OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — One year after squandering a lead with the national championship on the line, Oklahoma comes rolling into the Women's College World Series as the favorite to win this year's NCAA softball title and the toast of the sport.
The Sooners (52-4) lead the nation in scoring, they have the best earned-run average and they arrive at college softball's premiere event after clobbering their way through the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Both of their super regional victories came via the run rule, as did two of their three wins in regional play.
Oklahoma even had two of the three national player of the year finalists with Keilani Ricketts repeating in front of slugging teammate Lauren Chamberlain.
But as the World Series begins Thursday, coach Patty Gasso isn't putting the Sooners head and shoulders above the competition.
"Anybody can do it. If it was supposed to be Oklahoma's, we wouldn't be sitting here right now. You would have given us the trophy and we would have walked away. And that's not how it works," Gasso said Wednesday.
"So, it's the team that is really at their best and we're fighting really hard just like everybody else to be at our best, but it's going to take those little breaks that come along the way."
The Sooners know all about those little breaks.
Last June, Ricketts homered and the Sooners were leading 3-0 in the decisive Game 3 of last year's World Series when rain started falling. Ricketts threw three wild pitches to allow one run to score and couldn't recover after the game was delayed, allowing Alabama to take the lead on its way to a 5-4 victory.
It was Ricketts who struck out to end the game and set off the Crimson Tide's celebration.
"Obviously, last year was a disappointment and it still lives in these players somewhat. But this is such a different road with different players and it's just a different team," Gasso said. "We really don't look back anymore. We just look forward."
What's ahead is a difficult, balanced field that includes two teams apiece from the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. Thursday's four games in the double-elimination tournament are: Oklahoma-Michigan, Florida-Tennessee, Texas-Arizona State and Nebraska-Washington.
"Clearly, they're the team that we have to beat, and they're a great team," said coach Carol Hutchins, who led the Wolverines to the 2005 national title. "They're a great team in every category, in every aspect. As a coach, you look at the opponent and try to look for a weakness that you can exploit, and we're still looking."
The rest of the teams in the field all have their strengths, too. Arizona State has won two championships since 2008, with current ace Dallas Escobedo in the circle two years ago to win it all, and Washington was the 2009 champ. Defending champion Alabama was knocked off by SEC rival Tennessee in the super regionals.
The country's top four scoring teams — Oklahoma, Tennessee, Michigan and Arizona State — are all present. Not far behind is second-seeded Florida, which has taken a step away from relying so heavily on the long ball and also ranks in the top 25 in stolen bases.
"Home runs come and go, especially on a stage like this," said coach Tim Walton, who got the Gators to the championship series in 2009 and 2011. "I think you really have to do a good job of playing catch, pitching really well. I don't think you can do it with a home run. We've tried. We've tried a couple times to do it with home runs. It didn't work so well for us."
Texas, which got to the World Series after a no-hitter by Blaire Luna in the super regionals, is one of two teams in the field that have beaten Oklahoma. The other is 14th-seeded Nebraska, which is in the final eight for the first time since 2002.
None of them has beaten Ricketts (31-1), whose only loss this season came against Louisville. After last season's disappointment, she started this year with a no-hitter and has a 1.22 ERA and 311 strikeouts to go along with a .375 average, 13 home runs and 54 RBIs.
"She brings so much to the table, but it's more than a one-woman show as you know with OU," Longhorns coach Connie Clark said. "They're very balanced and very talented, but the game is the game. ... With the eight great teams matching up, you're just not really sure what's going to happen. You just play hard. I think any of the eight teams could get it done this week."