Thursday, November 17, 2016

Oklahoma Profile: Defending Champs the Favorites Again

General Overview/2016 Recap: The Sooners left no doubt as to who was the best team when it mattered in 2016. Buoyed by a swift and powerful youth movement, they retained a high spot in the rankings all season long and made some close wins look easy en route to the National Title. The Sooners were able to lean on Paige Parker to get the job done, invoking shades of Keilani Ricketts from years past.
Though the Sooners began the season slowly, with losses to two equally high-ranked clubs in the kickoff tournament, they managed to right the ship. A 3-2 showing at the Mary Nutter that included a high-scoring loss to Michigan left some wondering if the Sooners would crumble sooner rather than later after the loss of several veteran players the season before. Patty Gasso's club put together a nine-game win streak before conference play began, which is when the real fun started. The Sooners lost just one game from March 19 until the Women's College World Series championship game, emerging victorious in seventeen of their eighteen final regular-season games and sweeping through the Regional and Super Regional rounds.
In the Women's College World Series, the Sooners took down Alabama, Michigan, and LSU in quick succession amongst some convoluted scheduling, leaving them to face the SEC's Auburn in the championship series. The Sooners would score twelve runs in the championship series, including seven in their Game 2 loss that did not see Paige Parker take the circle. She reemerged in the final game, stymieing the Tiger bats and handing her team the National Championship trophy.
Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – Paige Parker, (Kelsey Stevens)
C – Lea Wodach
1B – Shay Knighten
2B – Caleigh Clifton
3B – Sydney Romero
SS – Kelsey Arnold
LF – (Kady Self)
CF – Nicole Pendley
RF – (Erin Miller)
DP – Fale Aviu
Carrying the Clipboards: Patty Gasso has to be in the argument as the very best in the game at the head coaching position, and many would argue that she is the pinnacle of the sport currently. With three national titles under her belt and an incredible influx of talent year-in and year-out, Gasso’s club always seems to be near the top of the heap come postseason time.
Missy Lombardi, Gasso’s longtime assistant, a former OU catcher, and the Sooners’ pitch caller, can be  credited with a lot of the big-time success Paige Parker and others before her have had in the circle. Lombardi is one of the most unheralded yet most talented pitching coaches in the game, and it was under her leadership a year ago that the young battery of Parker and Wodach blossomed. With two all-star hurlers in Parker and now Paige Lowary, opposing coaches should have a difficult time deciphering what Lombardi has up her sleeve.
Patty’s son JT Gasso came into Norman as a coach with two years of experience, hardly enough to qualify him for a top-notch job without a familial relation. But for whatever reason he got the job, JT Gasso helped lead the Sooner offense particularly well, including to the second-best team batting average (.351) and number of hits in school and program history. Following the absence of Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley after the 2015 season, Gasso worked with Sydney Romero and Shay Knighten to help mold them into nearly as equally-great hitters as their preceding compatriots.
Paige Lowary turned in her black & gold for crimson & cream
during the offseason, and gives Patty Gasso some much-needed
depth at a high talent level.
(Photo: Kevin Burns)
Additions: Lowary in the circle is the biggest addition for the Sooners, as she gives Patty Gasso a proven, reliable, workhorse number two that can help take some innings off of Parker’s back without sacrificing much in the quality control department.
Subtractions: Senior outfielder Erin Miller was one of three graduate departures from a year ago. Miller embraced her role as the senior statesman and vocal leader and truly led her young team to the top. While her all-American play will be difficult to replace, her leadership in the clubhouse and on the field will also be tough to fill… With the addition of Lowary came the loss of the pitching depth the Sooners carried through all of 2016. Kelsey Stevens has graduated, while Brittany Finney (Ole Miss) and Jayden Chestnut (Central Oklahoma) have both transferred out.
Scheduling: The Sooners will kick off the season down south, as part of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In a two-day span, they'll face off against Auburn, Nebraska, and Washington, as well as BYU. A weekend in Houston that includes matchups against Ole Miss and a doubleheader against the Cougars bridges the gap until the Mary Nutter Classic.

At the Mary Nutter in Palm Springs, the Sooners will be tested severely once-again, including matchups against the SEC's Tennessee and Lowary's former squad of Missouri, as well as defending WCWS participant UCLA.

The Sooners' conference slate includes hosted series' against Iowa State and Baylor, while Gasso's squad will visit Austin, Lawrence, and Lubbock before ending the regular season in a split home-and-home series against bitter rival Oklahoma State.
Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – With a powerful 1-2 punch in the circle and with the powerful bats of Romero and Knighten anchoring the lineup and the defensive corners, the Sooners are packed and ready in multiple facts of the game. They should be able to take on most any competition and hold their own particularly well.
Weaknesses – Both Parker and Lowary are used to being innings-eaters, so having to share the workload may have to take some adjustment for one of both of them. Romero, Knighten, and Clifton will have to avoid the ‘sophomore slump’ and retain their hitting prowess through the course of the season. The Sooners may have taken some folks by surprise with their late-season run, but they’ll come into 2017 with a target on their backs and as the dominant favorites to win it all again. They’ll have to hold, not buckle, under pressure.

Outlook for 2017: The Sooners retain a powerful lineup and have only strengthened their pitching staff. They will and should be the dominant favorites to repeat as National Champions.

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