One win from a national championship a season ago, Oklahoma begins a new season with one of the most potent lineups in recent college softball history mostly intact -- possibly even enhanced. The Sooners have power like their state has pickup trucks. Five returning players hit double-digit home runs last season, paced by Lauren Chamberlain, the nation's leading returning slugger, who hit a conference-record 30 home runs as a freshman.
For all their power, Oklahoma batters also have one big advantage over the rest of the country.
They don't have to face pitcher Keilani Ricketts.
Actually, that's only partly true. The Sooners don't have to hit against the reigning national player of the year when it counts. But they suffer along with the rest of their peers when they face their ace in practices and scrimmages.
Her size, her speed, it's almost like she shortens the distance between the mound and you. It's unreal when you're hitting against her.” -- OU teammate Lauren Chamberlain on Keilani Ricketts
"Her size, her speed, it's almost like she shortens the distance between the mound and you," Chamberlain said. "It's unreal when you're hitting against her. ... Her speed alone does a lot, but it's not just speed. She moves the ball in ways that you're just like, 'All right, I give up.' You're almost walking out of the box before you get in there."
Ricketts is the complete package on the diamond, including a fearsome hitter who contributed to all that run production, but it is invariably her size that comes up first. She is listed at 6-foot-2, and it is no stretch to call that a conservative measurement. There have been tall pitchers before -- in recent years alone, Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott dominated the college, international and professional game at similar heights. But they are long arms and legs lithely coming at hitters. Ricketts looks like she is throwing a duckpin bowling ball when everybody else is hefting a regular 12-pounder. She's just big, in the same way Andrew Luck and CC Sabathia are just big.
In a sport where she stands just 43 feet away from batters and throws the ball more than 70 miles an hour, that size is an asset that helps set her apart.
It may also have been the only thing standing between Ricketts and a place as the sport's next superstar, a big talent with a big game for the sport's post-Olympic profile.
Out of her shell
Oklahoma's Patty Gasso had an ace up her sleeve when it came to convincing Ricketts, the pitching ace the coach wanted to build her program around, to leave her hometown of San Jose, Calif., for the distant reaches of Big 12 country. Samantha Ricketts, Keilani's older sister, was an all-conference slugger for the Sooners and a member of the softball staff when Keilani came aboard. Even then, with some measure of familiarity in hand, the younger Ricketts arrived as a shy freshman who appeared almost uncomfortable as the center of attention in the circle.
It wasn't just from the outside looking in. Gasso and longtime pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi had a difficult time getting around the wall Ricketts put up.
"I think a lot of it was some insecurity with her size and trying to figure out a little bit of who she is and where she's going," Gasso said. "If I ever went out to, say, lunch with her, I remember we'd sit down and I just carried the conversation. She had a hard time even looking at me across the table. And she still has quite a bit of shyness, especially around people she doesn't know."
A visit to American Samoa (Ricketts' mother is of Samoan heritage) before her junior season may have helped change that. Ricketts entered that season in the best physical condition of her career and went from among the best players in the nation to simply the best. She was one of three players, and the only one in a major conference, who struck out at least 400 batters. She was second in the nation in ERA and in the top 20 in slugging percentage. And she was at her best leading the Sooners to the championship series in front of the largest crowds in Women's College World Series history, attendance spurred by the success of the local team from down Interstate 35.
It would be a stretch to say Ricketts reveled in the spotlight, but she certainly didn't shrink from it. Something clicked, and maybe it was that trip to a place she once said it was her dream to visit.
"I think when Keilani went [to American Samoa] it changed her a lot, in a wonderful way, because she, I think, kind of understood that there are other people, other women, who are big and strong like her," Gasso said. "She really connected to her roots there, very much. I was really excited for her. And then she came back gleaming and excited and almost like a big light was on, saying, 'This is who you are, and be proud of it.'
"I see that as being something that will probably be one of the most significant moments in Keilani's life -- that trip and really finding out who she was."
That, in turn, allows her to pursue the full possibilities of her potential.
One more step
Whether the product of years of insularity or simply natural stubbornness, Ricketts can, at times, shut out the world when she's in the circle. That's a good thing most of the time, but it has its downside. Gasso wouldn't come out and connect the two outright, but when she talked about Ricketts getting "frustrated with a few things" during the championship series against Alabama, and of the coach's own frustration in times when the pitcher didn't seem to hear what coaches tried to communicate to her, it's difficult to imagine she's talking about anything other than the final two games of the season. Down a game in the championship series, Alabama adjusted its approach at the plate and chased Ricketts in the second game. The Tide then maintained their composure through a long, damp final night better than Oklahoma's ace could in the conditions.
"I don't think there is anybody in the country that is as strong, as blessed with physical talent, as Keilani," said Oregon coach Mike White, who was also her pitching coach with Team USA the past two summers. "But she's in some ways a gentle giant, so just trying to get her mental toughness to where it should be [is the next step]. I mean, I think we kind of saw that a little bit last year in the World Series where she had that game where she couldn't adjust back after Alabama got on top of the plate or when the weather hit.
"Those are things that a mentally tough pitcher with her physical skills wouldn't let happen. And I think we're going to see that [change] with Keilani Ricketts this year."
Softball has struggled to produce a star since it lost its Olympic standing. Jennie Finch is still the biggest name nearly three years into her retirement. The sport's most notable active players are veterans like Abbott, Osterman and Jessica Mendoza who played in the Olympics. Even Danielle Lawrie, the most recent former college star to find some measure of mainstream recognition, had an Olympic stage with Canada in 2008.
It won't be easy for any player to change that without a higher profile outlet than National Pro Fastpitch or the international game currently allows. It will take someone larger than life.
We may rarely see the side of Ricketts that leads Chamberlain to call her "one of the funniest people I know," but as long as she pitches and hits like a certain former Sultan of Swat from the New York Yankees to whom she was compared by South Florida and Team USA coach Ken Eriksen during last year's World Series, she may be the next big thing.