Oklahoma had one of the best regular seasons in the nation, finishing 45-8 and winning the Big 12 title going away. But, to hear the Sooners tell it at Thursday’s NCAA regional media day, they’re just getting started.
“One of the things I asked the girls in the locker room is if they felt liked we had peaked, and every one of them said no,” coach Patty Gasso said. “That’s a good sign.”
A good sign for the fourth-ranked Sooners, maybe, but not for the other three teams in their regional bracket. Oklahoma kicks off the postseason with a 7:30 p.m. game today against Lehigh (40-17), with Oregon State (34-21) or Tulsa (41-12) waiting on Saturday.
Win out this weekend and the Sooners will advance to the super regional, where they will then try to find a way back to the Women’s College World Series. Oklahoma has national title aspirations, and the lineup to take it there. But with those expectations comes pressure, something that will weigh especially heavy on the Sooners as they play in front of a home crowd with six freshmen on the roster.
While the charged atmosphere of the postseason brings with it its own challenges, Gasso is confident her squad will handle it.
“This is what sets apart the women from the girls,” she said. “I know I have a lot of women on this team. The leadership is there.”
Two of the players Oklahoma will look to for that leadership are juniors Jessica Shults and Keilani Ricketts, who have assumed the responsibility for teaching the freshmen.
“We know the freshmen will follow what we do, and we’ve got to lead the way into the postseason,” Shults said. “We’re trying to lead by example.”
While the Sooners will take the field tonight with the pressure of high expectations, their opponents across the diamond are coming into the postseason with a very different mindset.
Lehigh, which made the postseason after winning the Patriot League, is the clear underdog of the regional. The Mountain Hawks know the challenge they’ll face in the Sooners, and coach Fran Troyan is embracing the role of spoiler.
“Not having anything to lose will help our performance,” he said. “Funny things can happen when there’s pressure involved. We’re focusing on ourselves, and we can’t control what Oklahoma’s going to do. We’re just going to go out and have as much fun as we can.”
The Mountain Hawks aren’t strangers to the intense atmosphere of a regional at a big-time program like Oklahoma. They were in Norman in 2001 for the postseason, and advanced to the finals of a regional at Florida three years ago.
“I think we’ll be able to handle it,” senior Julie Fernandez said. “At Florida, that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing softball. It’s our last year; there’s nothing to worry about.”