By John Rohde
All five seniors on this year’s Oklahoma softball roster stand side-by-side on the 2015 team poster. They are stone-faced, because that’s how athletes are asked to pose these days, but deep inside they must be smiling.
Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley, Georgia Casey, Callie Parsons and Jessica Vest recently autographed posters for fans prior to a women’s basketball game at Lloyd Noble Center. The team schedule is listed on the bottom of the poster. Above that are four team pictures of various championships OU has won since 2012. Four factoids flanked on each side of the heading “A Class Of Their Own” suddenly captured Casey’s attention.
- CUMULATIVE RECORD OF 162-27 (.857) WINNING PERCENTAGE
- THREE BIG 12 TITLES
- THREE TRIPS TO THE WCWS
- ONE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
Before the arrival of this quintet, no Big 12 team had ever won three straight conference titles. This season, the OU fivesome will try to increase its unprecedented three straight to an unbeatable four straight for one class.
It was the Sooners’ cumulative record that shocked Casey. Over the previous three seasons, no Division I softball team in the country won more games or owned a higher winning percentage than OU, and not one of the five seniors had a clue.
“You never really think about it in the moment,” Casey said. “Actually seeing (on the poster) what we achieved was pretty cool.”
Parsons said she didn’t know the exact numbers, but figured they were good.
“I think we know we’re kind of a big deal, but as far as all the wins go, I don’t think we necessarily followed the little details,” Parsons said. “I think we know we’ve been pretty successful.”
An always candid Chamberlain admitted, “I was like, ‘Wait, this is our class that accomplished this?’ To see what we’ve done on paper is humbling, but it’s great. It’s testimony that we’ve stuck together and overcome a lot.”
These five Sooners indeed are in a class of their own, even for a coach as successful as Patty Gasso, who is entering her 21st season at OU. Gasso is 21 victories away from her 1,000th career win with the Sooners at 979-296-2 (.767). She is 1,140-355-3 (.762) overall in 24 collegiate seasons.
OU football is the king sport on campus, but the softball program is making a serious bid for runner-up with the national exposure that has come with two NCAA championships and nine WCWS appearances since 2000. “We do feel the respect when we walk around campus,” Chamberlain said.
Despite having 47 All-Americans, seven Big 12 regular-season titles and four Big 12 Tournament crowns (which ceased in 2010), Gasso does not single out a particular player or team.
“It’s the landscape of who we are,” said Gasso, who has been named Big 12 Coach of the Year the last three seasons, which makes her a seven-time winner since the league’s inception in 1996. “We’re very team-oriented. We don’t care a lot about personal accolades. I don’t really give great honor to any of their honors because I think the community does that for us. Our program is bigger than any one player.”
We’re very team-oriented. We don’t care a lot about personal accolades... Our program is bigger than any one player.
Head Coach Patty Gasso
As big as the Sooners became while claiming the 2013 national title, last year’s squad felt the sting of losing three All-Americans in pitcher Keilani Ricketts, outfielder Brianna Turang and catcher Jessica Shults, plus standout pitcher Michelle Gascoigne, who led the Big 12 with a 0.91 ERA.
Their struggles were immediate as OU lost its first two games and sputtered to a 5-4 start. All-American first baseman Chamberlain suffered a back injury in mid-March and missed 23 games. Outfielder Kady Self, batting .425 overall and .553 in league play at the time, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in early May. Chamberlain then missed two more games in mid-May with a partially torn PCL in her right knee.
The hobbled Sooners still were able to sweep the NCAA Regional in Norman and followed with a Super Regional series victory at home over Tennessee to advance to their fourth straight WCWS in Oklahoma City. OU finished the season 51-13 overall and fifth in the country.
“We lost good leaders, we lost All-Americans and this (2014) group withstood all that big-time,” Gasso said. “It was probably one of my more enjoyable seasons because we started off very slow and everybody was starting to panic a little bit. We just had to remember where we came from and trust what we were doing. They were juniors, they all stepped up and kind of led the way. It was really impressive.”
Gasso traveled thousands of miles to corral this year’s senior class:
- Chamberlain came from El Toro High School in Trabuco Canyon, Calif., where she was an Under Armour and MaxPreps All-American and Orange County Register Player of the Year.
