Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his Top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 5 Oklahoma
Last year: 43-19 overall, 10-8 Big 12 (lost in Women's College World Series)
Who returns: The debate as to the identity of the best pitcher in college softball will rage on all season, but Keilani Ricketts is the runaway leader when it comes to the most imposing pitcher. The 6-foot-2 Californian cuts a daunting figure from just 43 feet away, and after spending parts of the summer and fall with Team USA, the junior is poised for big things in the circle and at the plate (where she finished with a a 1.048 OPS in 2011).
"Her experience on the international scene I think has helped her significantly," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of Ricketts, who went 29-15 with a 1.48 ERA and 452 strikeouts last season. "And just another year under her belt has brought a little bit of maturity and just a little more discipline as to the things she needs to do on her own to become an elite-level pitcher. She's really taken steps in that direction."
Ricketts also gets her catcher back. Sidelined for almost the entire postseason after she was hospitalized and diagnosed with pan ulcerative colitis, Jessica Shults is ready to start the season. At her best, she is one of softball's best sluggers and most charismatic figures. Brianna Turang (.353 batting average, 24 stolen bases), Destinee Martinez (.348 batting average, 13 stolen bases) and Brittany Williams (12 home runs, 1.117 OPS) round out a proven but still young core.
Who departs: The Sooners take some hits when it comes to role players. Chana'e Jones (.429 on-base percentage), Dani Dobbs (.561 slugging percentage) and Haley Nix (.519 slugging percentage) were three of just four Sooners to start all 62 games last season.
Who arrives: Gasso has long trekked west to pull in top talent -- Martinez, Ricketts, Shults and Williams are only some of the most recent additions from California, but the coach didn't let the Pacific Ocean stop her this time. Three freshmen in a deep class of six look like immediate contributors, including Australian Georgia Casey. A member of the Australian team that competed in the ISF Junior World Championship last December, she projects as a big part of Oklahoma's future in the circle. Even if innings are hard to come by in the short term behind Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne -- the incumbent No. 2 pitcher, who, Gasso said, picked up pitch speed in the offseason -- Casey will provide a bat at second this season. Jessica Vest, another Californian, will likely line up next to Casey as the starting shortstop and provide a good glove.
The most anticipated newcomer is Lauren Chamberlain, a game-changing talent who played for the U.S. junior national team. With a week until the opener, Gasso had her penciled in as the first baseman and leadoff hitter.
"She is one of the strongest athletes coming in that I have ever seen," Gasso said. "She just does not get cheated. She is one of the most complete athletes I've seen this young. Good on defense, runs well, heads-up base runner, loves to run bases. You would never in a million years look at her and think she was a freshman."
Preseason question: Was last season just the first step?
One to remember. That's how a link on Oklahoma's website sums up the 2011 season. It's an accurate description for a campaign in which the program made it back to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2004 and finally got another taste of an event that had grown almost exponentially since the last time the Sooners made the short drive up I-35 to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City at that time of year.
It was a triumph for the Sooners, essentially minus their best hitter, to make it to the World Series. But it will be a disappointment if that one season is all there is to remember for the core of this team.
The first step was making it back by winning a super regional for the first time since the round was added to the NCAA tournament in 2005. Getting the win on the road against perennial power Arizona was that much sweeter.
"We've worked hard to get there, and it just seems like we just couldn't get through that super regional, or it just wasn't a matchup in our favor," Gasso said "We just didn't have the right group of athletes to get over that hump. The cards didn't lay out for us. It wasn't that they weren't working; it wasn't that we didn't give everything we had. It's also a realization to me that I've got to keep working to get the right athletes who are going to fit and really commit themselves to getting back."
Ricketts and Shults are definitely the right athletes, as are Williams and Martinez in the sophomore class. And many expect that Chamberlain, Casey and Vest will be in that category as freshmen. There's one of two ways the Sooners can go after last season's success: be content with those memories or be driven to use them as a building block. College sports have seen plenty of examples of young teams following either path. Gasso is convinced her team is on the right one.
"They're very unified, very focused, very hard-working, very respectful to each other, very accountable to each other," Gasso said. "So all the qualities that are sometimes hard to teach that help a team, I feel like they're ahead of the game in that way. We're very competitive. It's very meaningful to them, and I've seen changes to a lot of these athletes and their competitive spirit."