Sooners eye trip to OKC on eve on NCAAs

NORMAN, Okla. — The Sooners have won the Big 12 Conference, they've earned a national seed and now it's time to go after the ultimate goal: winning the national championship.

It all starts when the fourth overall seed takes on Norman Regional No. 4 seed Lehigh at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

"Well, I know that they're a very competitive team," said OU head coach Patty Gasso. "I know that they won their conference. They've had a nice winning streak. They won their tournament, so they know how to win. They've got some players that are putting up some great numbers. I know that they have fantastic pitching as well. So, this will definitely be a challenge right out of the chute."

Lehigh, 40-17 overall, comes out of the Patriot League, where it posted an 18-2 record, while the Sooners own a 45-8 record and 19-5 Big 12 mark en route to winning the league.

But all of that is moot now, as the Road to Oklahoma City begins.

Five wins earns a trip to the pinnacle of college softball, and five more after that wins it all.

"We segment our season into pre-conference, conference and postseason," Gasso said. "And one of the questions I asked the team was, ‘Do you feel like you've peaked yet?' And all of them unanimously said no, and that's a good sign for me because I know that they're going to continue to work to get better. But I feel like we've been playing really solid softball for the last month.

"And yeah, I mean, I know that this really sets women amongst girls as we go into postseason. So, I know I have quite a few women on this team that are gonna be ready."

Experience starting from the top down defines that.

Pitcher Keilani Ricketts, who owns a 28-7 record and 1.10 ERA anchors the troops in the field.

"I think going into postseason just what we have right now with our team playing the Big 12 and winning that championship, that's the experience that we need," Ricketts said. "We're just working for our goals right now with this team."

First baseman and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Lauren Chamberlain, who set the conference single season record with her 25 home runs, paces OU's offense.

She's hitting .363 with an .888 slugging percentage, was a big reason the Sooners captured their eighth conference crown and will need to continue that to make OU a legitimate threat to win the national title.

"The season was really fun so far," Chamberlain said. "I mean, we worked hard and our practice showed on the field, but, you know, Big 12's behind us. Like Jess [Jessica Shults] said, we marked that goal off. So, now it's just focusing on postseason and our first game."

Speaking of Shults, she's here this postseason and brings a lot of experience back after missing last year's run to the Women's College World Series.

And it always helps having a veteran behind the dish to round out an experienced pitcher and catcher combination.

She'll, no doubt, be looked up to for her leadership, too.

"Just kinda what we talked about the other day, just kinda leading by example because the freshmen are gonna kinda follow what us upperclassmen do," Shults said. "So, if we're kinda goofing off, they're gonna goof off too probably, so we gotta really lead by example on the field and kinda lead the way in postseason."

If they do so and the team plays up to their capability, OU has a really good chance of making an extended run.

Perhaps they can even be the last team standing.

"I think so when it's hitting on all cylinders and the leadership is there and all phases of our game are there," Gasso said. "I've seen them on days where I would believe there's no one in the country that can beat them. Can I predict those days ahead? None of us can. You just hope that it all comes together. But as of late, it's really come together pretty well for this group."

Only time will tell how far this squad goes.

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