or the Oklahoma softball team, the sting still remains.
Last season, for the first time in three years, team members did not win the national championship. After capturing back-to-back NCAA crowns in 2016 and 2017, the Sooners had to settle for a No. 4 final ranking after being eliminated in the 2018 Women’s College World Series with two losses to eventual national runner-up Washington.
For last year’s juniors and sophomores, it was the first time they finished the season with a loss.
“Finishing fourth in the country is not so bad,” 25th-year Sooners head coach Patty Gasso explained. “But for a class that doesn’t even know what that feels like (to not win the national title) until they were juniors, that’s a pretty big deal. It stung them.”
OU’s pursuit to alleviate last year’s pain begins Friday with a double-header at the Grand Canyon University Kickoff Tournament in Phoenix against Syracuse (3:30 p.m. CT) and Grand Canyon (6 p.m.)
Gasso’s quick overview of this year’s team: “Offense is strong. Upperclassmen (are) great leaders. Defense is going to be strong. We’re faster than we’ve ever been, so I’m really excited. I think this is going to be a team that makes some noise throughout the season.”
The Sooners are ranked No. 4 in both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate preseason polls, marking the ninth straight year they have started in the NFCA’s preseason Top 10, which is the nation’s longest active streak. OU also is the overwhelming favorite to win its eighth consecutive Big 12 Conference crown.
The Sooners are scheduled to face eight ranked teams over 15 games this season: No. 1/3 (NFCA/USA) and defending national champion Florida State, No. 2/1 UCLA, No. 7/6 Arizona, No. 13/15 Kentucky, No. 15/18 Louisiana, No. 16/16 Texas, No. 18/19 Baylor and No. 22/21 Oklahoma State. Nine other opponents also received votes in the NFCA poll.
Last year marked the 12th WCWS appearance this millennium for OU, which finished with a 57-5 overall record and went a perfect 18-0 in Big 12 play, winning the conference title by six games.
Gasso said this year’s squad, like many of her past teams, is incredibly self-motivated, so no prodding will be necessary in their quest to remain at the elite level.
“And that’s the beauty of it,” Gasso said. “Probably one of the hardest things to watch – but the best thing to happen – is that we did lose (at the WCWS). Sometimes when players get in their senior years they’re like, ‘OK, this has been fun, but I’m over it. I’m ready to move on, find out what the next chapter in my life is.’ But they’re not done and you can feel that. They still sting from that (last year’s finish).”
OU returns two first-team All-Americans in senior infielder Sydney Romero and sophomore utility player Jocelyn Alo. Also returning are All-Region honorees in seniors Shay Knighten and Caleigh Clifton, plus junior Nicole Mendes.
“The team looks quite different,” said Gasso, an NFCA Hall of Famer, who has been tabbed Big 12 Coach of the Year seven straight seasons. “We lost some very valuable seniors, but we’ve got some really outstanding freshmen.”
“Offense is strong. Upperclassmen (are) great leaders. Defense is going to be strong. We’re faster than we’ve ever been, so I’m really excited. I think this is going to be a team that makes some noise throughout the season.”
– Patty Gasso
Alo was selected Freshman of the Year and a First-Team All-American by the NFCA and started all 62 games (39 as designated player, 23 in left field) last season. She led the nation in home runs (tying Lauren Chamberlain’s OU record with 30), home runs per game (0.48) and total bases (170) and also led the Sooners in batting average (.420), RBIs (72), total bases (170), slugging percentage (.977), on-base percentage (.549) and walks (14).
Alo, Romero and left-handed junior pitcher Giselle Juarez, a transfer from Arizona State, are on the Top 50 Watch list for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
Lost to graduation was OU’s overwhelming combination of left-hander Paige Parker, a four-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, and flame-throwing lefty Paige Lowary, the No. 1 draft pick last year in the National Pro Fastpitch League.
An NFCA First-Team All-American last season, the 6-foot Juarez will try to off-set those losses. She finished with a 26-6 record and 1.22 ERA for the Sun Devils last season, allowing just 39 runs on 91 hits over 224.1 innings while registering 305 strikeouts (one of just nine Division I pitchers to reach 300 strikeouts) and tossing 13 shutouts.
“Giselle is a lot like, in a different way, Paige Parker,” Gasso said. “She can mix things, move things, keep hitters off-balance. She’s a phenomenal addition to this group.”
