When Oklahoma begins its home series with Texas Tech at 6:30 tonight, it will likely be with sophomore Kelsey Stevens in the circle, a woman who is growing into her own as the Sooners' best pitcher.
Stevens has made more starts as pitcher this year than any other Sooner (37) and won most of them. She leads the Big 12 in wins (29) and has pitched more innings (198.2) than she's given up hits (149).
Her earned run average this season is 2.08. That's stark contrast from her 15-7 record a year ago when her earned run average 2.99.
In conference play, she's attained a 10-2 record, a 1.63 earned run average and belief that she belongs.
"I think that I've just learned that I can be an impact player and give my team confidence," Stevens said. "Just kind of be a leader out there. Maybe not so much vocally, but just by my presence on the mound."
Stevens' approach to the game might be the reason she has been so successful this season.
"Kelsey's very good at putting the ball where she wants it, when she wants it there and getting the result that she wanted out of it," said sophomore catcher Whitney Ellis. "And so when she gets one that doesn't get the result that plays in her head she's pretty hard on herself. But she always comes back."
For Stevens, the game is about finding rhythm. For Ellis, the game is about helping Stevens stays in rhythm. Subtleties are important.
"I just have to kind of be in tune with her mood and her level, just monitoring what her pitches are doing," Ellis said. "So if I know it's kind of tailing off, I know she's getting frustrated."
Stevens wasn't always pitching at the friendly confines of Marita Hynes. As a freshman, she was hurling for the Stanford Cardinal and even threw a few innings against OU.
Maybe that was what got her thinking that perhaps she was playing on the wrong team. In OU, she saw a team that thrived on competition, and she wanted in.
When she arrived in Norman, she already possessed the most experience in the circle of any pitcher on OU's staff. But that didn't make it easy for her to adapt.
After nine games, the Sooners were 5-4 and Stevens was 2-2. She was still trying to find her rhythm.
As a starting pitcher, the onus is on her to set the tone for a game. That isn't always simple, especially when she expects nothing but the goods from herself.
"No matter what I just feel like there's always something I can do better," Stevens said. "Say my teammate an error on the field. I still feel like, well, they put the ball in play.
"I still could've done something like I could've struck them out. I just feel like there's always something you can do."
"That's Kelsey," Ellis said. "She really likes to give her very best, and even when she's giving her very best she thinks she has more to give."
The high-energy and gregarious Ellis was still learning the ways of the business-like and meticulous Stevens. But, once she did, Stevens and Ellis began to thrive.
The Sooners are in the midst of 22-2 tear that started after losing to Louisiana-Lafayette on Mar. 15.
They're sitting pretty in the Big 12 standings with a chance to gain favorable seeding in the upcoming NCAA tournament, largely due to relationship the two first-year starters have developed.
They have learned to be light-hearted and whimsical with each other off the field and serious about the business of winning softball games on it.