Sooners Primed for Title Defense

John Rohde
By John Rohde Contributor

Within minutes after her team repeated as national champions at the Women’s College World Series last season, Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso was asked about the chances of a three-peat.

Gasso smiled, but didn’t want to discuss the prospect of capturing three straight national titles. Eight months later, the NFCA Hall of Fame coach still de-emphasizes the matter with the 2018 season ready to commence on Friday.

The Sooners have won four NCAA titles this millennium (2000, 2013, 2016, 2017) under Gasso, which includes winning three of the last five crowns.   

High expectations are an annual occurrence under Gasso, who has led the Sooners to 11 WCWS appearances, 23 straight postseason appearances and six straight Big 12 Conference titles.

Much also was expected from last year’s squad, which began as the unanimous No. 1 national pick in major preseason polls. OU promptly lost its season opener to No. 2-ranked Auburn in Mexico and fell to 2-2 with a loss to No. 13 Washington in the same tournament. Through 13 games, the Sooners owned a 9-4 record and had fallen to No. 9 in the polls, then later slipped to No. 13 with a 23-7 mark after being swept by unranked Cal Poly in mid-March.

That’s when OU stabilized and lived up to its lofty expectations to finish 61-9 overall, closing the season with an 11-game winning streak and victories in 38 of its last 40 games. Gasso said her team’s poor fall preparation was responsible for last season’s rocky start and vows this year’s group will not allow a repeat performance.

“With so many returners, they recognized they wasted their fall and they had a very slow start last season,” Gasso explained. “They’re smart enough to know we’re not going to let that happen again. … They’re on a mission and I don’t know that many people believe this, but they’re not looking at the final outcome (this season). They know there’s a big journey and we’re going to take a lot of blows along the way, but they are really anxious to get started.”

OU once again has been selected No. 1 in major preseason polls, capturing 31 of 32 first-place votes in the USA Today/NFCA poll and all 18 first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Softball poll.

Gasso has built a powerhouse program that reloads far more frequently than it rebuilds. This year’s roster might qualify as being overloaded, having lost only one senior starter off last year’s championship squad in leftfielder Macey Hatfield (.263 average; .362 on-base percentage).

Individually, a nation-high five Sooners have been named to this year’s USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List in pitchers Paige Parker (26-5 record; 1.43 ERA; 262 strikeouts in 210.1 innings last season) and Paige Lowary (16-3; 1.53 ERA; 122 strikeouts in 146.2 innings), plus infielders Shay Knighten (.358 average; 11 home runs; 70 RBI; .575 slugging percentage), Caleigh Clifton (.356 average; .557 slugging; .528 on-base) and Sydney Romero (.339 average; 12 home runs; 59 RBI; .559 slugging).

“We’ve got really a lot of depth this season,” Gasso admitted. “I honestly can’t remember the last time we only had one senior. It’s unique. I know from experience that experience is a difference-maker.”

With so much hype surrounding this year’s team, the Sooners understandably could struggle with complacency. “I thought their mindset would be, ‘Well, we’ve won two, so …,’” Gasso said. “But no, it’s not enough.”

This year’s recruiting class features five newcomers, including heralded freshman Jocelyn Alo, who is battling for Hatfield’s starting outfield spot alongside junior Fale Aviu, a second-team All-Big 12 pick last season.

“She can swing it in a way like (all-time NCAA home run and slugging percentage leader) Lauren Chamberlain, but maybe as a freshman with even more power,” Gasso said of the right-handed hitting Alo, who hails from Hauula, Hawaii. “The idea we’re having right now is maybe let’s throw her out there in the leadoff spot, just like we used to do with Lauren Chamberlain and say, ‘Welcome to Sooner softball – 2018,’ because she hits the ball so hard that it’s scary. I’m really excited about what she can do.”

Alo’s overwhelming power also quickly impressed her new teammates.

“She probably hits the ball harder than anybody I’ve ever faced,” Parker said.

“It’s scary how strong that girl is,” Knighten said.

“Playing second base with a righty up, I’m not normally scared someone is going to drill one at me, (but) I am with Jocelyn,” Clifton said. “She hits it hard. Every pitch.”

In Gasso’s opinion, this year’s team possesses arguably the deepest, most talented, pitching staff in OU history. The imposing crew consists of left-handed seniors in Parker and Lowary, right-handed sophomore Mariah Lopez (18-1 record, 2.08 ERA), right-handed sophomore Melanie Olmos, right-handed sophomore transfer Parker Conrad and left-handed sophomore utility player Nicole Mendes (1-0; 0.75 ERA; .408 batting average; .598 slugging).

Conrad transferred from University of Missouri, the same school WCWS all-tournament selection Lowary came from the previous offseason.

“I kind of see myself from last year in her, which is kind of cool to see,” Lowary said. “It’s cool to see the transformation she’s had over the fall because she’s gotten so comfortable.”

The pitching staff repeatedly has dominated intrasquad scrimmages in preparation for the season.

“They’re owning us at practice. That’s all I can say,” Gasso said with a chuckle. “We can’t wait to see another pitcher because they’re really throwing well – all of them. I feel Paige Lowary on a mission. I feel Paige Parker on a mission. She’s feeling healthy and looking good on the mound. Parker Conrad is learning and reminds me somewhat of what we saw in Paige Lowary. Mariah Lopez is someone to pay attention to because she’s had a really, really good fall. Nicole Mendes is great.”

The OU pitching staff now is comprised of the rather confusing combination of two players named Paige and two named Parker. To simplify things, Paige Parker explained she is simply known as “Paige,” Lowary is called “P-Low” and Conrad goes by “Parky” or “Parker.”

Gasso said some returning position players are in a fight to remain in the starting lineup.

“The depth is making a difference because there are challenges and there are battles and you can see people elevating their game,” Gasso said. “It’s almost too easy to coach (this team) because what else can I teach them? I just make sure they don’t get sloppy in some ways.”

The Sooners open the 2018 season Friday when they take on Weber State (3:30 p.m. CT) and Grand Canyon (6:30) in the GCU Kickoff Tournament in Phoenix. On Saturday, OU will play Montana (12:30) and Grand Canyon (5:30) again before closing the event against the University of the Pacific on Sunday (11 a.m.).

Gasso said she expects this year’s team to be dominant from the start.

“It’s now about putting it out there,” Gasso said. “That’s what I expect and I think that’s what they expect. I trust this group like no other team. I really do. Our intrasquad scrimmages are something that look like postseason matches at times, so it’s going to be nice to see a new jersey on somebody (else).”