OKLAHOMA CITY — When it comes to winning a national championship, there is no perfect formula. Between talent, chemistry and execution, all title runs may appear unique, even as all may hinge on everything coming together just right.
Oklahoma’s run to victory at the 2000 Women’s College World Series involved terrific talent fueled in part by blissful ignorance.
As Sooner coach Patty Gasso said Wednesday, the program she has built about to begin its seventh WCWS experience, “Our attitude was, ‘We’re the underdogs, we’ve got nothing to lose, put it out there’ … We were just trying to figure it out as we went along.”
That will not be the case beginning at noon today, when the No. 4 seed Sooners meet South Florida in the event opener.
A surprise entrant in last season’s WCWS, OU was eliminated after two quick losses. It was a hard landing on the sport’s great stage, and the experience gained is part of the foundation underneath a team many believe has a chance to win it all for the first time in 12 years.
But that is only part of the Sooners’ foundation. The intangible part. Other parts are very tangible. From improved personnel to additional personnel, the Sooners have terrific parts.
No matter how you sliced it, it’s clear OU is not only well constructed, but well prepared and positioned for a long World Series run.
During Wednesday’s press conference, South Florida coach Ken Eriksen was the only skipper seated next to two of his players.
To his left was infielder Jessica Mouse, who plays for him now, and to his right was Sooner pitcher and slugger Keilani Ricketts, who plays for him when he’s wearing his Team USA cap.
As the old cliché goes, Ricketts is both a year older and a year better than last season, when she led OU back to the World Series through the Tucson Super Regional. But she is not just a little better.
Tuesday she was named national player of the year. Her earned run average is 0.99 and her batting average is .407, complete with 16 home runs. One athlete, Ricketts fills the role of two of the nation’s best players. And part of that can be attributed to her experience with USA Softball.
Ricketts’ battery mate, catcher Jessica Shults, also played for her country and for Eriksen following last season. But she wasn’t available for the 2011 World Series, when health issues sidelined her. With international experience and health problems behind her, Shults is hitting .382 with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs.
While Ricketts is improved and Shults is available, every returning Sooner has been aided greatly by the big bat of freshman Lauren Chamberlain, who has set a Big 12 record with 27 home runs and driven in 71.
As a team, OU is hitting .321, carrying a .415 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging percentage. They have three offensive peers in the WCWS field: Arizona State (.333/.435/.566), Alabama (.318/.432/.559) and California (.318/.422/.524)
Of course, the Sun Devils, Crimson Tide and Bears do not have a Team USA pitcher in the circle.
Great parts can make for a great team, but more would appear to be at work for a squad that has outscored its postseason opponents 45-5 over five games, all victories.
Indeed, though the Sooners find themselves in the same place they were a year ago, the feeling is much different.
“Last year, our biggest goal was to get to the World Series. We didn’t have our main players playing in position. We were just trying to get on the field and play as hard as we could to get as far as we could get,” Ricketts said. “This year, we’ve grown a lot. We’ve been having a great year and our team’s a lot deeper.”
That breeds a different kind of confidence.
Speaking of last season, Gasso said her team was “living on adrenaline.” A year later, the Sooners are cooler, calmer and more certain.
“Experience is invaluable. I think that will really help us this time around,” Gasso said. “The mentality that we have (is the difference between) coming in and just being excited to be here or excited to actually try to win it all.”
After topping Arizona in super regional play, Gasso spoke of a team that is surrounded only by the strong chemistry it has created. There are no issues. There is no drama. It would seem to be a terrific starting point in going about trying to win a title.
“Nobody really puts as much value on the fact of what experience can give you and on what connection as a team can give you,” Gasso said. “And I think that gives you power and invincibility.”
That doesn’t make OU unbeatable.
But it doesn’t hurt.