- Pendley is from Rio Rancho (N.M.) High School and spent her freshman season at the University of Arizona, an experience she still would rather not discuss. “Just wasn’t happy there,” Pendley said of why she transferred. “Oklahoma seemed like a good fit when I came with my visit, so I just went with it.”
- Vest is the team brainiac, who hails from San Benito High School in Hollister, Calif., and in June will enter nursing school after getting her degree in multi-disciplinary studies with an emphasis in health and exercise science. “I just think it’s a lot of time management,” Vest said of meeting her academic demands. “I think if you manage your time well, then it’s not that difficult.”
- Parsons made the 170-mile trek to Norman from Pryor High School in northeast Oklahoma, where she was a member of the National Honor Society with achievement awards in algebra, biology and geometry. “I knew it was a great program, and that’s what drew me in,” Parsons said.
- Casey flew 8,610 miles from Mount St. Benedict College in Sydney, Australia, to join the Sooners. “I first saw Georgia on videotape as a pitcher,” Gasso said. “She also looked pretty athletic, so I said, ‘OK, family. Let’s pack it up and go (on a recruiting trip).’ I got to see her play quite a bit and felt like it was a good fit. I really am so thankful that Georgia made that big decision to come here.”
Though she is the only player from foreign territory, Casey was a quick fit with her fellow seniors. “We’ve been really close right from the beginning,” Casey said. “We really clicked. We all have similar goals. Our personalities go well together.”
Each senior brings her own talent, which Gasso has no trouble describing.
- Gasso on Chamberlain: “Lauren has a knack for letting things roll off of her. If anything, it’s about containing Lauren’s excitement sometimes because does have a very big personality. She can stand in front of 20,000 people and sing the national anthem. She can play in the College World Series and win you a national championship. She does not show her hand very well. You could watch her play and not know if she just hit four consecutive bombs or struck out four times. She always looks the same, yet when you get her off the field, she’s completely out of control [laughing] – in a good way. She’s the center of the party, just very fun and funny, someone everybody enjoys being around.”
- On Pendley: “Shelby loves structure, loves discipline, loves organization, love things being very much in order. She loves to be taught, she wants to be told, she wants to keep doing it until she does it right. I guess that equates to a perfectionist.”
- On Vest: “Good range. A quiet leader. Just smooth. Good work habits. The epitome of a student-athlete. Works hard on the field. Truly a great example in all areas of her life.”
- On Parsons: “Always gives you an extreme effort. When I think of Callie, I think of her driving in the tying run in the bottom of the 11th inning against Tennessee (an eventual 5-3, 12-inning win for the Sooners in Game One of the 2013 WCWS Championship Series). Where maybe her offense has not been through the roof, defensively she is just tough as nails.”
- On Casey: “Georgia is the smartest athlete I’ve had. I want her to go into coaching so much, but she doesn’t want to. She knows the game, inside and out, so well. She challenges me with her questions. She’s blue-collar, ‘I don’t want your attention. I’m just going to get the job done. You don’t have to say my name.’ She doesn’t want that. She’s uncomfortable with any of the attention. She’s like, ‘Lauren, or Shelby, or whoever, you can have it. Not me, I’m good.’ ”
None of the seniors has been the least bit surprised by what Gasso has expected and demanded since they arrived.
“She definitely can get the best out of you,” Parsons said of Gasso. “If she knows you can do something and you fall short, she’s not going to accept that. You play your best every day. You let go of the mistakes, but we have goals and expectations. She sets the bar high for us.”
If she knows you can do something and you fall short, she’s not going to accept that... She sets the bar high for us.
Callie Parsons on Coach Gasso
There’s seems to be a sixth sense among the five seniors. Words aren’t always necessary to communicate. “There’s a sense we’re rooting for each other to do better, and we can all feel that,” Vest said. “We’re all very competitive, so that’s always going to be there, but we’re also supportive of each other rather than ‘Oh, I need to one-up you.’ ”
Gasso’s philosophy since her arrival in 1995 has been for players to check their egos at the door. “There have not really been any prima donnas, but when they get here, if they had any of that in them, they realize that it’s not acceptable or accepted,” Gasso said.