More than anything, the Sooners’ entire pitching staff will gang up on opponents.
“This year’s going to be more of a pitching staff by committee,” Gasso said. “We’ve got six options, and they’re all good options, but we believe we’re going to piece it together this year in that direction.”
This year’s starting lineup will likely include a pair of freshmen in Grace Green and Grace Lyons in the infield. “They’re good. They’re talented. It’s a very talented freshman group,” Gasso said.
Also expected to earn time in the infield are Clifton (.293 batting average; 13 stolen bases; seven home runs), Romero (.395 average; 77 hits; 61 RBI; .651 slugging percentage; 12 home runs) and Knighten (.353 average; .567 slugging; eight home runs) with sophomore Lynnsie Elam (.267 in 15 at-bats) at catcher. The outfield will consist of Alo, Mendes (.309 average; 13 stolen bases, five triples; 57 starts), Falepolima Aviu (.276 average; .417 slugging; 59 starts), Eliyah Flores (.321 average; .464 slugging) and Raegan Rogers (.319 average; .404 slugging; eight stolen bases, 10 starts), although the starters yet to be determined.
“What’s really cool about these guys is they’re so secure in who they are, they don’t go in the dugout and start freakin’ out or get mad at themselves,” Gasso said. “Maybe on occasion they might, but they’ve learned through their career the lesson that does not help me here. We never make someone feel the pressure because it certainly wouldn’t work out the way we want it to. This team is pretty secure in who they are. They’re not afraid of failure, so to speak.”
Also gone is longtime associate head coach/pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi, who left after 21 seasons alongside Gasso to become Oregon’s head coach last July. Gasso replaced her by luring former OU player (1996-98) and graduate assistant (1999-2001) Jennifer Rocha back after spending the last 13 seasons at Florida.
Gasso also hired former OU great Keilani Ricketts as a volunteer assistant coach. Ricketts is a four-time All-American (2010-13), a two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year (2012-13) and is one of just three players in history to be named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year more than once. She finished her career with several school records, including walks drawn (170), wins (133), appearances (192), starts by a pitcher (163), complete games (123), innings pitched (1074.1), strikeouts (1605), strikeout rate (10.46) and shutouts (54).
The mere mention of Ricketts’ name still makes Gasso laugh.
“More than anything, she brings joy,” Gasso said of Ricketts. “She can be an intimidating force, but the way I know her, she is needed in the locker room or on the field. She has a different style that is not overly stressed. She just enjoys being around the game. I think our players have seen her from a different side and it’s made them a lot looser. She (still) wants to pitch. She doesn’t want to coach first base, but we’re working on it. I think it would be a nice look for the Sooners to have Miss Ricketts at first base just for who she is and what she’s accomplished, but it’s still a work in progress.”
Ricketts’ mere presence quickly made an impression on current players.
“Growing up, I watched her play and she always looked so fierce,” Clifton said. “She’s totally different from what I used to see her play with. She’s crazy. She’s very, very goofy and she keeps things light and fun.”
Romero added, “She’s makes us better every single day. We have to face Keilani Ricketts every single day almost. She makes us better hitters and it’s pretty cool to think we’re going up against Keilani Ricketts.”
In addition to serious face-time with hitters in practice, the left-handed Ricketts also spreads her knowledge among current pitchers.
“Having a lefty who’s been there and done that working with a future and upcoming star has been a big asset, especially to Giselle,” Gasso said of Ricketts’ tutelage, which also trickles down to junior pitchers Mendes, Mariah Lopez, former Missouri transfer Parker Conrad and incoming Florida International transfer Shannon Saile, plus freshman righty Brooke Vestal.
Saile transferred in August, but Juarez didn’t make the move until January. “We have been grooving since they arrived,” Gasso said of the two transfers, “so it’s been a good connection.”
Asked how she gets transfers to blend in so quickly, Gasso said, “It’s just filling them with (our aspect of) team, team, team. I guess I would say, ‘They need us more than we need them,’ so they’re usually willing to find out how to get right in the middle of our group.”
OU will have 17 of its regular season games televised this season. Six will air on the family of ESPN networks, one on Fox Sports Net (FSN), one on FS1 and nine (all at home) on Sooner Sports TV Powered by FOX Sports. Every game also can be heard on KEBC 1560 AM.