A little over three months have passed since the Oklahoma softball team shut out Tennessee, 4-0, in game two of the Women’s College World Series to capture the second national championship in program history and cap off one of the most dominant seasons in recent history.
While the Sooners had the summer to reflect on their accomplishments, the returning players were back out on the practice field Monday for their first fall practice. It’s the beginning of a journey for Oklahoma as it looks to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Arizona in 2006 and 2007.
When the team entered fall camp in 2012, it needed little motivation as the feelings still lingered from a loss to Alabama for the national title. This season, with the title in Norman, the squad’s motivation is a slightly different.
Four seniors graduated last season: two-time USA Softball National Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts, three-time All-American Jessica Shults and All-Big 12 honorees Michelle Gascoigne and Brianna Turang. It was a highly-decorated class and one that played an integral role in the Sooners winning the title, but head coach Patty Gasso thinks the team this fall is looking to establish its own identity.
“We love Keilani Ricketts, Jessica Shults, all of our seniors who have gone off. We love them but we want to show you that we are still pretty athletic,” Gasso said. “We can still find ways to get it done; it just might not look the same. We are still athletic enough that we can do it.”
Ricketts and Gascoigne combined to throw 96.7 percent of the team’s innings a year ago. Junior Georgia Casey is the only player on the roster that has started a game in the circle.
Casey threw 4.2 shutout innings a year ago, while freshmen Taylor Dewbery and Leslie Miller each went 1-0 but only threw 4.1 and 3.2 innings, respectively. The team also welcomes transfer pitchers Kelsey Stevens, who was 15-7 with a 2.99 earned run average a year ago at Stanford, and Maggie Ham, who pitched last season at Butler Community College.
Gasso says she has six pitchers in camp right now and wants three of them to step up to be counted on at any moment.
“I’m excited about what our newcomers are doing,” Gasso said. “Maggie Ham is throwing the ball hard and has some pretty good movement. It is really going to be an important fall for her to develop and make her very effective. Kelsey [Stevens] is very smooth pitcher and our goal right now is just to get her stronger but she is going to be very effective.
“Georgia is back on the mound; it is fun to see her. She is just a hard worker and a blue-collar pitcher that may not get eight or nine strikeouts a game but she is going to find a way to get you out. And as team we understand, if we get 14 strikeouts a game, great, if we get two strikeouts a game, it’s also great.
In addition to pitching, Gasso is looking to see the team step up vocally, especially among the returning sophomores, and wants to get newcomers, like Stevens, Ham and freshman Tyler Lucas, acclimated to the Sooners’ style.
“I had seven freshmen last year that were learning a lot,” she said. “They were kind of hiding behind everybody else, a little bit shy and uncertain of things. My hope is that these guys step forward and make a more active role in what we are doing and stand on their own and believe that they are ready and good enough for it.
“Lastly, I want to make these transfers comfortable with what we are doing. This is also the first time we have had Shelby [Pendley] in the fall, so some of this is a little new for her. But I want these transfers to understand the level of play we expect.”
With two days of fall practice in the books, Gasso is encouraged with what she’s seen, especially from the hitters.
“I think we’re going to be a team that continues to crush the ball,” she said. “Offensively, this early in the season, we are in a very, very good place. With pretty much the entire infield back, it feels a lot of the same, but different as well. By the same, I mean working with the offense. You can see the same kind of powerful swings.
“I think one thing I have also noticed is a different maturity from our sophomores who know that they need to step forward. You can see them working towards that and some hard hitting going on from that crew.”
Shults and Gascoigne are still with the team but as graduate assistants, meaning new players will have to step into leadership roles.
“We’re feeling a little bit more of the leadership of Lauren [Chamberlain], Georgia [Casey],” Gasso said.
“But you are also seeing some of the girls who are a little quieter like Callie [Parsons] and Jessica Vest being a little bit more vocal with what they’re doing. I am seeing a team that is hungry and very confident.
“The defense is going to have to find ways to make plays. We are ready for that. And of course our offense is going to score runs. It is just going to be a different way of going about winning. It might not look exactly the same as it did last year, but I think we have a pitching staff that can definitely hold their own.”