It's been 13 years since the Oklahoma softball team had to defend a national championship. Friday night, the Sooners will begin their second title defense when they host the Norman Regional and face Bryant at 7:30 p.m.
For Oklahoma, home is a nice place to be. It's the third year in a row the Sooners haven't had to leave the state in the postseason, and coach Patty Gasso knows the value of being able to stick to daily routines.
"Being familiar with your field, being familiar with the way the dirt plays, being comfortable in your own homes and your routines—you don't have to break those up," Gasso said. "It's a huge advantage for us and especially with our fans and the way they get locked into the game."
After a national title run where hardly anything went wrong, including losing games, the Sooners come into the postseason with some uncertainty in the lineup thanks to a couple key injuries. Leading hitter Kady Self tore her ACL crossing first base in the Texas Tech series and is done for the year. Meanwhile, Lauren Chamberlain, arguably the most feared power hitter in the game, has a partially torn PCL, suffered against Oklahoma State last weekend.
Gasso said Chamberlain has been practicing in a brace and could play this weekend, but wasn't sure how much she would be able to contribute.
"It just happened not very long ago so we're working to get the brace on her," Gasso said. "She's working with it. So, it's going to be a game day decision, and it's really going to be up to Lauren."
Even without Chamberlain, who missed 23 games earlier in the year with a back injury, the Sooners went 19-4 and coasted to a third straight Big 12 title. The Sooners have only played one game without both Chamberlain and Self—Sunday's 11-3 run-rule win over Oklahoma State. However, Gasso is confident the Sooners will be fine without them.
"There's lots of options," Gasso said about who would step up. "It really is a matchup for who fits the pitcher that we're facing best, who maybe hits drop ball better, who hits changeup better. We'll deal with it, but everybody's prepared. It's not going to be a surprise to anybody because we're prepared for it."
A big reason why the Sooners could still be just fine is the pitching of Kelsey Stevens. The sophomore transfer from Stanford has taken her pitching to another level in the second half of the season. Stevens leads the country with 33 wins and has filled the shoes of Keilani Ricketts about as well as anyone could hope to.
"You should be getting better as the season goes along because you get more games, more chances to face batters," Stevens said. "It's just helped me get more efficient, and working with the team's been great. So, they're always helping me on defense as well so I can't give it all to me. So, I think it's just because more efficient as time goes on."
The difference between the first month of the season—eight losses—and the last two months—two losses—has been very pronounced. The Sooners didn't lose a lot in numbers from a year ago, but they did lose three of the four most important players on the roster. Recovering from that loss took time and junior Shelby Pendley said the chemistry is finally coming together.
"At the beginning of the season we were still trying to figure out how everything worked, who worked best where and that kind of thing," Pendley said. "And I think it's just really gelling right now."
Now that the Sooners have figured things out, they're entering the postseason with a lot of momentum, something Gasso thinks can be the difference for Oklahoma.
"I think this team understands how to win," Gasso said. "They don't panic when they're behind. They know how to answer when someone scores on them. They know how to do it late in games. So, I think we're just going to put it all out there and trust that it's going to be enough, but at the same time you're not going to see this team ever, ever quit before [it's over]. Ahead or behind we're going to play our guts out. That's what you have to do this time of the season."
The Sooners are ready to being the defense of last year's national championship, and they couldn't have picked a better time to be playing their best ball of the season.
Oklahoma- 45-10, 16-2 Big 12
Big 12 champions
Key Players: Shelby Pendley- .411, 13 HR, 61 RBI, four saves in 17 appearances, Georgia Casey- .368, 11 HR, 42 RBI, Lauren Chamberlain- .316, 6 HR, 16 RBI (in 25 games), Brittany Williams- .344, 9 HR, 36 RBI
Pitchers: Kelsey Stevens- 31-7, 1.97 ERA, 217 Ks
The Sooners have lost twice since a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on March 15 and are absolutely rolling, winning 13 of those games in run-rule fashion. OU cruised through Big 12 play, thanks in large part to the emergence of Kelsey Stevens in the circle. Stevens is no Keilani Ricketts, but she boasts an ERA under two and opposing hitters are batting less than .200 against her. The Sooners hope to have a fully healthy Lauren Chamberlain back in the starting lineup, a move that would add considerable firepower to a batting order that has really figured it out over the second half of the season.
Bryant- 32-20, 13-3 NEC
Northeastern Conference Tournament champions
Key Players: Elle Madsen- .355, 13 HR, 41 RBI, Aubrey Mable- .342, 8 HR, 31 RBI, Madeline Velasquez- .337, 58 hits, 37 RBI
Pitchers: Elle Madsen- 25-10, 2.66 ERA, 148 Ks
Bryant is in the NCAA tournament courtesy of its first-ever Northeast Conference title. The Bulldogs are a resilient squad, coming from behind in all three tournament games to win each time and claim the title. That resiliency was evident on Thursday, when the Bulldogs showed no fear when talking about facing the defending national champions.
"We're very excited," Bryant coach Shayne Lotito said. "The whole team is extremely excited to have this opportunity, and we're going to come out and our goal right now is to compete. That's what our goal is. I'm not going to say we're going to take them down. I'm not going to say we're going to lose, but this team will compete tomorrow."
