2006 OU Softball
The 2006 softball season officially started Tuesday, Jan. 17 when the Sooners reported for individual practices. Team practices begin Monday, Jan. 23. OU will have four weeks of preparation before competing in its opening season tournament, the UNLV Alexis Resort Kickoff Classic, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Feb. 10-13).
In preparation for the upcoming season, SoonerSports.com will preview the 2006 Oklahoma softball team under the direction of head coach Patty Gasso, who is in her 12th year at the helm of the Sooner program. The final part in the series features a brief overview of the pitchers and the batting lineup.
IN THE CIRCLE
The biggest impact on the on the Sooners this season will be the production from the circle. With the graduation of three-year starter and four-time All-Big 12 performer Kami Keiter, there are plenty of question marks entering the 2006 season. However, Oklahoma’s biggest weakness entering the season could be its strongest link by the end of the year with a five-member pitching staff.
The veteran and leader of the group is senior Nicole Denes. The 5-11 right-hander made a tremendous comeback in 2005. After being sidelined for 30 games of her sophomore season due to heart surgery for a heart arrhythmia, Denes finished with an 8-1 mark as the third option on the OU staff in 2005.
“I’m really rooting for Nicole to have a great season,” Gasso said. “She has overcome so much adversity and has gained so much respect from her teammates in the process. She has really worked hard to get back to where she was.”
Sophomores Stacy Braddock and Jadyn Smith will also be vying for time in the circle. Braddock, a 6-1 right-handed hurler, is an intimidating force in the circle and has great leverage on her rise ball because of her height. In addition, her off speed pitches, combined with her methodical delivery, provide a tough match up for any hitter.
Smith also returns with a year of maturity in the OU system. The feisty right-handed pitcher was the surprise contributor last season and was often thought of as the No. 1 pitcher at times this past fall. She became a spark plug that the defense loves playing behind and also provides a variety of pitches that will keep hitters off balance.
Also providing competition and depth to the staff are freshmen D.J. Mathis and Morgan Hudsonpillar.
Mathis shined in the fall in individual practices and brings a blue collar work ethic to the staff. The coaching staff is extremely encouraged by the strides Mathis has made in only a few months with the program. The lone left-handed pitcher on the squad has an arsenal of pitches as well as an expanded zone that allows her success in the circle.
After taking the fall off, Hudsonpillar has shown increased maturity in her game and has not missed a beat. The 5-11 right-hander has improved her strength and provides a variety of pitches, including an outstanding change up and flip change.
“While we have a lot of unanswered questions, we also know that these five have incredible potential,” Gasso said. “The best thing about all of them is that they bring a variety of pitches in the circle and each one of them complements the others so well. Right now they are our best kept secret!”
All-Americans Kristin Vesely and Norrelle Dickson return as the offensive sparks to the Sooner lineup. Interchangeable at the one and two slots, the lefties bring speed and experience to a youthful lineup.
Vesely took home the Big 12 batting title in 2005 after hitting .451, which set an OU single season record and ranked sixth in the NCAA.
As a sophomore last season, Dickson hit .455 in the NCAA Regional and combined with Vesely to score five of OU’s 10 runs en route to the Sooners’ Regional 14 Championship.
After seeking a redshirt year last season, Mariee Mena’s powerful bat returns. The junior will bring her line drive hitting and power to a possible third spot in the lineup. In 2004, Mena hit at an impressive .429 clip in the WCWS.
“Mariee will be in the lineup for us in some way, shape or form,” Gasso said. “Her offense brings so much to our club that we must have her bat in the lineup for us.”
Jamie Fox will also be considered near the top of the lineup with the offensive force the right fielder brings to the plate. Fox improved her batting average to .306 as a sophomore and produced more RBI last season (44) than any current Sooner.
Also competing for time in the heart of the lineup is sophomore Savannah Long who had a tremendous fall, leading the team in home runs, RBI and total bases.
Another option in the four or five slot remains with catchers Susan Ogden, a sophomore, and Samantha Ricketts, a freshman. Both bring a lot of power to the plate.
The latter part of the lineup remains a question mark going into the season with the young squad.
“Our freshman infielders will make up the bottom part of the order, but don’t let that fool you,” Gasso said. “They have really strong swings and can hit the ball extremely hard. We just want to give them time to figure it out.”
Rounding out the Sooner lineup is the possibility of Amber Spaulding. The junior outfielder brings incredible speed. Spaulding has made tremendous improvement in the offseason and has added power to her hitting, which could move her up in the lineup.
“It’s going to be really fun at the beginning of the season,” Gasso said. “That’s when we’re really going to figure out who is going to step forward and whose bat we can rely upon in the lineup.”