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OU starts defense of title tonight

NORMAN, Okla. — At the softball banquet last Friday night, head coach Patty Gasso made it very clear that this program is in the middle of an important transition phase.

Nevermind that one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen won’t be in OU’s dugout this year. Nevermind that the Sooners are going to try to accomplish what no other team has done in seven years in their attempt to become back-to-back national champions.

This team is learning how to sustain itself at the collegiate softball summit while simultaneously putting last year’s run in the rearview mirror.

“This team has something to prove still, even while losing some of the best, dynamic players to play the game in our program.“ Gasso said. “When those types of players leave, you’re suppose to have a rebuilding year, but these guys believe that they can go back and be in the same place they were before.”

After spending time watching videos, meeting the new players on this year’s roster and going through the ring ceremony that the coaching staff purposely waited until this time to distribute rings, Gasso spoke about how the day would come that her players would need to focus on the new season and she said her team would be ready to turn the page.

That quest for the program’s third title officially begins tonight at 5:30 against No. 12 Kentucky in the Easton Tournament in Fullerton, Calif. The Sooners will also play again at 8 p.m. against Cal State.

But Gasso already has an important piece in place to getting her team focused already on the bench. She’s not only one of the most feared hitters in the country; with Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults’ graduation, junior Lauren Chamberlain turned into the pivotal commander of this team and her leadership was best exemplified by being selected as this year’s team’s sole captain by her peers.

“Outplay Oklahoma, that’s what everyone’s thinking,” Chamberlain said about the upcoming season. “When you say no other team since (Arizona) has done what we want to do, that’s just more motivation for us.”

Motivation may be the biggest factor for this team going into this season. After falling to Alabama two years ago in the 2012 championship run, OU needed nothing more than to get back out on the field to exorcise those demons left up in Oklahoma City the previous year. The team returned, pummeled just about everyone on its roster and solidified its place among the softball elite after besting SEC power Tennessee with a one-two punch in the Women’s College World Series. Led by the pitching tandem of Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne, the Sooners got to the mountaintop and that’s where OU would like to set up camp from now on.

“To watch another team be in that championship game is not accepted to this team and we’re going to work to get back there,“ Chamberlain said. “It’s almost like a home game when we play on that field so we owe the fans, too, to do it for Oklahoma. We have stay hungry, know that we’re capable of getting that second one and not get complacent.”

But Sooner fans will be seeing a ‘different’ team run out onto the field.

“We’re really excited because it’s going to look different,“ Gasso said. “We can still get the same results, but in a different way. So maybe we have four strikeouts a game but our defense turns more double plays; I’m not caring about the strikeouts, it’s more about the ground balls and easy outs.”

And all Gasso could talk about was her faith in her defensive stronghold, so much so that the two-time national champion coach said she would rather have one of her pitchers play in the infield than in the circle.

“Georgia [Casey] has shown a lot of improvement [in the circle],“ Gasso said. “The hard part is that Georgia is so good on defense that things change when we have to do that.”

Casey, a junior out of Sydney, Australia, saw limited time in the circle the past two seasons and spent most of her minutes defending the right side of the infield at second base. Casey has a career .953 fielding percentage and has started 110 of the 111 games she’s played in since coming to Norman.

Besides getting the chance to see Chamberlain break all the hitting records, Sooner fans will want to keep Casey’s No. 42 jersey in their sights due to the fact that she will most likely be OU’s most valuable player this season before it’s all said and done. Why?--because Gasso predicted Casey will most likely get the job of batting behind Chamberlain, a spot that may just be the toughest place to hit in all of college softball.

As she’s done in the past, Gasso will mix up lineups early this season and Chamberlain would ideally be at the one-hole to keep opposing pitchers from throwing around her. Gasso believes that Casey has the ability to make opponents pay if they give Chamberlain a free ride.

“The toughest thing is to find that person to back her up and that person has to be the most solid, consistent, mental person on our team,” Gasso said. “So if you want to throw around Lauren, I’m okay with you facing Georgia: she will make it happen and move the runners. She doesn’t strike out a lot and is a fundamental type hitter.”

If pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi didn’t earn enough of her paycheck--and obviously she did---last year selecting pitches for Ricketts and Gascoigne after spending substantial time in the film room, Lombardi will now have about five pitchers to utilize against scouting reports this year, including Casey. But if taking Casey away from the defense will be a choice that the OU coaching staff will have to gamble with, who ultimately gets the task of replacing Ricketts’ cleats?

“Kelsey Stevens is the one we would go with right now just because of her experience from working at Stanford last year and she’s made some really good strides,” Gasso said.

As a freshman at Stanford last year, Stevens garnered a 15-7 record with a 2.99 ERA that included 10 complete games and seven shutouts. Stevens held opponents to a .203 batting average and threw the program’s 10th perfect game against Virginia last February.

OU faced Stevens this time last year for the season opener against Stanford. After the Sooners jumped on top by scoring five runs in the first inning, Stevens entered the contest and limited OU to just one run and two hits during the last six innings.

“As a unit, we’re so effective because of how many different looks you get from each pitcher,” Chamberlain said. “It’s going to be fun to see what combos we can throw in a game and get a doubleheader day and see what two different pitchers we will throw at you. It’s fun as a defense and we know we’re going to get a lot of work as well but we’re building trust.”

Just as important to Stevens’ entrance will be the replacement of graduated catcher Jessica Shults. Although the All-American joins the OU coaching staff this spring as a graduate assistant, Shults wasted no time at pruning sophomore Whitney Ellis to take her place.

Ellis, a home-grown product out of Yukon, who is poised to pick up right where Shults left off, played in 22 games and produced four runs in 20 at bats, but this year the sophomore will be a vital cog in helping the new pitching staff adjust into a groove.

“I’m really excited for Ellis, she’s taken the torch and understands it’s hers,“ Gasso said. “At first I think she was a little tight, but anytime you have to come in and fill shoes, it's tough. She’s handling well and she wants to be good. She’s a good listener and very teachable. Offensively, she’s really swinging well.”

It’s players like Ellis that not only have the capability of filling the voids left behind from last year’s championship team; the Sooners will also be leaning on them as the season progresses. If last season was depended on Ricketts’ arm for success, then this team will be the complete package, utilizing pristine offense spearheaded by Chamberlain, stingy defense led by a seasoned personnel at just about every position and a pitching staff that won’t let the hits rack up. Getting all three of the phases rolling together will be the perfect recipe for a repeat championship run, and the Sooners will get an opportunity to get the season started off on the right foot tonight in sunny California.

“This team had a really good fall and they showed they could get out of jams and I don’t think the offense feels any additional pressure, but I’m really working hard with the defense because I think more balls are going to put into play, the offense is right on tune and they look really solid throughout,“ Gasso said. “Defensively I’ve got just about everyone back and Ellis is doing a phenomenal job behind the plate. Yes, you miss the bat and arm of Ricketts and miss the speed of Brianna Turang, but I think we can make it up in certain places and for us defense is going to be extremely important.”

How the field will most likely set up this season:

Pitcher: Kelsey Stevens/Georgia Casey
Catcher: Whitney Ellis
First: Lauren Chamberlain
Second: Georgia Casey/Javen Henson
Short: Jessica Vest/Georgia Casey
Third: Shelby Pendley
Left: Brittany Williams
Center: Destinee Martinez
Right: Callie Parsons/3 other options

Projected pitching rotations:

Kelsey Stevens
Georgia Casey
Taylor Dewbery
Leslie Miller
Maggie Ham

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