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Considering how much success Oklahoma softball has experienced over the years, head coach Patty Gasso knows how to judge talent.
Her praise of true freshmen Tiare Jennings and Jayda Coleman should warrant attention: “Those two are going to be the franchise players of the future,” Gasso said.
The Sooners got a chance to see their five rookies play during the fall and their performances largely exceeded expectations.
“This is an area I am really excited about. The impact of these freshmen is going to be big for us,” Gasso said. “Three of the five are going to be in the starting lineup and they can take us to a whole other level in my opinion.”
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Injuries hampered Oklahoma during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. The Sooners finished 16-4 with ace Giselle Juarez sidelined for all but 6.2 innings, and utility Nicole Mendes not at full strength as she recovered from an ACL injury.
Oklahoma has a healthier outlook for 2021, and is hoping the season can be played safely amid Covid-19 precautions.
Throughout the fall, the Sooners were diligent about following protocols to allow them to get back on the field together.
“They are pretty understanding of the importance of being at practice because we have such an inflated roster. If you are missing two weeks, certainly someone is going to be stepping into your place,” Gasso said. “Almost every position is two or three deep, so that was inspiration for them saying, ‘OK. I am really going to be careful with what I am doing because it could really affect me going forward.’”
Gasso could sense a deeper investment from everyone associated with the program and gratitude for being able to play the sport they love.
“To be really truthful, I feel this was one of the best falls that we have had,” Gasso said. “I think a lot of it had to do with what we were doing in the spring on Zoom calls and getting to know each other and really getting time to talk about what is important. I think that helped create a really special fall.”
Coleman was the 2019-20 National Gatorade Player of the Year. The lefty from Texas finished her high school career batting .702 with 279 hits, 261 runs and 209 stolen bases.
Coleman has been working at shortstop, first base, second and outfield for the Sooners.
“She is an unbelievable athlete. She is going to probably be up in the top of the lineup. She has got speed, she has got power,” Gasso said. “She is that nightmare of a hitter for pitchers and defenses, and her base running is at a different level than I have seen from a lot of freshmen. She is a game-changer no doubt.”
Jennings, a San Pedro, CA native, was the Gatorade State Player of the Year in 2019-20. She finished her high school career batting .581 with 111 hits, including 16 home runs, and 61 RBIs.
After OU’s intrasquad scrimmages, which featured the Athletes Unlimited scoring format, Jennings ranked No. 1 overall.
“Her offense has gone to a whole other level with her power numbers since she arrived,” Gasso said. “A lot of that is thanks to our strength coach, who has helped her make tremendous strides.”
Before Jennings earned the honor in California, OU freshman Nicole May was the 2018-19 Gatorade State Player of the Year. The right-hander was 24-0 with a 0.32 ERA, 246 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 151 innings pitched. She batted .463 with 27 RBIs as a junior in high school.
“I have seen her go to another level here,” Gasso said. “She is very mature. It’s almost a professional level of learning her craft and mastering her craft. You don’t see that very often with freshmen. They come in here more as throwers than pitchers, and Nicole May has definitely become a pitcher.”
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Another new roster addition expected to have an instant impact is senior infielder Jana Johns, a transfer from South Carolina. Johns was a full-time starter since her freshman season at South Carolina. She hit .348 with 15 home runs, 44 RBIs and 50 runs scored in 2019.
“She has good power and is very athletic and very passionate,” Gasso said. “She has been a really great addition.”
The best news the Sooners could receive is having Juarez back in the circle in 2021. The redshirt senior All-American had surgery last March to repair a tear of her bicep tendon near the elbow.
Juarez only threw 6.2 innings last season before shutting it down for good.
The left-hander was 28-4 with a 1.39 ERA, 269 strikeouts and 38 walks in 186.1 IP in 2019. She threw two perfect games while going 21-0 in the regular season.
“She joined in with a group back home recently and started throwing live and taped it on video,” Gasso said. “She is going to be back and she has got no pain. Knock on wood. I am excited about that. We need her to throw in order to get where we want to go.”
