NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s softball team finished the fall stint with a little bit different demeanor than it did the previous season. Donning Toy Story costumes and various other Halloween outfits, this team looked like it was using its last practice of the fall as a chance to step away from the long-winded practices and actually let loose for a change.
The Sooners won the 2013 National Championship after losing twice to Alabama within one game of a title the previous year.
"This practice was fun, exciting and laid back because of the hard work we've put into the fall," junior Lauren Chamberlain said. "We've put in a lot of good work and with all of the new faces stepping up, we're really excited to get the ball going after the break."
The costumes weren't the main reason Sooner softball looked more relaxed than they did a year ago. This time around the team had finally finished where it wanted to last spring; it had reached the pinnacle of the softball world by winning its second national championship, and that would give any program a good reason to smile.
"Now after winning, we just came back this fall with the mindset of we know we can do this," senior Destinee Martinez said. "This fall is just a time to get our calls and signs down so we can come back in the spring and just practice."
Rewind to a year ago and you wouldn't have met head coach Patty Gasso dressed up in her Halloween fatigues because OU was a team that was still reeling from the disappointing loss to Alabama in the 2012 Women’s College World Series.
When the team reconvened last fall, all of the emotions and scars of letting that last game get away from them were still written all over the team’s faces. It made a coach’s job easy in the sense that Gasso didn’t have to get her team fired up to get back to the grinding stone; that she didn’t have to tell them how much these fall practices and workouts would help get them ready for the grueling 2013 season.
The Sooners already knew what it would take to get back to college's biggest stage and they weren't going to stop until they brought the trophy back to Norman.
"Last fall we had the mindset of that we weren't going to lose that game again," Martinez said about last year's expectations going into the fall. "A lot of us played in that Alabama game so we knew we could achieve that goal and get there again."
Fast forward to this season and now you can see what a vindicated team looks like but it's also a team with an added chip on its shoulders because this program isn't ready to give up this trophy without a fight.
Ace Keilani Ricketts was part of a senior class that keyed a 57-4 overall record in 2013.
“There's still a hunger because for the last two years, there's only been three teams in the national championship game and it's been us twice," Gasso said. "So they feel a sense of ownership in that game and they're hungry for it."
But even with that attitude, repeating as champions is a tough task to tackle.
Mike Candrea led Arizona to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 but no team east of the Colorado Rocky Mountain range has ever repeated as champions in consecutive years; the only eastern schools to have more than two titles in their respective trophy cases are Texas A&M...and now Oklahoma.
So instead of only going up against history, the Sooners have centered their focus on outdoing last year's senior class.
"Rightly so you heard about Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults and that senior class and I think there is something we want to prove with our pitching staff now," Gasso said. "That even though it doesn't look the same, we still want the same results."
Just be clear, those results include an impressive 57-4 overall record, a Big 12 Conference Championship and a National Title.
Much like the loss of quarterback to the football team, OU will have to learn how to win without pitching sensation Keilani Ricketts. The four year All-American and two-time National Player of the Year finished as the winningest pitcher at OU with her 125-35 overall win-loss record while throwing 1,531 strikeouts and allowing just 180 earned runs in 1,021 innings pitched.
Without Ricketts, the team will look to its current pitching staff of five right-handers to help fill that void.
Center fielder Destinee Martinez returns to anchor the outfield.
“This is going to be something different that the fans and I aren't used to and that is a starter, reliever and closer style," Gasso said about what could change this season. "I don't know if one is capable of dominating a game through its entirety at least right now. But they've done a really good job and I'm pleased with their progress."
Junior Georgia Casey looked to be the front-runner in the pitching derby for the Sooners but has battled injuries this offseason.
Add in the fact that the Sooners also have to replace Ricketts’ battery mate, Jessica Shults, and you also understand why this team has more obstacles to hurdle in the 2014 season compared to its championship run.
However, Whitney Ellis, a sophomore out of Yukon, looks to be the one to fill Shults’ shoes behind the plate.
"She has a good arm, throws the ball hard and is very athletic," Gasso said of Ellis. "She can pick (off runners) at any time, which is fun; she just needs some game time experience but she is looking really good at practice."
Both the infield and the outfield will get a facelift this season, especially if Gasso uses Casey on the mound after the junior mainly saw time at second base. Senior Javen Henson has been working out in Casey's place at second this fall with Chamberlain at first base, junior Jessica Vest at shortstop and former Arizona transfer Shelby Pendley at third. Martinez continues to anchor the outfield in center, while senior Brittany Williams and junior Callie Parsons have traded out in right and left field with some of the team's newest faces.
But if one thing is certain, Gasso knows what playing and winning on the big stage has already done both physically and mentally for her team. Her pitchers continue to be challenged this offseason---including by power slugger Chamberlain---something that Gasso admitted needs to happen before this pitching staff faces Big 12 opponents.
“They are facing the best hitters out there everyday," Gasso said. "Either you're going to surrender or you're going to find ways to get them out and they are fighting."
And with a senior class that now has two WCWS championship game appearances under its belt, the players are in a better position--and accordingly more festive spirits this fall--to begin this season's journey to defend the 2014 title.