Patty Gasso has done it all before.
She’s coached great players like Lauren Chamberlain and Keilani Ricketts. She’s won national titles with respected favorites, like the preseason No. 2 2013 squad, and with unexpected talents, like last year’s young preseason No. 9.
She’s won with a four-loss juggernaut and a 2016 team that lost its first two games and dropped its fourth by late February. Both those teams lifted the same trophy at the end of the year, a testament to Gasso’s steadying presence at the helm.
And she’s done it all with amazing constancy, leading the program since 1995 when Bob Stoops was still on staff with Bill Snyder at K-State.
Yet Gasso’s team enters the 2017 season in a position that it’s never seen before: preseason No. 1.
In both polls.
The Sooners probably won’t field much of a challenge from the rest of the Big 12. Last year they rolled through the league with a 17-1 record, finishing comfortably ahead of second-place Baylor. The Bears start 2017 looking up at OU from No. 21 — they’re the only other Big 12 school in the poll.
No, Oklahoma’s more direct challenge will come from its vanquished WCWS foe, the Auburn Tigers, who start the year at No. 2. Florida State, Florida and LSU round out the top 5 of the USA Today poll.
Around the Diamond
This year’s Sooners look like they could be even better than the 2016 squad. Oklahoma returns 11 players, including 72 percent of their total bases and 75 percent of their runs according to ESPN. But of course OU’s success usually starts in the circle, and this year’s team will be no different.
We’re running out of superlatives for lefty junior sensation Paige Parker, but for those who need a recap: In 2016 she went 38-3 with a 1.64 ERA in 252.1 innings. Parker struck out 269 batters, completed 32 of her 36 starts and won the Big 12’s female athlete of the year.
This year, Parker will be joined in the circle by yet another lefty named Paige. Paige Lowary was the ace of the Mizzou staff, but transferred to the Sooners in the offseason. Lowary went 25-8 with a 3.25 ERA last season for the Tigers, battling back from an early-season softball to the face to lead Mizzou to a super regional.
I’m no expert, but Lowary is probably the best No. 2 option in the country. She’ll help Parker keep her innings reasonable, which is great, because Parker is excellent even when fatigued and borderline unhittable when rested.
OU’s biggest losses are seniors Kady Self and Erin Miller, who combined for 143 runs last season. Fortunately, sophomore infielders Shay Knighten and Sydney Romero were named to the Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List (along with Parker) and are expected to improve on their great freshman campaigns.
Junior catcher Lea Wodach, sophomore outfielder Fale Aviu and junior outfielder Nicole Pendley should also help pick up the offensive slack.
OU’s freshman class includes Alissa Dalton, Mariah Lopez, Nicole Mendes, Melanie Olmos and Vanessa Taukeiaho. Taukeiaho is working through a knee injury sustained in fall practice, but eventually she and Dalton will get some starts in the outfield. The other three freshman are primarily pitchers, though Mendes can play the field as well.
Oklahoma may have the nation’s best roster, and there’s only one senior on the team. The present is bright in Norman, but so is the future.
Oklahoma’s first game of the season is a doozy: a WCWS rematch against Auburn in Mexico. OU stumbled out of the gate last year, but this year’s team is more experienced and should be up for the challenge.
I predict Oklahoma will drop just three games before conference play gets going on the last day of March. They’ll finish the regular season 49-6, win the Big 12 tournament and host their way back to the Women’s College World Series, where they’ll have a great chance of repeating in OKC.
OU’s season begins Thursday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU.