For the seventh time and the second consecutive season, Oklahoma is in the Women's College World Series. OU Version 2012 opens play Thursday against South Florida and the Sooners have reason to be optimistic.
Coach Patty Gasso believes her team is playing its best as it heads to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium Oklahoma City. Oklahoma is focused. After dispatching Arizona in the Super Regional Saturday, the celebration was low key.
"Last year ... our goal was to get to the World Series," said junior pitcher Keilani Ricketts, who on Tuesday was named the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year by the Amateur Softball Association. "When we made it, we were celebrating and we didn't know what to do once we got to the World Series. This year, we made our goal bigger ... I think we're ready to keep it going in the World Series this year."
Last year, Oklahoma was one of four Big 12 teams to make the eight-team WCWS. That team, though, was without catcher and spiritual leader Jessica Shults, who was hospitalized a year ago with pan ulcerative colitis, an illness that threatened her career. The Sooners also have gotten a boost from freshmen Lauren Chamberlain (second nationally in home runs) lead leadoff hitter Georgia Casey.
"I think we're peaking," Shults said. "We've been saying all year ... just marking off checkmarks. First was winning Big 12, second was winning regionals, third was winning Super Regionals and now our next mission is the World Series."
Arizona coach Mike Candrea has won seven national championships. After his team was eliminated by the Sooners, he was asked about their chances.
"They've got the ingredients that you need (to make a run): Strong pitching, strong offense and usually they're not going to hurt themselves defensively," he said.
In two Super Regional victories over Arizona, the Sooners scored 13 runs on 18 hits and hit four home runs.
"The three-four-five hitters for Oklahoma are as tough as it gets when it comes to power," Arizona pitcher Kenzie Fowler said. "When you are trying to change things up, they make good adjustments. If (you) miss a spot, they make you pay."
Exiting super regional play, of the nine players in OU's Saturday batting order, only third baseman Javen Henson (.241) and right fielder Erica Sampson (.210) are hitting less than .333 (Katie Norris' average in the eight hole). Chamberlain and Shults have combined to hit 48 home runs. That's more than three WCWS teams - Tennessee (44), South Florida (27) & LSU (13).
Gasso, who has 867 victories plus one national championship in 18 seasons at Oklahoma, likes what she sees - and hears.
"They all understand their roles and they take their role very seriously ... There's no animosity, no pouting, none of that stuff going on," she said. "That's been happening all season, so it's created this respect for each other. I know it's said over and over, but there's really something to say about a team that loves to be around each other all the time."
"My job is not to mess it up and just make sure that I have everybody set and ready to play and keeping spirits up and all of that. The easiest coaching job is when your team runs itself."
Women's College World Series
ASA Hall of Fame Stadium Oklahoma City
No. 4 Oklahoma (50-8) vs. South Florida (50-12)
Noon Thursday ESPN2
Oklahoma is making its eighth WCWS appearance and the Big East Conference's South Florida is making its first appearance. ... Oklahoma vs. South Florida will feature the nation's top two pitching staffs in the nation. OU No. 1 with an ERA of 1.15. USF No. 2 at 1.18. ... The Sooners are in the same four-team bracket with overall No. 1 seed Cal, which has a 56-5 record. The winner of the Oklahoma-South Florida game meets the winner of the Cal-LSU game while the losers will play in an elimination game in Bracket 1.
Junior pitcher Keilani Ricketts has lowered her earned run average to 0.99 after not allowing an earned run in her last three starts. ... Freshman first baseman Lauren Chamberlain has hit 27 home runs. That's a single-season Big 12 record and second-most in NCAA Division I. ... Ricketts also leads the team in batting average (.407) and on-base percentage, is second in slugging percentage and has 45 RBI. ... Freshman Georgia Casey, who is hitting .376, was moved to the leadoff spot at the start of NCAA play but she went 0-for-7 in the two Super Regional games.
South Florida update:
The Bulls' top pitcher is sophomore Sara Nevins, who is 31-5 for the season. ... Senior outfielder Janine Richardson and sophomores Kourtney Salvarola and Stephanie Medina are the Bulls' 3-4-5 hitters and team leaders in batting average. ... Salvarola is the team's only .300 hitter; she's hat .327. South Florida is hitting .262 as a team. ... In the Gainesville Regional, South Florida upset No. 5 seed and 2011 national runner-up Florida on its home field. ... All four of the Bulls' NCAA victories have been by one run.