NORMAN – What a difference a year makes.
At this time last season, Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso was trying to figure out how to replace the 2015 senior class that included the NCAA’s all-time home run leader in Lauren Chamberlain, three-time All-American Shelby Pendley and Georgia Casey, who was twice named to the All-Big 12 First Team.
The eight-person freshman class that Gasso brought in to help replace them was the largest at OU since the 1988 season. As the season approached, the outfield was pretty much intact and the battery was set, but the infield would feature three new faces.
Even with positions being locked down, there was still the matter of a batting order. In fact, the lineup that helped the team win a school record 31 straight games didn’t take shape until early April. Prior to that, the lineup was still very much a work-in-progress.
Fast forward to June 8 and the Sooners had won their third national title in program history. And the cherry on top was that of the 10 starters in OU’s lineup that night, eight would be returning in 2017.
Of course, that makes preparation for the upcoming season a much different endeavor than at this same point last year. While the question for Gasso last year may have been how the freshmen were going to replace the lost production, the question this year could be just how the seven newcomers (five freshmen, two transfers) would fit into an already established roster.
“Well, I think last year we knew that we were starting all over again,” Gasso said. “It just felt like there was so much teaching going on. Everybody got a lot of opportunities; it took me a while to get settled on a lineup.
“This year we had some holes to fill and one of our goals was to get a pitching staff that doesn’t just have to live off Paige Parker. We have been able to do that and add Alissa Dalton, Vanessa Taukeiaho and those guys are going to be able to help us in the outfield as well as some of the returners who did not get a lot of playing time, but who have really elevated their game.”
The biggest area where the newcomers can make an impact in 2017 is likely in the pitcher’s circle, as Gasso noted.
Kelsey Stevens exhausted her eligibility, while a pair of freshmen left the program, leaving Paige Parker as the only returning pitcher from a year ago. Luckily for her and OU, four new bodies are in the mix to add depth and bolster the staff: junior transfer Paige Lowary from Missouri and freshmen Mariah Lopez, Nicole Mendes and Melanie Olmos.
“Paige Lowary we had to go in and make some significant changes with her delivery,” Gasso said. “We worked really hard with Coach [Melyssa] Lombardi. Paige throws the ball really hard, just working on accuracy and getting that down. She is a force. She is an athlete. This is something that we haven’t had in a while probably since [Keilani] Ricketts, someone who can throw upper 60s and into the 70s.
“Mariah is another hard thrower and has really benefited from the fall; working on her moving pitches and working to consistently hit some spots. Mel has really had a good last couple of weeks so I am really excited to see how she can offset this pitching staff because she can change speeds really well. She is just a gamer, she is a fighter on the mound. Then you have Nicole Mendes, who is just another gifted athlete that can come in and help us, another lefty. They are all going to be able to contribute, without a doubt.”
With three left-handed pitchers and two right-handers in the mix, Gasso has plenty of options for the rotation moving forward.
“A lot of these guys can offset someone else, so it’s just starting to recognize how those combinations are going to work when you do not have a set plan,” she said. “We need to experience more of what they can do in real game action. What is hard about the fall is that there is so much different from October to January. They are different pitchers from what they were back then. Now it’s just seeing what is the most effective combinations and we will figure that out quick.”
"They are all going to be able to contribute, without a doubt."
— Patty Gasso on the Sooners' new pitchers
In addition to the pitchers, Gasso has also brought Dalton, Taukeiaho and junior transfer catcher Hannah Sparks from Northwest Florida State College.
Though two starting spots in the outfield opened up after 2016, it appears that Dalton already has already claimed one for herself.
“Alissa can do so many things,” Gasso said. “If we needed help in the infield because of injury or so forth she could come in to literally any position and do a fantastic job. She right now is going to be in our lineup offensively and defensively.”
Unfortunately for Taukeiaho, she suffered a knee injury early in fall practice, wiping out valuable learning time. She did what she could though to stay involved.
“She did a really good job of hanging around, listening and being involved in watching what we were doing and doing what she could do with the injury,” Gasso said. “I think that was key for her, she still has a long way(s) to go but just seeing her back in movement is exciting because Vanessa has a very powerful bat.
“She can do some stuff for us offensively, but it’s just getting her game wits about her because when you are not running the bases, and you are not playing in an everyday outfield you lose a step or you lose your mind of thinking and not reacting naturally. Sometimes I think she gets stuck in that but I am really excited about her, and we are going to be working really hard to get her to be an option this season.”
Sparks will be looked on to provide depth behind returning starter Lea Wodach behind the plate.
“Hannah is getting better every day,” according to Gasso. “I think she has the feeling of coming into a big program and having to be great right now, and the harder she tries the tougher it is. She is very talented; the game is set up for her and she is dealing with a really fantastic pitching staff so I think that as well has gotten her in a tough position to come in and be effective immediately. But she is learning from Lea and I think she is another great example of someone that just needs game experience at this speed.”
In addition to the circle, Gasso also feels that Mendes is a versatile player that can fill almost any spot in the lineup.
“Nicole is a version somewhat of Shelby Pendley; she can pitch, play first, play the outfield, she runs really well,” Gasso explained. “She has a good bat. Again, just experience and keeping her feet on the ground will help her become someone who can help us.”
While the freshmen have displayed their talents so far in preseason practices and during the fall, the season is a whole new ballgame.
“I think probably the first three weeks will really change them, that’s what happened to these freshmen last year,” Gasso said. “I think Alissa Dalton has come in very seasoned. I feel like the others are a little bit raw, but at the same time some of them just have to get their feet planted. They are trying to do too much too fast, I think every athlete comes in wanting to be great right away.
“We just need to play, that will really get them settled in and show us more of what they have to do. They are surrounded by really great players and they put a lot of pressure on themselves to beat that and we just have to let it play itself out.”