Oklahoma’s softball program should be in Irvine, California, this weekend to host — yes, host — a season-opening tournament.
The event fell through due to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. So, fourth-ranked OU and third-ranked Arizona, which expected to be at the tournament, planned to meet in Tucson.
The top-four matchup was nixed, as was OU’s second backup plan of going to Texas State to open the year and their third backup plan of competing in a tournament at Abilene Christian.
OU’s trip to Abilene wasn’t called off for COVID-19 reasons, but inclement weather. The Sooners finally arrived on a two-day trip to El Paso, Texas, where they will still meet Abilene Christian, as well as UTEP, today and Friday and 70-degree weather is expected.
It took a while to get there but it’s not a bad way to begin a season for a group OU coach Patty Gasso strongly hints at being special.
“There’s no breath for an opposing pitcher through this lineup,” Gasso said. “The outfield is gonna be the best outfield we’ve ever had. The infield is looking like one of the most athletic infields we’ve ever had. Everything is just … it’s really solid. Knock on wood and we’ll see what it looks like against another team.”
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Gasso wasn’t sure what her batting order would look like at 11 this morning against UTEP.
It’s not for a lack of talent. Gasso said she finds herself unable to craft a lineup without feeling she’s leaving off someone deserving.
It’s a good problem for the coach, entering her 27th season in Norman, to have with a heavy mix of veterans and newcomers fighting for playing time.
“I need to play these players as much as I can,” Gasso said. “I’ve got to feed them innings. … I don’t know who’s leading off right now. I probably have five options and I just haven’t figured it out.”
Gasso can confirm senior Jocelyn Alo, with a career .404 batting average and .846 slugging percentage to go with 171 hits and 54 home runs over 145 games, will be a part of the lineup.
Fellow senior Nicole Mendes, who owns a career .359 batting average, .535 slugging percentage and is third on OU’s all-time career triples list with 12, will also reprise her role in the order.
Kinzie Hansen, a sophomore from Norco, California, was limited to just 24 games in her 2020 debut season. She finished her shortened freshman campaign with a .413 batting average and team second-leading 31 hits behind Alo.
Gasso anticipates Hansen to be an integral part to OU’s offense.
She also expects Jana Johns, a transfer from South Carolina, to make an impact.
“Jana Johns, is gonna be something that you’re going to enjoy watching,” Gasso said. “She’s really improved her game at third base but this girl swings. She’s got power.”
OU’s pitching staff will be headlined by two-time NFCA All-American Giselle Juarez, who was able to return thanks to the NCAA’s COVID-19 hardship waiver stemming from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. It allowed senior reliever Shannon Saile, the former Florida International transfer, to return as well.
Gasso is also high on true freshman Nicole May, who was the 2018-19 Gatorade California Softball Player of the Year while attending Foothill High School in Pleasanton.
“She is going to be probably working in and out with Shannon Saile and Giselle,” Gasso said. “Seasoned professional for such a young kid. She really knows what she wants. She’s very serious about it. Those three will really make an impact.”
OU will play nine games before getting to test its roster against a ranked opponent on Feb. 26 at No. 16 Arizona State.
Gasso seems comfortable, however, with the work her team gets in practice and her team’s two week tour of Texas before getting into the thick of the 2021 schedule.
“This is a group of 23 that challenges every position,” Gasso said. “Our scrimmages are something to see. When you split this team in half, it looks like two top-15 Division I teams playing against each other.
“It’s definitely the adage of iron sharpens iron. That’s what it feels like. It’s been fun. It’s really been a joy to watch. Because competition can really make you do things that you never thought. Each player is pushing the other.
“It’s a coaches’ dream, quite honestly.”