Redshirt senior Shannon Saile threw the most innings last season. The right-hander was 6-3 with a 1.92 ERA, 80 strikeouts and 29 walks in 62.0 IP last season.
Juarez, Saile and May are expected to get the bulk of the innings this season.
“But we really have seven pitchers and I feel that I am blessed to have seven pitchers,” Gasso said. “The other ones aren’t at the level of Giselle by any means, but they certainly can be effective for us. Having that many in this time and not knowing what could happen (with Covid) is kind of a good feeling.”
Expect to see some big numbers at the plate for OU.
“I think this is one of the strongest offenses that we’ve ever had if fall is an indication,” Gasso said. “That is how I feel about this team’s potential.”
Senior infielder Taylon Snow is “one player who absolutely went off” during the fall. Injuries kept the Auburn transfer off the field for much of last season at OU.
“She has gotten stronger. She came to us as a base hit type player and slapper, but she is hitting bombs right now,” Gasso said. “I mean it’s the biggest transformation I have ever seen. I am just wowed by her.”
Speaking of hitting bombs, All-American Jocelyn Alo returns as an anchor in the lineup. The senior hit .459 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs last season
Mendes is more than a year removed from her ACL injury. She was able to get four at-bats last season, but looks fully recovered. In 2019, Mendes hit .348 with four doubles, four triples and 39 RBIs.
“She went off this fall,” Gasso said. “She was really, really good offensively and defensively.”
Sophomore Kinzie Hansen hit .448 with six doubles, eight home runs and 28 RBIs last season
Junior infielder Grace Lyon hit .361 with five doubles, five home runs and 21 RBIs. Junior utility Grace Green batted .306 with four doubles and 11 RBIs. Senior catcher Lynnsie Elam drove in 17 runs.
“We have so many options that when we sit down as coaches I am like, ‘Geez, we could make 10 different lineup models and feel very comfortable with them,’” Gasso said. “A lot of our decisions will come from who we are playing, what are their weaknesses, what is the pitcher throwing and who is the best matchup.”
The Sooners have a leadership team that consists of four or five players who can regularly take the pulse of the team and ensure things remain on track. They can handle issues in the locker room before the coaching staff needs to get involved.
“Our leadership development has been really good this year and that is a big part of it because in 2020 it wasn’t,” Gasso said. “We only played a couple of months, but when we went back over it in the spring we really evaluated our leadership. A lot of our study was on The Last Dance and about Michael Jordan and how he dealt with people and the things he did — some very good and some that weren’t as good.”
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Although Gasso empowers every player on the roster to become a leader in some way, the Sooners designate specific players for key roles.
“We still have a vote for team captains because I think it is quite an honor for someone to feel like the team puts their trust in them,” Gasso said. “But I also have to know the person can handle that.”
Gasso said the Big 12 Conference is going forward with a 56-game schedule, “knowing that it is very likely we all aren’t going to be playing 56 games.”
The conference coaches are open to playing 4-game conference weekend series if necessary, but “we are not going to make that decision until March to see how February went. If it goes smoothly and we are all playing our regular amount of games, then we will play three-game series’ in conference.”
The coaches have discussed the need of having a “parachute weekend” in lieu of a conference tournament if teams need to make up games that were postponed during the regular season.
“A lot of conferences are locking things down, but one of the things you have to be is flexible. That is something we have seen in football and basketball,” Gasso said. “That is why we want to keep it open-ended, so we can have some flexibility rather than being stuck on a big decision. It allows us to let things play out.”
Gasso said Oklahoma is planning to open the season at Abilene Christian followed by games at Houston and Grand Canyon.
The Sooners were planning to host the Mark Campbell Memorial Tournament at Barber Park in Irvine this year, but had to cancel because of Covid. Campbell, an influential coach for Pacifica High in Garden Grove, Calif., and for the OC Batbusters, died in 2019.
The event was scheduled to include Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi State and LMU among others.
“That is something that we still hope to do in 2022,” Gasso said.