The start of the 2019 college softball season is right around the corner, and the Oklahoma Sooners look like strong contenders in the national championship hunt once again.
Oklahoma currently sits at No. 4 in both the NFCA preseason coaches poll and the USA Softball collegiate preseason poll. The Sooners were also picked to win the Big 12 for what would be an eighth consecutive regular season Big 12 title, and the program’s 11th overall.
Oklahoma has been named a preseason top-10 pick in both major polls for nine straight seasons, good for the nation's longest active streak. ⭕️ https://t.co/LKxyBLoFKR— Oklahoma Softball (@OU_Softball) January 29, 2019
Head coach Patty Gasso enters her 25th season at Oklahoma, and is not only regarded as the greatest coach to ever lead the Sooners, she’s one of the most decorated winners in the sport’s history. Overall, her coaching record at OU is 1,203-327-2 (.786), so the consistency speaks for itself. In 2000, she led Oklahoma to its first national title, then won three more in 2013, 2016 and 2017. Once again, she fields a loaded team that has the pieces to go the distance.
Returning from last season’s WCWS team is sophomore utility player Jocelyn Alo, whose 30 home runs not only tied the record for most homers by a freshman in NCAA history, but also led the nation as a whole in 2018. What makes Alo truly special is that she doesn’t just bring power to the plate. She knows how to diagnose pitches on the fly, making her the ultimate weapon in today’s game.
Also coming back are notable stars such as senior outfielder Fale Aviu, along with infielders Caleigh Clifton, Shay Knighten and Sydney Romero. Last but not least, junior do-it-all star Nicole Mendes is also back in the mix.
Speaking of Alo and Romero, the two of them are joined by Arizona State transfer Giselle ‘G’ Juarez as preseason player of the year candidates. In 2018, the left-handed junior pitcher was named an NFCA First-Team All-American, and with both Paige Parker and Paige Lowary now pitching in the pros, the Sooners are going to rely on Juarez’s arm in the circle for a number of contests this season.
The 2018 Sooners were widely regarded as the top defensive team in the nation, and much of that recognition was due to the prolific pitching duo of seniors Paige Parker and Paige Lowary. Parker, known for her control, and Lowary, known for her speed, combined to go 41-5 as starters in their final seasons at Oklahoma, while both ranked in the top six nationally in ERA. In April, Lowary was selected by the Chicago Bandits with the first overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch League Draft, while Parker was taken 6th overall by the USSSA Pride.
Although Oklahoma will have to replace both the production as well as the veteran proficiency gone with the departure of the two Paiges, if there’s one area on the diamond Gasso’s teams have historically done well with, it’s in the pitcher’s circle. Remember, before Parker and Lowary, there was Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne. Over the past eight-plus years, the Sooners have consistently fielded one of the strongest and deepest pitching units in the nation.
This season, newcomer Giselle Juarez joins returning junior righties Parker Conrad and Mariah Lopez in the bullpen. Lopez will likely be Oklahoma’s go-to pitcher in 2019, as she not only has the most experience in a Sooner uniform, she’s also a dynamite pitcher in her own right. For her career, she’s 32-1 as a starter, with an ERA of 1.86.
Here are some highlights from Oklahoma’s road trip to Waco, when Lopez and Lowary combined for a run-rule no-hitter against the Lady Bears.
Another noteworthy piece to the 2019 pitching puzzle is the addition of newly-hired pitching coach Jennifer Rocha. A former Sooner pitcher herself, Rocha replaces long-time assistant Melyssa Lombardi after she accepted the head coaching position at Oregon. Rocha brings with her a ton of experience, namely from Florida, where she helped led the Gators to back-to-back national championships in 2014-2015. In ‘15, she was named the NFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
As of late, Oklahoma has seemingly always had a freshman or two breakout in their rookie campaigns. In 2015, Paige Parker won co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year. The year after it was Shay Knighten’s turn, followed by Nicole Mendes, and then last season with Jocelyn Alo. So who could be this season’s young breakout star?
Two freshmen I could envision making names for themselves right away are utility player Grace Green out of Oakdale, California and right-handed pitcher Brooke Vestal out of New Braunfels, Texas.
Coach Gasso on Green: “I love Grace Green’s versatility. She can pitch, she’s played third, she’s played first, I’ve seen her play short and the outfield. She’s got a really powerful swing and can work all fields. She fits our program really well and is just a good, well-rounded athlete that I think can come in as a freshman and help us quite a bit.”
Because Oklahoma likes to employ players who are ultra-versatile in order to execute a multitude of defensive schemes, someone like Green should be able to thrive on the field wherever she’s needed. Like Gasso said, she can play inside or out, on the left or the right, and is more than capable at the plate. Sounds a lot like Mendes to me, and if this freshman is anything like the Sooners’ talented junior, watch out.
As for Vestal, her illustrious resume speaks for itself. She’s a three-time FloSoftball All-American, and during travel ball season she pitched for Tony Rico’s Firecrackers en route to the 2016 PGF National Championship. Even with the more experienced pitchers on the roster, Vestal could definitely see some action this season, which would be vital to her overall development as a college ballplayer.
Last season, the Sooners became just the second team to make it through Big 12 play unscathed, going 18-0 against conference opponents. Oklahoma’s final record of 57-5 was also the best in the nation. The group in 2018 was one of the more experienced in school history, so it remains to be seen how quickly this team will find its groove. Fortunately, the early slate is relatively manageable, and should provide a smooth transition for this new era of Sooner Softball.
This Friday, February 8th, Oklahoma opens up its 2019 season at the GCU Kickoff Tournament, starting with the Syracuse Orange. Last year, the Sooners went 5-0 in this opening tourney, swinging through the competition by a combined score of 35-4. If Gasso’s group can come out firing on all cylinders in Phoenix once again, it would be a promising first step towards another title run.
Follow Crimson & Cream Machine on Twitter!