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Trust in Nicole May, Jennifer Rocha Will Fuel Oklahoma Without Jordy Bahl

Patty Gasso has full faith in her pitching coach, who has a proven track record of development at Oklahoma.

Monday, Jordy Bahl sent shockwaves through the softball world.

Days after completing a dominant sophomore season, the 2023 Women’s College World Series Most Outstanding Player announced her entrance into the transfer portal.

Bahl was essential in Oklahoma’s march to a third straight national title, striking out 33 batters while holding opponents scoreless throughout the WCWS.

There’s no sugarcoating it, losing Bahl is a massive blow.

But Patty Gasso’s Sooners might be the only program in the country who could absorb the setback and come back out firing in 2024.

One reason for optimism next year is rising-senior Nicole May.

Though she played a supporting role to Bahl nationally, May is admired within the OU dugout.

“I think Nicole May, this is going to be her best season,” Gasso said before the season got rolling in February. “I feel her improvement. I feel her command on the mound.”

As is often the case, Gasso was correct about May’s 2023 prospects.

Splitting major innings with Bahl and Alex Storako, May finished third in the country with a 0.91 ERA, just behind Bahl’s mark of 0.90 that finished second.

Pitching a career-high 107 2/3 innings in 2023, May far surpassed last year’s 1.30 ERA and looked a completely different pitcher than when she finished her freshman year with a 2.37 ERA.

SB - Nicole May, 2023 Super Regionals

Nicole May enjoyed her best season at Oklahoma as a junior.

Despite pitching more innings than ever before, May also issued the fewest walks of her career, allowing just 29 free passes.

May’s average walks and hits per innings pitched was also nearly identical to Bahl’s, with May allowing 0.83 to Bahl’s 0.80, and the opposing batting averages allowed were virtually the same (.160 for Bahl and .161 for May).

Against Oklahoma’s best completion, Bahl seemed to find a way to level up and become even more dominant, something that May will hope to replicate with another season of development.

And a big reason for May’s continued growth throughout her time in Norman has been pitching coach Jennifer Rocha.

Rocha returned to Norman in 2018 after longtime assistant Melyssa Lombardi was hired as Oregon’s head coach, only serving to bolster OU’s already stellar coaching staff.

“I recruited Jen Rocha out of high school when I was coaching at Long Beach City College,” Gasso said ahead of this year’s WCWS. “Then I got the job at OU. She stayed at Long Beach City, then I recruited her to come to OU.

“… When Coach Lombardi left for Oregon, I thought, okay, this is a long shot, I'm going for it. I went for it and got her back again.”

Not only is Rocha able to improve each pitcher’s mechanics, she coaches the mental side of the game so every time an OU pitcher takes the circle, they are equipped to battle the best lineups in the sport.

“It’s a different game coming in and playing for a Power 5,” said Hope Trautwein, who transferred from North Texas to OU for the 2022 season. “It was just different. And being able to adjust my mental process and like how to approach strategic ways around teams, it’s just very advanced, and Coach Rocha (did) a very good job with getting me on board.”

Jen Rocha

Assistant Jennifer Rocha has been essential to Oklahoma’s success since returning to the program.

Rocha also does a great job of managing not just one pitcher, but an entire pitching staff, which has become important as softball has grown and evolved.

“Coach Rocha has been great at just being that mother in the bullpen,” Storako said. “She's been great leading us not as pitchers but as people too. I think that's a big aspect in our bullpen, how we communicate with each other, how we work together on and off the field.”

May isn’t the only arm Rocha will have to work with this offseason.

Lefty Kierston Deal debuted in 2023 as the Sooners’ fourth arm out of the bullpen.

The true freshman pitched 27 1/3 innings, striking out 30 batters and allowing 10 walks while finishing with a 0.77 ERA.

SB - Kierston Deal, Oklahoma State Cowgirls, 2023 Bedlam

Kierston Deal showed great potential in her freshman year, highlighted by closing out OU’s comeback win over Oklahoma State to clinch the Bedlam Series. 

Deal picked up valuable experience, closing out the sixth and seventh innings in Oklahoma’s dramatic Bedlam comeback against Oklahoma State, while also appearing against Clemson in Super Regional play and Gasso handed her a brief cameo against Tennessee at the WCWS.

The transfer portal will also be available to OU to bolster its rotation.

Trautwein and Storako have been excellent graduate transfer additions the past two offseasons, and without Bahl in the fold Oklahoma can also afford to bring in a younger pitcher out of the portal to round out the staff.

Whoever takes the circle in 2024 for the Sooners, Rocha’s fingerprints will be easy to see as OU gears up to go a place no program has ever gone before — winning four-straight national titles.

“I think (Rocha) is a perfect blend because (hitting coach J.T. Gasso) and I have this head coach/hitting coach, mother/son thing going on,” Gasso said before the WCWS. “So I need that neutral balance, calm, cool, sensible to put all of this in order.

“Besides that, she is just an outstanding communicator with pitchers. Her style is exceptional, and they gravitate to it. Jen Rocha has been my rock this whole season as well. I can't tell you.”