I t’s not where you start but where you finish that counts. For this year’s Oklahoma softball team, it will be about both.
Last year’s Sooners began with somewhat modest expectations and promptly were humbled with an 0-2 start on opening day. Steadily they climbed from a season-low No. 14 national ranking and finished at No. 1 by winning 57 of their final 63 games to claim the program’s third NCAA Championship.
This year’s Sooners have the formidable task of finishing the season precisely where they started.
The defending champs are a unanimous pick at No. 1 in this year’s NFCA and USA Collegiate Softball preseason polls, marking only the fourth time in the 23-year history of the NFCA poll a team was a unanimous preseason pick at No. 1 – joining Arizona (1998), Washington (2010) and Arizona State (2012).
Somewhat shockingly, it also marks the first time in OU’s storied history it has been placed atop a national preseason poll, having previously topped out at No. 2 prior to the 2002, 2013 and 2014 seasons.
It won’t take long to see how this year’s Sooners measure up nationally. In a rematch of last year’s championship at the Women’s College World Series, OU faces No. 2-ranked Auburn on Thursday at 1 p.m. in a nationally televised (ESPNU) season opener at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge in Mexico.
"You embrace it, but you don’t let it get caught in your head."
— Head Coach Patty Gasso on being the unanimous preseason No. 1
“What a genius setup that neither one of us knew about until it was announced,” Sooners coach Patty Gasso said, forcing a laugh about opening against the Tigers. “We committed to be in the tournament, but we didn’t know who else was going to be in it. Then I saw the field and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in this tournament.’ But you know, it’s good for our sport.”
It will be the first time in Division I softball history that national finalists from the previous year will meet in their season opener the following year.
“Auburn is a fantastic team and it’s going to be an awesome game,” said OU junior pitcher and two-time All-American Paige Parker. “More than anything, it’s going to be a business trip. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
This year’s business schedule includes two other games against preseason Top-10 teams in No. 8 UCLA (Feb. 24 in Palm Springs, Calif.) and No. 10 Arizona (March 14 in Long Beach, Calif.).
Preseason polls are embraced by some and ignored by others. They can fuel a fire or douse dreams. So, how should the Sooners approach their No. 1 preseason ranking?
“We have to embrace it,” Gasso said, “but at the same I think the first thing I said to the team was, ‘This isn’t for you. This is from what we did (last season), but this isn’t from anything we’ve done (this season).’ This is an honor, but we don’t look at it as really meaning much, so our goal is to earn that ourselves. … You embrace it, but you don’t let it get caught in your head.”
Lofty expectations are synonymous with Gasso, an NFCA Hall of Famer who enters her 23rd season with the Sooners since arriving from Long Beach State. Gasso’s impressive resume at OU includes a 1,085-313-2 (.776) overall record with three NCAA championships, 10 WCWS appearances and 13 Big 12 titles, all while advancing to postseason play every year.
This year’s team theme is “The Story Continues …” And if the story indeed continues, these young and talented Sooners could be looking at an NCAA three-peat next season.
This year’s roster shows why OU was placed atop every preseason ballot. Eight starters (six of them All-Big 12 honorees) return as national champs, and all of them are underclassmen. Utility player Macey Hatfield is the team’s lone senior and is joined by six juniors, six sophomores, plus five freshmen who comprise Gasso’s strongest recruiting class to date that also includes two transfers.
Parker (2016 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year), first baseman Shay Knighten (Big 12 Freshman of the Year) and shortstop Kelsey Arnold (Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year) are joined by fellow starters in second baseman Caleigh Clifton, third baseman Sydney Romero, centerfielder Nicole Pendley, designated player Fale Aviu and catcher Lea Wodach.
Parker, Knighten and Romero were selected to the Top 50 “Watch List” for the 2017 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award.
Freshman Alissa Dalton is slated to start at one of the outfield spots vacated by departed seniors Erin Miller and Kady Self, while seven players battle for the other starting spot in the outfield.
“Right now, I have her in the outfield,” Gasso said of the athletic and versatile Dalton, who was one of 24 players invited to the 2017 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team training camp after the season. “But if anyone were to have a problem, or they weren’t getting it done or weren’t hitting, she can play literally any position in the infield really, really well. It’s not that she’s not good enough to be there (starting in the infield) … Right now, they’re all so good at defense that she’s not that much ahead of them defensively. I think starting her in the outfield will allow her to exhale and really swing (at the plate).”
Dalton verbally committed to OU during her freshman year in high school and said she’ll be happy to play “anywhere coach wants me” while trying to crack collegiate softball’s premier lineup.
“It’s kind of cool working with them and practicing with them,” Dalton said of her new teammates. “It’s easy to work hard here. Everybody wants in. Everybody’s doing the best they can. You give it your all every day.”
Dalton has a tough act to follow in Knighten, who as a freshman led the Sooners in hitting (.397), slugging percentage (.670), home runs (13) and RBI (62) last season. Knighten’s many heroics included blasting walk-off home runs to beat No. 6-ranked Alabama – twice. The first came March 19 on a two-run shot for a 2-0 victory in Fullerton, Calif. The second walk-off was a 3-run shot in the eighth for a 3-0 victory over the Crimson Tide in the opening round at the WCWS.