Elle Madsen is the Bulldogs all-everything star. She is Bryant's leading hitter as well as its ace in the circle, winning NEC Player of the Year and Tournament MVP honors. Even though Madsen is counted on to produce a lot for the Bulldogs, she said she doesn't feel much added pressure to do so.
"You know, there's not a lot of pressure coming in here," Madsen said. "I know my team's got my back. You know, I fully trust in them. And obviously we're playing the defending national champions, but, you know, that's not all we're thinking about. We're thinking about each and every single at bat. We're not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is Oklahoma.' I don't feel much pressure at all. I know I have to be pinpoint accurate with every pitch, have focused at bats every at bat."
The Bulldogs also have several other capable hitters in the lineup to be wary of. Their lack of intimidation will certainly make for an entertaining game on Friday night.
Texas A&M- 35-20, 9-15 SEC
Key Players: Emily Albus- .420, 81 hits, 16 stolen bases, Nicole Morgan- .374, 14 HR, 54 RBI, Cassie Tysarczyk- .357, 12 HR, 48 RBI
Pitchers: Katie Marks- 15-5, 3.10 ERA, 73 Ks, Rachel Fox- 13-10, 3.37 ERA, 112 Ks
The Aggies didn't have a great season, especially in conference play, but a strong RPI has them in the tournament for the 13th straight season.
Playing the brutal SEC conference—which put 11 of 13 teams in the NCAA tournament this year—has helped Texas A&M prepare for anything that comes its way in the tournament.
"We always feel like if you can make it through the grind of the SEC, you're not going to play anybody better than the teams we've played," A&M coach Jo Evans said. "We understand how challenging our conference is and we're prepared for similar opponents outside our conference."
Despite the Aggies poor standing in the SEC this season—9-15, good for 11th in the conference—Evans said there was never a moment of doubt in her mind that the Aggies would reach the tournament. At Thursday's press conference, Evans even challenged those who questioned whether the Aggies were sweating on Selection Sunday.
"We were No. 22 in the RPI, we had no losses to teams No. 43 and lower," Evans pointed out. "Most of the teams that are in the top-16 seeds have lost to teams lower in the RPI than we have, so we understand that we have losses against some really great teams. We're not happy about our finish in the SEC and our losses to Tennessee and Missouri and Georgia and Florida and all those teams that are top-16 seeds. For us, we have good perspective knowing we played a great schedule, we competed well, we have 35 wins under our belt and for us, it was just a matter of where are we going to go."
The Aggies are thankful for the fresh start and senior Cassie Tysarczyk said it's a welcome thing for the team.
"That was our whole mentality, practicing these last two weeks," Tysarczyk said. "Coach has been telling us it's a clean slate. You have a new batting average, you have a new ERA. We're ready to start rewriting our story right now."
Last year, the Sooners swept the Aggies in the Norman Super Regional en route to the national championship. The top of the A&M lineup packs a solid punch, but top to bottom, it's not the same caliber of A&M teams of the past. Katie Marks and Rachel Fox share the load in the pitchers circle. Both have respectable ERAs, but don't have high strikeout totals.
Hofstra- 33-13, 11-4 CAA
Key Players: Chloe Fitzgerald- .359, 18 stolen bases, Maggie Hawkins- .347, 9 HR, 46 RBI, Erin Trippi- .305, 8 HR, 39 RBI
Pitchers: Taylor Pirone- 16-6, 1.67 ERA, 64 Ks, Morgan Lashley- 17-5, 1.98 ERA, 156 Ks
The Pride is making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance and 15th appearance overall. The past two years, the Pride advanced to the Super Regionals (2012) and the regional final against Missouri last year. Long-time coach Bill Edwards says it's nice to have that kind of success recently, as it makes this regional more of just another game rather than an end point.
"We've been there and we've done that," Edwards said. "We've been to 15 regionals in our history and I think it's just another game. It's another opportunity to play. We have a couple freshmen and young players that we're getting to work with another week. At the same time, it is one stop on the path to a World Series. I think that is probably where we want to be; that's why we're all here. Now we have to play a little bit harder, execute a bit better and do the little things to get us to the next stage. Having been here, it's cool. It's something you dream about as a coach and a player."
Hofstra doesn't have a lot of power in the lineup, but does have good hitters up and down the lineup. Pitching is the main strength of the team, as both Taylor Pirone and Morgan Lashley have ERAs under two and 16 and 17 victories, respectively. Lashley has more than double the amount of strikeouts, but Pirone has the slightly lower ERA.
Pirone said the difference in their pitching styles helps keep opponents off-balance.
"Morgan has a lot of up stuff," Pirone said. "She has a little more pop than I do. I've got a lot stuff that is more down and off speed. Together, I think we give two really different looks. No matter what we do, (catcher Erin) Trippi does a great job behind the plate. I think she adjusts to us and our defense does a really good job behind us adjusting to depth, distance and learning how to play behind each one of us. I think we complement each other really nicely."
Fun stat of the regional: Oklahoma and Hofstra and 1-2 in the country in caught stealing rates. Oklahoma leads the country by throwing out 63.6 percent of potential base-stealers. Hofstra is right behind at 55.6 percent. Both teams have allowed just eight stolen bases all year, while Texas A&M has allowed just 14. Needless to say, there won't be a lot of stolen bases this weekend.