By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — It’s not that coach Patty Gasso has her Oklahoma softball team headed back to the Women’s College World Series. It’s that the team she’ll bring to it actually looks like a championship team.
Given the season OU’s not entirely enjoyed, it’s kind of amazing.
Ten games into it, after tournaments at Fullerton, Calif., and Phoenix, the Sooners were 6-4, 0-3 against ranked teams and not exactly dominant against the rest. Two of their wins over that span were an 11-6 decision over Illinois State and a 7-6 escape against Michigan State.
The Sooners looked nothing like the defending national champions. They didn’t even look very good.
Since, OU’s gone 45-6.
Sunday, though it took the Sooners three games and a fight-the-good-fight stand not to have to play the third one north of midnight Saturday, they completed their super regional dispatching of Tennessee, the same program they swept in last years WCWS championship series.
Now they head back to Hall of Fame Stadium, strangely and incredibly, looking like a team that might give repeating a real chance.
As the No. 7 seed, OU’s draw won’t be terrific. Thursday, they open up against No. 2 seed Alabama. But get past the Tide and, well, count them out at your peril.
Gasso seems a little amazed by it all, too.
“We saw this team come together,” she said, a few minutes after that team ended the Lady Vols’ season.
The biggest question mark has been Kelsey Stevens.
It was OU’s No. 1 pitcher’s trials and tribulations, and the fact Gasso had no dependable Plan B, that brought Shelby Pendley out of mound retirement just to settle things down a little.
Even coming into the super regional, Stevens’ earned run average was 2.42, which is pretty good if you’re throwing a baseball, yet not so great if you’re trying to match up with the best hurlers in the women’s college game.
On the other hand, over Stevens’ last 157 innings, that ERA is 2.27, so she’s trending the right direction. Maybe more important, over her first 102 innings this season, she’d allowed 128 base runners, or 1.25 per frame. Since — that same 157 inning sample — it’s 1.02, which is much better.
Maybe a more tangible test came up in the first inning Sunday against Tennessee three-hole hitter Annie Aldrete, a .368 hitter with 19 home runs. The at-bat lasted about 10 pitches, Stevens was moving the ball around and Aldrete just kept fouling it off. Finally, Stevens challenged her with a fastball down main street and Aldrete couldn’t catch up to it.
Stevens flat challenged one of the nation’s best hitters and came up aces.
Of course, that was before Lauren Chamberlain hit either of her two home runs “with one leg, literally,” according to Gasso.
It was before Javin Henson and her .234 batting average hit a home run out of the eight-hole and it was before the Sooners turned a competitive game into a laugher with three sixth-inning home runs.
It’s hard putting Chamberlain into context, but maybe thinking of her as every bit the slugger Courtney Paris ever was a basketball player should help. Or that she hits the softball as well as Jason White or Sam Bradford threw the football. Or, maybe, that she’s just the best pure hitter the college game’s ever known.
Also, remember that she plays on a team that kept things afloat reasonably well without her for big stretches, and that for two games this past weekend, the entire lineup came together against Tennessee.
Lady Vol pitcher Ellen Renfroe arrived in Norman riding an ERA south of 2. She tossed one shutout, but was shelled twice.
So don’t count the Sooners out beginning Thursday. They’re not expected to repeat and shouldn’t be, but it’s not like they’ve squeaked back into the field.
They’ve got a pitcher who’s come a long way and a lineup that can still rake. OU looks like a team with a chance to win it all.
Follow me @clayhorning
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