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May 25, 2013
It was first thought Oklahoma's softball team might give strength to the victims of the horrific tornado that has devastated many in Moore, Newcastle, Little Axe and parts of south Oklahoma City.
But Keilani Ricketts said that wasn't it at all after Oklahoma's 8-0 Super Regional win in five innings at Marita Hynes Field on Saturday afternoon. No, the reason she thinks the Sooners are headed to the Women's College World Series is the collective strength of this state in this time of great hardship.
"I don't think it's so much of us carrying the state," Ricketts said. "I feel like they're making us stronger.
"Usually, we're saying that we're playing for the name on the front of our jersey. I think that name has a different meaning to it now after this past week. It gives us strength as we're trying to give them strength as well."
Ordinarily, a chance to play in the WCWS as the No. 1 team in the nation might be give a team strength enough, and a chance to knock off a familiar foe in Texas A&M might sweetened the deal. But it would also add pressure -- lots of pressure.
OU softball coach Patty Gasso could sense pressure building in her team earlier in the week, especially in Ricketts, and Ricketts was prepared to shoulder that pressure last Thursday.
Then it rained.
Thursday's rain delay moved the start of the Super Regional to Friday evening, so Ricketts and the Sooners were able to lend a hand to the tornado relief effort. That's when she met Casey Angle, a sibling of one of the children lost at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore.
She and her softball team, Bring It, were among those invited to play on the wet field Thursday with the Sooners. Playing with Casey, laughing with Casey's team, brought Ricketts perspective.
"I saw Keilani Ricketts change after we had the rainout," Gasso said. "We were able to spend time with that Bring It team, and I saw Keilani just in a different place. Just recognizing people are so excited to see her.
"Kids who haven't been, probably, having much joy in the last couple days were feeling it around her, and that meant something important to her."
Gasso said it became apparent to Ricketts all she had to do was play. Play the game she loved, and play it with the kind of fun she saw in Casey.
Ricketts (31-1) pitched all 11 innings during the Super Regional, giving up just six hits, two runs and striking out 20.
While Ricketts played with a renewed sense of why she came to love softball, sophomore Shelby Pendley played with the ferocity of a woman acutely affected.
She was in Moore when the tornado struck, and much of her newly adopted home city is now in ruin. So competing in a softball game came to mean everything and nothing at once.
"Over there it's just devastating," Pendley said. "Being able to play for the state of Oklahoma and everyone and bringing joy to them is a great feeling."
Pendley hit two home runs in her first two at-bats Saturday, and for the first three innings she accounted for every run on the scoreboard. The Aggies (42-18) didn't have an answer for her or the Sooners, not Saturday.
"We thought we could pull of a little magic here, and it didn't happen," Texas A&M softball coach Jo Evans said. "We got beat by a better team."
Or maybe, just maybe, it was just a stronger team -- Oklahoma strong.