Softball nears home stretch, eye on prize

The Sooners had just finished their last practice before the start of a three-game series with the visiting University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers under blue sky punctuated with clouds and a welcoming sun.
Accents of red dirt and chalk spotted the Sooner softball players' uniforms as they walked off of Marita Hynes Field. Theirs were the marks of a team in full recovery and with an eye on yet another Big 12 regular season title.
"Definitely, our goal is win Big 12," said junior Georgia Casey. "Definitely without a doubt. Postseason, we want to put ourselves into the best place possible going into that, trying to get ranked as highly as possible."
The Sooners hold a record of 39-10 (11-2 Big 12) heading into their final six games of the regular season and control their own destiny in the Big 12 title race.
Not far back, their chances of winning the conference crown -- let alone defending their last year's national title -- seemed long though. Most of OU's star-studded lineup full of seniors and a murders' row of hitters from a season ago were gone.
No longer is there a speedy Brianna Turang tearing up basepaths. No longer is there a Keilani Ricketts to set the tone in the circle. No longer does confident motivator Jessica Shults catch Sooner pitchers behind the plate.
No longer does senior Michelle Gascoigne blindside opposing teams as the other half a pitching duo that reached its peak in the championship series of the 2013 Women's College World Series.
And the effects were evident to begin the season with the Sooners winning just 18 of their first 26 games. That's far from but not the standard the program is used to setting. But they kept pushing.
Sophomore Kelsey Stevens has emerged as the Sooners ace this year. Her 2.05 earned run average in 43 total appearances has helped OU maintain its lead atop the Big 12.
In just over 194 innings pitched, she's struck out 189 batters and given up just 147 hits. But the inability of others in the circle to supplant themselves as the definite No. 2 starter left a void -- a void junior Shelby Pendley filled.
Pendley is known more for her bat and her glove than her skill in the circle. In fact, she hadn't pitched a lick at OU prior to midseason but showed the ability to take on Division I lineups as a hurler -- and beat them.
Though she's made just 15 appearances in the circle this season, Pendley owns the lowest ERA on the team (1.91). Batters have hit just .189 against her this season.
The Sooners seemed to be finding their way after a rocky start to the season when two-time All-American and the program's best slugger, Lauren Chamberlain, went down with a back injury.
The Sooners had a choice to make. They could lay down and give up in the middle of the season without Chamberlain there to lift them. Or they could fight.
They chose to fight.
Missing Chamberlain for 23 games, OU put together a 19-4 record and took sole ownership of first place in the Big 12 standings. In her first game back last Saturday against UAB, she went 2-for-2 with a two-run double.
"It was awesome just get out of the polo and shorts and get back into a uniform," said Chamberlain Sunday after the Sooners swept the Blazers in a weekend series. "It felt really good. That's where I belong. My best mood and my best vibes are found on the field."
Sitting in the third base side bleachers following practice before the weekend sweep, Sooner coach Patty Gasso proposed the theme for her team this season: resilience.
A young team had been hit in the mouth, bloodied by misfortune and circumstance, and chose not to bow.
This team full of sophomores and juniors knows what it's like to win it all, to wear the crown. These sophomores don't know what it is like not to be champions, and the freshmen only know it is their job to carry on what has been built under Gasso.
Perhaps the fear of not defending the WCWS title is more powerful than the desire to repeat. Senior Destinee Martinez said that's the reason OU is fighting like it has, like it will.
"The difference from last year's team is a lot of us had the feeling of losing the national championship," Martinez said, "whereas now they've all felt what it's like to win it.
"I think that will just carry us on because they're going to want that feeling again. I just know that they don't want to experience anything different than what they've already felt."
Now, the Sooners have their big bopper back in Chamberlain heading into May. Now is the time to begin to peak.
Gasso said her players know what they are capable of, and she believes the end result is going to be better than what most people think. But to achieve what the Sooners are after they'll have to heed Gasso's call.
"Give me all you got," she said. "Just give me all you have."