It's not very often you come off a 54 win season with an appearance in the national title game and feel as though your season was a disappointment. And yet, that's exactly how this Oklahoma softball team enters 2013 after losing an early three run lead to Alabama last June in said title game and with it what would have been the program's second national championship.
With the start of the 2013 season just days away, the Sooners enter with a near consensus No. 2 national preseason ranking and expectations of another national title run. It bares mentioning that the team which beat Oklahoma, and thus last year's national champion, Alabama is the preseason No. 1 team in most (if not all) preseason polls.
While national championship expectations can be a burden for some teams, they have become the norm for an Oklahoma program under the leadership of Hall of Fame head coach Patty Gasso. Therefore, you can expect this team, and the seniors who will lead it, to embrace those high expectations. Especially with bitter taste of last year's runner-up finish still lingering after getting so close to winning it all.
In looking at last year's starting lineup for that championship game against Alabama, the Sooners return all but one player (Katie Norris) in 2013. So a team that lead the country in home runs (102), finished 10th in team batting average (.316), fifth in team slugging percentage (.546), and ninth in total runs per game (6.36) returns almost entirely intact.
All of that without even taking into consideration the recent addition of Arizona transfer Shelby Pendley. Pendley was a first team All-Pac 12 member last year after putting up a .331 average, 19 home runs (tied for 13th nationally), and 55 RBIs. Her insertion into an already loaded Oklahoma lineup seemingly makes things almost unfair for opposing pitchers.
In fact, check out this ridiculous statistic. According to NCAA.org, Keilani Ricketts, Jessica Shults, Lauren Chamberlain, and Pendley combined to hit 86 total home runs last year. Which is more than 279 other Division I softball programs hit collectively as an entire team. We referred this lineup to that of an All-Star team on the Crimson and Cream Machine podcast the other night and when you consider that stat it's probably not all that far off of a comparison.
The Sooners return their two best table-setters and speedsters at the top of their lineup in Brianna Turang and Destinee Martinez. Following that is where the murderer's row of power hitters kicks off in whatever order Coach Gasso chooses to unleash them. Chamberlain, Ricketts, and Shults was the typical order last year and when you add Pendley to that mix now it makes for an absolute nightmare middle of the lineup. And things don't exactly fall off the cliff as you approach the bottom of the lineup. Australian import sophomore second baseman Georgia Casey is a very talented hitter in her own right and whose game should continue to develop. After Casey, Oklahoma could close things with any number of combinations be they Erica Sampson, Javen Henson, Brittnay Williams, or one of the seven freshman on this current roster.
Of course as those of you who follow the sport already know, pretty much everything begins and ends with who you have in the circle. And Oklahoma has one of the most dominant pitchers in the game with senior Keilani Ricketts. Her accolades, both for Oklahoma and the U.S. national team, speak for themselves. Quite frankly, there isn't a lot that can be said about Ricketts that hasn't already been said. She is coming off a season in which she was named both Big 12 and National Player of the Year and finishing at or near the top of virtually every pitching statistic available.
She is the driving force behind this team and even with a ridiculously stacked lineup, this team will very likely only go as far as her powerful left arm will take them.
Competing in the shadow of an All-American like Ricketts isn't necessarily an easy thing to do, but Oklahoma pitcher Michelle Gascoigne has found a bit of a comfort zone in doing so. A talented pitcher in her own right, Gascoigne posted a 16-1 record last year and finished second nationally with a 9.3 strikeouts per seven inning average. She and Ricketts, primarily, combined to lead the country in earned run average at a paltry 1.22. Ricketts is undoubtedly the workhorse, but Gascoigne should get most of the starts when Ricketts does not and having a No. 2 pitcher with her kind of stuff is a luxury a lot of other teams do not have.
Expectations of a 'National Title Or Bust' type season are always a bit of a slippery slope, but given all this Oklahoma team has returning and the additions that have been made it's almost impossible to avoid. Some teams respond to that kind of pressure, others crumble beneath the weight of it. From the outside looking in, this does not appear to be a team, or a program for that matter, that will shy away from national title talk. They're aware of the expectations. Heck, it's one of the reasons you come to Oklahoma and it's a testament to the program Coach Gasso has built.
This team, on paper, certainly has all the pieces of what it takes to win a national championship. And they'll have that extra little bit of motivation after having watched a team celebrating what could have just as easily been their NCAA title.
The season officially kicks off Friday, February 8th, when the Sooners will travel Phoenix for the first of a couple season opening tournaments. Their first home game is scheduled to take place on March 1st against Nebraska. Between the excellent job being done at SoonerSports.com and what should be a significantly increased number of games available on television and online courtesy of Sooner Sports TV there should be no shortage of coverage on this Oklahoma softball team.