So often, Oklahoma sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts relishes her role as the team goofball. In a tense situation on the mound, Ricketts might announce she's hungry, or ask her coach, Patty Gasso, where the Sooners are going to eat after the game.
But last week, Gasso saw something unnerving from Ricketts, a 6-foot-2 left-hander and one of college softball's most dominant pitchers.
Just before the Sooners left for Tucson and their Super Regional against Arizona, Gasso told the team that catcher Jessica Shults, Ricketts' best friend, would not make the trip. Shults, whose 19 homers are one shy of the school record, hasn't played in postseason because of an undisclosed illness. But it was still a shock.
"There's a very, very tight connection," Gasso said. "I knew when we left Jessica behind Keilani was visibly shaken.
"You could tell it was going to go one way or another -- she was either going to be too emotional, or she was going to fuel it and do something for her buddy to try to extend her season."
Already, Gasso had moved Ricketts into the cleanup spot in the order, where Shults usually hits. Ricketts did not let her friend down, pitching and batting the Sooners to a two-game sweep and their first College World Series berth since 2004.
In Game 1, Ricketts homered and struck out 13 in a 6-0 victory, her ninth shutout of the season. Though less overpowering in Game 2, Ricketts cracked a two-run homer in the first inning and did not allow a run until the seventh in winning 5-2. Her seven strikeouts extended her school season record to 443 in 272 1/3 innings.
"I took it as a challenge, but I was also motivated to do well for my team," Ricketts said. "That's all."
Catcher Katie Norris suspected there was more to it than that. "I think she was really doing it for Jessica, not for herself," she said.
Gasso said Shults feels healthier but remains doubtful for the WCWS, though she may attend. No. 9 seed Oklahoma (43-17) faces top-seeded Arizona State (55-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, and the Sooners' chances rest on Ricketts continuing her unstoppable postseason. Besides her 4-1 record and 1.77 ERA, Ricketts leads Sooners hitters with three homers, nine RBIs and a .529 average.
Ricketts' run began in the Norman Regional. She fanned a school-record 19 in beating Iona 7-1 before combining with Michelle Gascoigne to one-hit Tulsa 6-0 the next day.
Tulsa came out of the losers' bracket to beat Ricketts 4-3 and force a deciding game that Gascoigne won 5-0. Ricketts had been so hot at the plate, going 7-for-11 with a homer and six RBIs, that Tulsa walked her five consecutive times in their last two games. But Iona coach Roni Rivera came away most impressed with Ricketts' pitching.
"Her drop ball falls off the table, making it very challenging for hitters," she said in an email. "She also has a great change to keep batters off balance.
She's not a vocal leader. She's never claimed to be that. But just by experience, she's really made a difference for our players. To see her get out of some tough situations has helped them calm down. As long as she's calm, the rest of us will be there, too.Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso on sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts
"While we did our best to work her deep in the count and foul off a lot of pitches, she managed to still get the strikeouts. She can throw her movement pitches on any count and that makes it very tough for the batters."
The catcher, too. Norris hadn't caught in four years when Gasso asked her to fill in for Shults. Trying to handle Ricketts made Norris a nervous wreck.
"Most pitchers who throw hard, their ball doesn't move very much," Norris said after the Sooners finished practice Wednesday afternoon at hot, dusty ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. "Keilani is not one of those pitchers. Her ball has a lot of movement. You're just trying to keep the pitch in the zone, and not let it pull you out of the zone."
Norris said she felt less jittery because Ricketts never appeared rattled, even with runners on base. That helped the rest of the Sooners as well.
"Some of the best games she's pitched have been in the last half of our season, especially in the regional and super regional," Gasso said. "I've seen her mature and grow tremendously as a pitcher, but also as a good role model for our players. On the way up here, we were talking about how proud I was of her.
"She's not a vocal leader. She's never claimed to be that. But just by experience, she's really made a difference for our players. To see her get out of some tough situations has helped them calm down. As long as she's calm, the rest of us will be there, too."
Ricketts feels excited to be part of the first Sooners team to reach the WCWS in seven years and their fans are expected to pack the place Thursday night.
"We know they've been waiting awhile to get back here," she said. "We hear it from the fans and the coaches every day. It means a lot to be able to be the team that finally breaks the drought."
Doing it for a friend makes it even better.
"That's the way I thought it would go, and that's the way it did," Gasso said. "She's just such an incredible competitor and an incredible friend with a wonderful heart."