Seniors key in Sooners’ title win: Pitcher, catcher lead softball team to victory with character, performance

CELEBRATION: The Sooners celebrate winning the national championship against Tennessee at the Women’s College World Series. A year ago they came within one run of a championship before falling to Alabama. (Photo by: Patience Knox)

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – When the OU Sooners won the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City June 4, vindicating last year’s loss in the same venue, the two seniors who helped get them there walked off the field as more than national champions with a slew of individual records.

Their collegiate careers now closed, pitcher Keilani Ricketts and catcher Jessica Schults also leave their team a legacy of leadership.

Ricketts threw her seventh no-hitter during the tournament, and home-run leader Schults was behind the plate for every game. Both hold multiple school records: Ricketts is OU’s winningest pitcher; Schults has the most career home runs. Together, their achievements provided a powerful base for the Sooners’ championship run.

However, those who know them best say these two led their teammates in more than awards and numbers.

Just ask someone who has experienced both sides of the Sooners’ senior pitcher-catcher battery.

“Both lead by example, and do everything they need to do right,” said Lauren Gibson, a Tennessee Lady Volunteers infielder who played with the duo on Team USA last summer and then against them in the championship.

“I spent my entire summer with them, and just saw how close they are. I couldn’t have asked for a better pitcher or catcher on the USA team.”

The biggest reason they are so good together, Gibson said, is that “they are such good friends off the field,” which sets them apart from other great softball batteries.

“We’ve worked together for four years now,” said Schults. “We don’t get frustrated. We’re comfortable together.”

Team USA head coach Ken Eriksen said Ricketts and Schults “have a great pitcher-catcher relationship.” He said that creates a kind of “de-facto leadership” that is “seen, not heard.”

These two Sooners are “two of the greatest ever” in college softball, he said.

“Keilani is all by herself,” said Eriksen, when asked for a comparison. If anyone, he said, she resembles Babe Ruth because “she can throw the no-hitters and hit the home runs.”

Ricketts threw six no-hitters this year. She also set school records for single-season strikeouts and complete games. She set up the winning game by beating Tennessee in the 12-inning Game 1, throwing 188 pitches.

For Game 2, OU head coach Patty Gasso opted to go with fellow senior Michelle Gascoigne to give Ricketts time to rest her arm in case a third game was needed. Gascoigne had not thrown a single pitch in the postseason, but Ricketts backed the coach’s decision to go with her on the mound.

“Keilani has had a ton of big moments,” said her coach, “and the fact that she was wanting to share this with Michelle, I think, probably helped Michelle get on the mound and say, ‘I’ve got this.’”

Gascoigne agreed.

“Knowing that Keilani was all for it, and she was supporting me — and she was going to be in the bullpen if I needed her, just brought me all the confidence in the world,” she said.

Gasso noted that Ricketts hit the home run that gave Gascoigne “a bit of breathing room.”

Ricketts drove a ball over the outfield wall just inside the right field foul pole for a three-run homer in the third inning. That lead was all Gascoigne would need while throwing a shutout.

188 PITCHES: Keilani Ricketts speaks about supporting Gascoinge who pitched to win the national championship for OU. The night before Ricketts had thrown 188 pitches across 12 innings in the Sooners’ Game 1 win. (Photo by: Patience Knox)

“Keilani is a natural leader by her ability on the mound and her intenseness and what she does there,” the coach said. “Everybody seems to follow her lead.”

Tennessee’s co-head coach who worked with Team USA said Ricketts also is “a really good person.”

“She plays hard, but she doesn’t taunt and carry on and things like that,” said Ralph Weekly. “She deserves all the accolades she’s won.”

Behind the plate for every great pitcher squats a great catcher.

“Schults has a great understanding of the game,” said Eriksen. “We taught to call her own pitches.”

As a hitting threat, Schults started three of her four OU seasons with a home run in her first at-bat. But, her coach said, she leads as much with her can-do attitude as she does with her play.

Schults has a “quite infectious personality that just makes you want to play around her and be better,” said Gasso. “The fact that Jessica Schults is holding a National Championship trophy will always be something I cherish because I didn’t know that she was going to play again.”

Two years ago, Schults was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder known as pan ulcerative colitis. No one was sure if she would ever squat behind the plate in a collegiate softball game again, but Schults returned for the 2011 Series after missing only seven games. After that stretch, she started every game and served as team captain during her last two seasons.

As the two seniors look to their future as professionals – both were drafted mid-season by USSSA Pride of the National Professional Fastpitch League – their former coaches and teammates speak of the legacy they leave.

“They know how to win,” said Gasso. “They fought, and they were never afraid. They bowed up when they needed to together, and they’re just a tremendous group of athletes that I love to work with every day.”

Ericksen said he can only hope that his daughters “grow up to be half the people they are.”

Fellow senior Brianna Turang said she “wouldn’t choose another group to play with.”

“We’ve been so close, and we’ve gone through so much together,” she said. “It’s been a blast to get to play with them.”

Sophomore Lauren Chamberlain said this outgoing senior class was “a big part of the reason I chose to go to the University of Oklahoma, and I thank them for that.”

As the championship post-game press conference ended, Chamberlain turned to directly address the departing duo.

“You really changed the face of this program, and you’ve made me proud to keep playing here.” she said, choking back tears.

“I love you guys.”

To see this article as it was originally published for The Red Dirt Journal, click here.

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