By Corbin Hosler
OKLAHOMA CITY — For Keilani Ricketts, the pressure has never been greater.
Not in a road showdown against Texas earlier this season that paved the way to OU’s Big 12 title. Not facing down a surging Arkansas team that had pulled within a run in the regional tournament. Not even in last year’s national title game.
Just two days after being named USA Softball’s Player of the Year for the second straight season, Ricketts will lead top-ranked Oklahoma (52-4) against eighth-seeded Michigan at 8:30 p.m. today at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in the opening round of the Women’s College World Series.
The pressure on Ricketts is twofold. First, it is her senior year, and she won’t have another chance to leave her mark on college softball’s highest stage.
Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the Sooners are expected to win the national title, and Ricketts is expected to lead them there. It’s a role that has been thrust upon the Sooners because of their own success this year, even while they’ve tried to downplay it themselves.
And Ricketts is at the forefront of it. As the unquestioned best player in the country, much of the attention comes her way. It’s a role she’s not comfortable with and not one that she’s yet embraced, but one she approaches with the same focused attitude she takes to the circle.
But heading into her final World Series as the favorite to win it all, it’s not possible for Ricketts to forget how much higher the stakes are this time around.
“I’m just looking at it as another game, but it will probably hit me once we’re out there,” she said. “This postseason there’s been a sense of urgency for us.”
Ricketts is no stranger to the urgency, or to the pressure. Her resolve was questioned when the Sooners returned to Hall of Fame Stadium last month for a Bedlam contest against Oklahoma State, and some fans wondered if the memories of last year’s championship game loss would hamper her.
She soon erased any doubts of an Oklahoma City hangover, allowing just three hits as the Sooners run-ruled OSU in five innings.
While she’s shown a reluctance to talk about the details of last year’s title game in which Alabama came from behind to take the championship, Ricketts does assert that the experience will help her this season.
“Having experience here, it calms the nerves I guess, and it gives you a little confidence,” she said. “But we know that we can’t just live off that experience and we have to focus on what we’ve been doing all year and taking it one game at a time.”
Coach Patty Gasso agreed with that assessment, and is confident her team will use it as motivation this weekend.
“We really don’t look back any more,” she said. “I don’t think we’re really focusing too much on that. Obviously last year was a disappointment, and it still lives in these players somewhat. But that is such a different road with different players, and it’s just a different team.”
Gasso said the Sooners only look forward; not back. Ahead of them is a chance to fulfill a season’s worth of promise and a chance for Ricketts to etch her name further into the history books. And she knows that takes more than a player of the year honor.
“Winning the award is definitely an exciting honor, but as you saw last year, it didn’t win us a national championship,” she said. “It’s not a one-person game when it comes to the World Series. We know we have to focus on working together as a team.”
11 a.m., ESPN2 — World Series, Nebraska vs. Washington
1 p.m., ESPN — World Series, Tennessee vs. Florida
6 p.m., ESPN2 — World Series, Arizona St. vs. Texas
8 p.m., ESPN2 — World Series, Michigan vs. Oklahoma