New ace, new guru as Oklahoma softball reshuffles for a new era
It snowed on the January day that Giselle Juarez moved in for the spring semester at the University of Oklahoma. That came as a bit of a shock to someone who previously attended Arizona State and was raised in the Phoenix area. Before her first class on a new campus or first pitch in new colors, the crunch of snow seemed to ask if she chose wisely.
"Now 57 feels warm to me," Juarez said weeks later. "So I think I've adjusted pretty well."
A little more than 20 years earlier, Jennifer Rocha transferred to Oklahoma from Long Beach City College. It wasn't snowing when she arrived in late summer to begin her sophomore year, but the Midwestern landscape of the college town was just as foreign to a Californian who was there first and foremost to play softball.
"For me, being in Norman, Oklahoma," Rocha recalled of her start in town, "it wasn't a place that I thought, 'Hey, what's it going to be like when I raise my family here?'"
Yet Juarez and Rocha are now integral to a new era of softball in Norman.
Juarez is the All-American transfer who succeeds two-time national player of the year Keilani Ricketts and two-time national champion Paige Parker as the pitching star for the Sooners. Rocha is in her first year as pitching coach, recruited away from the same position at Florida after the Gators reached nine World Series with a pitching lineage stretching from Stacey Nelson to Hannah Rogers, Lauren Haeger, Delanie Gourley, Aleshia Ocasio and Kelly Barnhill.
There is, then, a version of this story that is about Goliath, about a program with softball's first million-dollar head coach gobbling up assets. Need a pitching coach? Hire one of the best in the game from a rival. Pitching staff needs a refresh? Forget starting over with freshmen; take the best free agent available in years. It isn't even a false version. Oklahoma is a juggernaut. But those lines converged there for reasons beyond the ability to win a championship. It's about something as small as an alum who indeed realized Norman was where she wanted to raise a family. And about a younger woman who wanted respite in a new home.
"This uniform is, for me, a sign of strength," Juarez said. "Being here, it gives me a different type of feeling. It feels like home, but it also feels like somewhere I'm meant to be at this time in life."
It was evident that change awaited Oklahoma's pitching staff by the time last season ended shy of a coveted third consecutive national championship. With Parker and Paige Lowary moving on but a star-laden veteran lineup returning this season, head coach Patty Gasso sought to avoid a repeat of the guilt she felt in 2015, when Parker was asked to do so much as a freshman. Too much, Gasso felt.
"The idea in my mind was to build a bigger staff, so that the pressure that someone might feel to be that good at that level wasn't overwhelming," Gasso said. "I felt a commitment to not do that to a pitcher again. I wanted and needed to build up this pitching staff."
That first brought Shannon Saile from Florida International, a part of the seemingly ever increasing pool of transfers who are available. At a mid-major level, but including wins against Florida and South Carolina, Saile ranked sixth nationally in strikeout rate in 2018. From Lowary to Kelsey Stevens before her, and Missouri transfer Parker Conrad now, Oklahoma is no stranger to replenishing its pitching with veterans.
But at almost the same time as Saile's addition, Oklahoma lost longtime pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi to the head coaching vacancy at Oregon. The mass player departures that followed at Oregon put Lombardi in an uncomfortable spotlight, but she was a quietly stable presence in charge of Oklahoma pitching for a decade before that.
Few people could have maintained that continuity. Gasso knew one. She had recruited Rocha to Long Beach City College in the 1990s but took the Oklahoma job before the player arrived. Almost as soon as Gasso got to Oklahoma, she convinced Rocha to follow her to Norman.
"It was almost like -- I don't know that she'll like me saying this, but it's almost like bringing your daughter home," Gasso said of reaching out last summer.
Rocha acknowledged there had been a handful of head coaching opportunities that came her way while at Florida, as would be expected for the pitching coach of a program that won titles and annually ranked among national pitching leaders. She didn't take any of them, content with her lot in Gainesville. But she had met her future husband, Paul, during her time as an Oklahoma student, and much of his family is from the area. With a daughter who was just about a year old when Gasso reached out, there was an appeal to being so close to so much family.
