By Corbin Hosler
CNHI News Service
NORMAN — The road to the Women’s College World Series, and possibly the title that came so close a year ago, begins today for the Oklahoma softball team.
The Sooners open the season with a pair of games today at the Kajikawa Classic in Phoenix with the first coming at 10 a.m. against Stanford and the second at 3:30 p.m. against Oregon State.
The second-ranked Sooners are loaded this season after returning nearly everyone from last year’s team that came just a few innings short of a national title. That includes All-Americans in Lauren Chamberlain and Jessica Shults as well as Keilani Ricketts, the dominant pitcher who a year ago was named the USA Softball Player of the Year.
Also on board is Tahlequah High grad Erica Sampson, who played in 62 games with 27 starts, mostly in the outfield. She also played in all 11 postseason games.
While the familiar names are the highlights, there are plenty of talented newcomers on the roster. Chief among those is sophomore Shelby Pendley, a first-team All-Pac 12 member last year at Arizona before transferring to OU.
Joining Pendley on the team for the first time is a talented freshmen class, with seven players all from Oklahoma who are expected to provide plenty of depth to the roster.
For coach Patty Gasso, entering her 19th season at OU, the biggest challenge is moving this team forward after a disappointing end to last season.
“They have a lot of unfinished business,” she said. “They still feel it inside and it’s not something you shake off. They had a hand on the trophy and they knew it.”
But while last season is still fresh in the minds of many of the Sooners, Gasso stressed that this is a different team than it was a year ago.
“We have a lot of returners but this is a new year,” she said. “The dynamic is different with so many freshmen and the addition of Shelby. We have to put last year behind us.”
Once again the Sooners will present a lineup among the most explosive in the country. Behind Chamberlain, who set a Big 12 single-season home run record with 30 last year, the Sooners have more power than ever before. Gasso called her the best hitter she’s ever seen and expects another big year. But the power doesn’t end there. Shults and Ricketts combined for 37 more home runs, and the incoming cast adds even more.
“The freshmen group has tremendous power,” Gasso said. “In batting practice more balls are on the other side of the fence than this side.”
With such a talented lineup, anything less than a national championship will be viewed by some as a disappointment. It’s a concept the Sooners are embracing, beginning at the top with Ricketts.
“It’s all about winning a championship this year,” she said. “It’s painful to think about how last year ended, but that’s even more motivation for us this season.”