Casey laughed at the thought of Gasso giving preferential treatment to this special group of seniors. “No, she treats us pretty much the same as everybody else,” Casey said with a chuckle.
With OU softball, every season is NCAA championship or bust, and this year is no different.
“Every single year we expect to be in that championship game,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain survived last season with neither injury requiring surgery. She figures to once again terrorize opposing pitchers, at least those willing to throw her strikes.
With 72 career home runs, Chamberlain enters her final season threatening to break the all-time Division I record held by UCLA’s Stacey Nuveman (1997-2002) with 90.
Chamberlain knows she is close to the record, but insists she doesn’t know the exact number required. “You might want to look that one up,” she said with a chuckle. “I hear people talk about it, and I think it’s fun. There’s a lot of buzz about it.”
Does Chamberlain ignore the record or embrace it?
“Oh, heck, yeah. I’d love to break the record. Of course,” Chamberlain said.
And if she falls short? “I know personally where I stand as a player and as a hitter and what I’ve accomplished thus far,” Chamberlain said. “Breaking the record or not isn’t going to define me as a hitter, it’s not going to define me as a player and I’m pretty confident in myself as a human being before being a ballplayer.”
Even if Chamberlain falls short of the home run total she appears to be a lock to become the all-time Division I career leader in home runs per game. Nuveman owns the record with 90 homers in 264 career games (0.34). Chamberlain currently has 72 homers in just 164 games (0.44). Pendley isn’t far behind with 60 homers in 182 games (0.33).
The career stats of Chamberlain and Pendley are outrageous, yet both insist there is no competition between each other.
“We’re both extremely competitive,” Chamberlain said. “I think it naturally comes out on the field. When she’s doing well, I want to do well, too. It’s never, ever to the point where it’s taking away from either one of us.”
Gasso got an unexpected bonus from Pendley last season when the Sooners were struggling for depth at pitcher.
“Shelby came up to us (the coaching staff) and said, ‘I know we need help on the mound and I pitched in high school,’ ” Gasso recalled. “We were all, ‘Yeah. OK, right. Whatever.’ Then we thought, ‘Well, this is Shelby Pendley. Let’s see what it looks like.’ We snuck her into the indoor (practice facility) and (assistant head coach Melyssa) Lombardi was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s got some naturally good spin. Maybe we can play around with this.’ Two weeks later, Shelby’s pitching against Louisiana-Lafayette.”
Pendley made 23 appearances as a pitcher last season, had a 2-1 record with four saves and a 2.01 ERA. She is expected to pitch again this season behind ace Kelsey Stevens and alongside freshman Paige Parker.
“That kid didn’t have any fall training. She just had a week in the bullpen,” Gasso said of Pendley, the 2013 Big 12 Player of the Year and a first-team All-American at third base last season. “Now she’s had a full semester of being in the bullpen, and she’s nasty. She just moves the ball and hovers it. It’s almost like she’s got the ball on a string and is saying ‘try to hit that.’ It’s really impressive. When I look at last season, what we did on the mound was incredible. What Shelby did to help us was incredible. Everybody kept stepping up.”
Pendley said, “The transformation from the beginning of the season to the end, how much we came together as a team, it was cool to see.”
En route to winning the 2013 NCAA crown, the 21 players on OU’s roster wore T-shirts that read “21 Strong.” This year’s T-shirt reads “We Won’t Be Shaken.”
More of the same is expected from this year’s Sooners, who were ranked No. 4 in the USA Today/NFCA preseason poll. For the third straight season (and sixth time in the last seven years), OU topped the Big 12 coaches’ preseason poll. Chamberlain, Pendley and Stevens were each named to the Top 50 Watch List for the 2015 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award.
Gasso also speaks glowingly of a freshman class that has four potential starters in Parker, shortstop Kelsey Arnold, leftfielder Lea Wodach and centerfielder Nicole Pendley (younger sister of Shelby).When discussing the potency of this year’s squad, Gasso suddenly loses her poker face. “This team is really, really good. I’m really excited,” Gasso said. “There are no holes here. It’s a good mixture of all classes working together well. They’re all back, they’re all healthy and they’re all hungry because they didn’t finish the way they wanted to last season.”
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|