Patty Gasso isn’t shying away from high expectations. On Wednesday, the Oklahoma softball coach actually fueled them.
“There’s no breath for an opposing pitcher for this lineup,” Gasso said on a video press conference. “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 — I don’t know, it’s really solid right now.
“We’ll see what it looks like against another team."
OU announced its 2021 schedule on Tuesday, and the Sooners open the season on Thursday with a trip to El Paso, TX, to face UTEP and Abilene Christian.
Gasso, whose OU teams have won four national championships, thinks this team has that kind of potential.
“It’s a pretty crowded roster,” she said. “ … From a freshman standpoint, wow. I mean, we’ve got some just franchise, game-changing type players.”
Gasso said infielder Tiare Jennings (“just pure power; clean beautfiul swing,” Gasso said), infielder Jayda Coleman (“probably one of the more natural athletes I’ve ever seen”) and pitcher Nicole May “will really make an impact” on the OU season.
The rest of the OU roster is stacked with elite talent as usual.
Senior Nicole Mendes, senior Giselle Juarez and senior Shannon Saile are back in the circle. Senior Jocelyn Alo, senior Lynnsie Elam, junior Grace Green, junior Grace Lyons and sophomore Kinzie Hanson are back in the lineup. Senior Jana Johns is a transfer from South Carolina that Gasso thinks will fit right in. That group includes two first-team All-Americans, one third-team All-American, four first-team All-Big 12 performers, two second-team All-Big 12 players and three that earned Big 12 All-Freshman accolades. Oh, and Johns was second-team All-SEC at third base.
“I’d like to name 12 players that will be in the lineup,” Gasso said. “I don’t know who’s leading off right now. I have probably five options. … I could have, at one time, an all-lefty outfield that will have incredible speed and incredible arms. There’s just so many options there.”
Juarez is intriguing because while the Sooners went 20-4 last season before the pandemic shutdown, the two-time All-American left-hander was battling injury. She threw 186 1/3 innings in 2019 with a 28-4 record, a 1.39 ERA, 269 strikeouts and only 96 hits allowed. But last year she only pitched 6 2/3 innings. Gasso essentially shut her down, and she’s been slowly working her way back. Now, Gasso said, they’ll still bring Juarez along deliberately, but only to a point.
“You’re gonna see her on the mound quite a bit this weekend,” Gasso said. “She’s ready to go. … Gosh, feels like it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her pitch.”
Gasso said the threat of COVID continues to hang over the sport. There will be interruptions, postponements and cancellations. There will be positive tests and contact traces that take players out of games.
But to that end, Gasso said the depth and versatility of her roster will be a huge help.
“They’ve got to be versatile,” she said. “If all you can do is one thing, you’re probably not gonna help us that much if we run into these issues.
“Most every one one of these players can do something more than just play one position. So it’s very important. Some of them will play positions they’ve never played before.”
There’s probably no better example than in the schedule itself. OU opens with four games in El Paso this week: two against UTEP and two against Abilene Christian.
Gasso said a tournament at Cal-Irvine was “nixed” because of complications in California. So was a trip to Arizona. She wanted to visit Texas State, but “they had to cancel.” Then a trip to Abilene was attempted, but the weather was “too cold there.”
Now, Gasso said, “because they have 70-degree weather.”
“Literally we had to make five different arrangements for just our first weekend,” she said.
“I don't mind it. I will do anything in my power to get this team on the field. We may have to pay some bills at the end of the season, but I think (athletic director) Joe Castiglione will be OK with that. Or we’ll (have a) GoFundMe page this season to pay for it.”
Gasso said her club's split-squad scrimmages were "really something to see. ... It looks like two top-15 Division I teams playing against each other. So it's definitely the adage of iron sharpens iron. That's what it feels like. And it's been fun. It's really been a joy to watch. Because competition can make you do things you never thought. Each player is pushing the other.
"It's like a coaches, dream, honestly."