Jessica Shults might not have smiled the entire time she was on the field at Hall of Fame Stadium on Wednesday.
Then again, she might have.
No one would've blamed her.
The Oklahoma catcher was here a year ago when the Sooners made their first trip to the Women's College World Series in seven seasons. She wore the uniform. She relished the atmosphere. But coming off an illness that caused her to lose 25 pounds and miss half a dozen games, she hadn't been cleared to play.
“It's always been my dream to go to the world series,” Shults said. “I've been watching it my whole life.”
Last year, even though her team was playing, she was still watching.
This year is different.
Shults is back to her old self, and the Sooners are back at the WCWS. They will open at noon Thursday against South Florida.
“Having an opportunity to play at the world series,” Shults said, “it's unreal.”
She was smiling, of course.
Coincidentally, that happy face was something Shults put on frequently last season, but then, it was just a mask. She wanted her teammates to believe she was fine. She wanted her coaches to think there was no problem.
That was far from the truth.
Midway through the season, she started feeling sick, enduring stomach pain and abdominal cramps. She figured her heavy-on-the-burgers, light-on-the-fruit diet had caught up to her, so she decided to start eating better.
It didn't help.
Her energy plummeted. So did her weight.
Eventually, the coaches moved her from catcher to designated hitter, and she continued to play and gut it out as best she could. But those closest to Shults could see through the mask.
“It wasn't her,” Sooner outfielder and Shults roommate Brianna Turang said. “She tried so hard to act like she was OK.
“We knew she was just in so much pain.”
Shults was admitted to the hospital right before the Sooners started regionals, and over the next few days, she was poked, prodded and pricked. Doctors finally determined that she had pan-ulcerative colitis, an extremely rare genetic disease that has no cure and affects the body's digestive system.
Slowly but surely, doctors determined the meds that would work for her. And by the time her teammates were ready for their WCWS opener, she was out of the hospital.
She could go but not play.
Talk about tough.
With her sunny disposition, Shults shrugs off how difficult it was — “I was just lucky to be in the dugout with my team,” she said — but she was this close to living a dream. She had watched the WCWS as a kid. She had fantasized about playing on that stage.
Even though she would be allowed to hit in the Sooners' second game, a loss that sent them home, she still wasn't herself.
She got to walk on the stage but not perform on it.
“It just made me realize how much I did love the game,” Shults said of last year's WCWS. “Just walking onto the field for the first time again and seeing all the fans, it just made me feel, ‘Wow, I really took this thing for granted.'”
Last Saturday as OU was buzzsawing its way through Arizona and the super regional, Sooner coach Patty Gasso turned to her catcher at one point in the dugout. Shults would end the day going 2 of 3 with one home run and two RBI.
The coach asked the player if she thought about how far she'd come.
Shults' eyes began welling with tears.
“I thought to myself, ‘That was a dumb thing to do,'” Gasso said, laughing.
Shults understands what an opportunity she's been given. She's back on the field and back in good health. Doctors have adjusted her treatment throughout this season — they needed to see how she reacted to everything from exertion to sunlight — and now, she's off major meds and only taking maintenance meds.
One of only three Sooners to appear in every game this season, she has regained the weight that she dropped and the strength that she lost.
“Everything's under control now,” she said. “It's just kind of perfect.”
Shults is ready to perform on the WCWS stage, and chances are good, she'll be smiling all the way.