“Honestly, it’s still kind of a blur what happened,” said a still-smiling Knighten. “It happened so fast and it was so much fun. It was more of, ‘My team did this to help me do that.’ I thought a lot more about my team than I thought of myself individually.”
Gasso admits having guilt pains for how heavily she leaned on the left-handed Parker (38-3; 1.64 ERA; 269 strikeouts in 252.1 innings) last year. “I’ll be honest, it was very uncomfortable,” Gasso said. “It was such a joy to watch, but very uncomfortable from a personal side.”
With an opportunity to win the 2016 national title and close out the season with a 32-game winning streak, Gasso instead chose to sit an exhausted Parker for Game Two in the best-of-three championship series against Auburn. Trailing 7-0 in the second inning, the Tigers fought back to win 11-7 on a walk-off grand slam in the eighth.
Now a junior, Paige Parker went 10-0 in throwing 69.0 of the team's 76.1 postseason innings a year ago.
“I knew I was going to take a lot of heat, but I didn’t care,” Gasso recalled of her decision to rest Parker. “That was like the last straw. That was my dead end. I knew there was no way I could put that girl (Parker) in. It would have been a no-win situation. I couldn’t do it. I pushed myself beyond the limit and when I got to that point with her, she didn’t beg me (to start). She didn’t say, ‘Please, don’t do this.’”
Now fully rested like never before, Parker shrugged off her marathon performances last season.
“I did everything I could to make sure my body was ready as much as I could,” said Parker, who is 66-10 with a 1.64 ERA in her two seasons at OU. “Really, I didn’t even think about it. I was just grinding and did whatever I could to help the team.”
In an effort not to put herself in a similar situation to last year, Gasso loaded her pitching staff with the arrivals of hard-throwing, left-handed junior Paige Lowary, a transfer from Missouri, right-handed freshmen Melanie Olmos and Mariah Lopez and left-handed freshman Nicole Mendes, who is listed as a utility player.
Lowary has a 73-mph fastball.
“It’s very impressive how hard she throws the ball,” said Parker, whose fastball tops out at 65 mph.
Meanwhile, Olmos offers an array of off-speed pitches from the low-50s to low-60s.
“They’re all quite different,” Gasso said of her staff. “It could really be a broad change that can be tough to deal with (for opponents). I’m still trying to figure out the combinations and how we want to use them.”
Last year’s Sooners were an impressive combination of offense and defense, ranking second nationally in both team batting average (.351) and fielding percentage (.983). This season figures to bring more of the same, plus an intriguing amalgamation inside the pitcher’s circle.
Parker is a proven commodity while Lowary is a wildcard, so to speak.
“It’s very much like I don’t know where it’s going, but (the ball is coming in) so hard that it’s very effective,” Gasso said of Lowary, who was 43-15 in her two seasons at Missouri. “Our hitters are uncomfortable getting into the box against her. It’s hard to execute against her because you don’t know what’s coming. There’s no rhythm to it. It’s crazy. She’s still working some things out, but the speed right now is undeniable. She can throw it by people.”
The entire starting infield remains intact, including at pitcher and catcher.
“Hit them a lot of ground balls, and that’s about all I do,” Gasso said when asked how to make her team defense even better. “I don’t know what else to teach them. They (already) know. We just go over things. When you have a team that’s gone all the way and won it, experience is the most valuable thing you can have.
“That’s the one thing that trumps us over everybody else is that we know how to do it. We did it. So these guys just take over. I work real hard with the outfield because the outfield is not quite as strong as the infield.”
"When you have a team that’s gone all the way and won it, experience is the most valuable thing you can have."
— Head Coach Patty Gasso
The only unknown is who will flank Pendley in left field and right field. That will depend on which Paige is pitching and the opposing team’s batting lineup. If Parker is pitching, hitters would be more prone to pull the ball than they would facing Lowary. Dalton will start in left or right field, depending on the more frequent lefty-righty matchups at the plate.
The Sooners have dominated the Big 12 and are undefeated in their last 37 conference series, going 33-0-4. The league’s next longest active series unbeaten streak is Baylor at 3-0-0. OU is the five-time reigning Big 12 regular-season champ and also claimed four Big 12 Tournament titles before the event was discontinued in 2010. The conference tournament will return this season to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on May 12-13.
The Sooners are overwhelming favorites to win a sixth straight Big 12 crown. They received six of seven votes in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll, which essentially equates to another unanimous selection for OU because coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team. As a result, Gasso gave Texas its lone first-place vote, but it’s safe to assume she likes her team’s chances.
This season will be the third time Gasso has tried to successfully defend the NCAA crown.“I think I’ve learned a lot since then, trying to relieve the pressure and the stress (of a season),” Gasso said. “It’s not that we’re talking repeat, it’s everyone around us talking that. We’ve added more pitching and everything should be in order, but it’s such a different dynamic with new freshmen with different personalities than the freshmen we had before. It’s more about embracing the journey and the process of everything versus looking at the result and outcome. Before I was much more focused toward success and winning, and winning, and winning, and it wasn’t healthy for anyone. I’ve evolved quite a bit.”