Softball is officially back this weekend as the Oklahoma Sooners return to the diamond in the GCU Kickoff Tournament in Phoenix, AZ. Coming off of a second consecutive national title - and the third in the last five years - Oklahoma begins this season like last season: ranked No. 1.
Oklahoma opens up its 2018 campaign with Weber State (Friday, 3:30 p.m. CT) and host Grand Canyon (Friday, 6:30 p.m. CT) back-to-back, with Montana and Pacific rounding out the rest of the tournament field. For more information on the schedule and how you can catch this weekend’s action, check out the link below.
In regards to the season-opening tourney, Oklahoma is unsurprisingly seen as the heavy favorite and is expected to perform at a high level from the start after returning so much talent and experience. Last season began with a loss to Auburn, followed by an eventual 9-4 start, but I wouldn’t count on this team repeating that kind of start this time around.
The reason for that is there’s a significant difference between this season and virtually every other season. This year, Oklahoma is only tasked with replacing one starter from last year’s championship squad (left fielder Macey Hatfield). The depth on this team is scary good and loaded everywhere. And it all starts in the circle, where Oklahoma boasts perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the nation, and certainly the best in school history.
Senior lefties Paige Parker and Paige Lowary both return and are primed to dominate once again. Parker has been a star since she first stepped into the circle in 2015 and has only refined her game ever since. After transferring from Missouri, Lowary recorded an Oklahoma and Big 12 record 11 saves last season and is bringing back her elite pitching speed as she enters her second and final season with the Sooners. Combined, the two Paiges figure to make life extremely difficult for all challenging batters on the road back to Oklahoma City.
In addition to the dynamic pitching duo of Parker and Lowary, the Sooners also return sophomores Mariah Lopez and Nicole Mendes. Lopez made a name for herself as a freshman last season, starting 21 of 31 appearances, and was pivotal in Oklahoma’s run in the Women’s College World Series. As for Mendes, who was voted Big 12 freshman of the year in 2017, is listed as a utility player, which means she can and will move around wherever the team needs her most. With the depth of Oklahoma’s pitching, Mendes shouldn’t be called to the circle too often, but if she is, she’s more than capable of getting the job done.
If the pitching wasn’t enough to strike fear into opponents, Oklahoma’s bats may very well do the trick. Junior Shay Knighten leads the way when it comes to pure play-making ability. Knighten has a knack for coming up clutch when it’s been needed most, which is why she was named the Most Outstanding Player in last season’s WCWS. Remember that 17-inning Game 1 of the WCWS?
Other notable players returning for the Sooners are last season’s team captain and 2016 Big 12 Defensive POY Kelsey Arnold, junior infielder Caleigh Clifton, senior outfielder Nicole Pendley (and her 32 career home runs) and junior infielder Sydney Romero. Pitchers Parker and Lowary, and infielders Knighten, Clifton and Romero are all early candidates for national POY honors, giving the Sooners the most players on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watch list this season.
The newcomer to watch out for this season is freshman Jocelyn Alo, who Coach Patty Gasso and the team have raved about. What everybody is most impressed with when it comes to Alo’s game is her hitting power. Some have even used Sooner softball legend Lauren Chamberlain as a comparison for how much power she generates on any given swing. Alo is challenging to start as a freshman, and that kind of competition will only make this team even better moving forward.
If the Sooners are to go on and win a third consecutive national championship, they will be the first team to do so in the WCWS era since UCLA won three straight from 1988-90. With one of the sport’s premier coaches in Patty Gasso leading the way, the Sooners are primed to make it back to Oklahoma City and defend their claim as today’s top softball program.
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