"We've always been able to have genuine conversations," Rocha said. "Then she went into recruiting mode -- and she's really good at that."
Whatever the culture is or whether it's the right fit for a particular person, it's difficult to argue that Oklahoma indeed has a defined culture. Both of Gasso's sons are on staff, JT in his fourth year as an assistant and DJ in his first year as a graduate assistant. Adding Rocha maintained the identity that appealed to whatever it was transfers like Juarez and Lowary sought.
"I can be myself around Jen," Gasso said. "I don't have to tippy-toe around her. I say what I have to say. She can say what she wants to say. We have that relationship, so it's very comfortable. ... The thing I really wanted for her is to feel welcome, to feel she can trust us, she can talk to us and share what she is comfortable with or uncomfortable with. I really give her a lot of freedom to create the pitching staff the way she wants. I don't step in her area."
If the previous moves altered the pitching landscape in Norman, the addition of Juarez altered the look of the entire sport. As a sophomore at Arizona State in 2018, Juarez went 26-6 with a 1.22 ERA and 305 strikeouts in 224⅓ innings. Her run ended only after losing to the Sooners in the World Series.
"When we played her at the College World Series, it was like facing a Paige Parker," Gasso said. "She was one of the toughest pitchers we had faced."
Juarez described her decision to transfer as a difficult experience and her "first adult decision," but she declined to elaborate on any specific incidents that led to dissatisfaction at Arizona State. Gasso said she felt as if the person she spoke with during the transfer process wanted a place to "feel safe" and "build her career over."
For Rocha, who hadn't seen Juarez pitch in person since their paths crossed briefly when the pitcher was with the junior national team and the coach assisting with the senior national team, the easiest way to build a relationship and build trust proved to be simply talking about pitching.
"She enjoys working on her craft," Rocha said. "Right away that gave us easy conversations to have because she was asking about pitching and philosophies and how she feels."
If there was a consistent theme to Rocha's work at Florida, it was the ability to work with every possible mix of pitching styles, from a shorter southpaw with spin in Gourley to a powerful rise baller like Barnhill to someone like Haeger whose time was split between pitching and hitting. She said that in the times she watched Juarez on television, she was struck by the 6-foot lefty's calm demeanor. Rather than change her, she wants to challenge her.
"She's not going to change your whole motion, or whatnot, or change you," Juarez said. "She's just going to work on fixing the little things and making sure they're as close to perfect as they can be. I think that's awesome because you can still feel like yourself, but she's also going to make you better by fixing the little things that make a pitch break an inch more."
This uniform is, for me, a sign of strength.Giselle Juarez
All of this began, of course, with Gasso intent on dispersing responsibility across a staff. That remains the party line, that there isn't a No. 1 or a No. 2, just a group of pitchers. A large group.
Promising freshman Brooke Vestal will redshirt this season, an idea Gasso said the pitcher brought to the coaches recently, rather than the other way around. Nicole Mendes is taking over defensive duties in center field, and Gasso said she would prefer to limit any innings the multiskilled junior has in the circle. That still leaves Conrad, Juarez, Saile and junior Mariah Lopez, who played with Juarez on the junior national team in 2017 and went 32-1 in her first two seasons with the Sooners. Add to that two more high-profile additions to the staff, graduate manager Gourley and volunteer assistant Ricketts, and bullpen sessions are standing room only.
And yet after eight consecutive seasons in which either Ricketts or Parker could be called on in a big moment, no program is better versed in the value of an ace.
Juarez is an ace. She is Oklahoma's ace, with all that label entails.
"I think every pitcher at some point tries to do a lot," Rocha said. "My job is to try and simplify things for them. I just try to get her, and everybody else, to trust who they are as a pitcher and what they bring to the table. ... Whatever name is across your chest you have to stay within yourself and that's what I'm trying to coach her and all of our pitchers to do."
Everyone knew when last season ended that 2019 would mark a new era for the Sooners. Neither Juarez nor Rocha knew they would be the ones with the biggest say in creating it.
But when they went looking for home, both found their way to Norman.