NORMAN — For a few days last winter, Arizona and Oklahoma fans asked the same question.
Why did Shelby Pendley leave?
The Arizona shortstop was named All-Pac 12 First Team as a freshman. Pendley took the Wildcats all the way to Super Regionals, where they lost to Oklahoma last May. Then in January, she left the desert of Tucson and moved to the plains of Norman.
She upset fans of both teams and stunned others.
Why did Pendley give up on the program she dreamed of playing for since she was a little girl? Why was she coming to Oklahoma, a team that was already loaded with talent and expected to contend for a national championship?
Some of the reasons will never be told, but some lie clearly in the numbers of that series against OU.
When Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso first received the telephone call, she thought somebody was playing a prank.
Gasso originally recruited Pendley out of high school in Rio Rancho, N.M. Gasso saw a hard worker and an athlete with pure talent and a phenomenal swing. They set up a visit, but Pendley committed to Arizona before the trip to Norman.
“She just kind of told me the story,” Gasso said of the phone call that came last fall. “She had family living in Oklahoma and she knew somewhat of me and my style … She wanted to be somewhat close to home so her family could still see her and be somewhere drivable. Everything she said made sense.”
They set up another visit last fall. She met some of the players, the coaches and the training staff. In January, she started classes as an Oklahoma student, but the staff wasn't allowed to work with her until February.
Through all of this, Pendley was transitioning: from Arizona Wildcat to Oklahoma Sooner, from hated to doubted, from shortstop to third base.
Her position switch tells a little about why Pendley left Arizona. She wasn't unhappy at shortstop. She was plagued by injuries.
An ACL tear. A stress fracture to her shin. A bulging disc between. All last spring.
Then in the fall, she injured her shoulder. The short-to-first throw made her ache. She was never quite healthy.
“I was not happy after last year,” Pendley said. “You're supposed to have fun when you're playing. If your dream isn't fun you just probably shouldn't do it anymore. Toward the end of my freshman year when I was hurt and dealing with all the injuries, it just wasn't fun anymore.”
Arizona was “not even close” to what she dreamed of as a little girl.
Pendley said it wasn't the teammates. They got along great. It wasn't that practice seemed to go on forever. It was constantly playing hurt.
“There's not a good way to say this, but we were just worked a lot over there,” she said. “Overworked. I don't know. I was just hurt all the time. There were others that were hurt, too, and I was just really struggling.”
Pendley doesn't want to blame it on her back, but she watched her batting average drop 100 points in the postseason. In that series against Oklahoma, she went 0-for-4.
The NCAA rules allowed Pendley an immediate release if her coach signed off. If not, she would have to sit out a year, meaning she would have missed this spring and next fall. She was allowed a one-time transfer. Working with an NCAA representative who acted as the middleman, Pendley was granted her release.
Although Gasso knew she was getting a player who was injured, she didn't think twice about agreeing to the transfer. Gasso knew Pendley would be in good hands with Oklahoma's trainer. When Pendley started competing with the Sooners, Gasso moved her from shortstop to third, due to her shoulder issues.
“I needed to get her in the lineup just to get her bat in,” Gasso said. “Putting her at third made her throw come more (from the side), which made it hurt less. If she was playing shortstop and had to throw from the five-six hole it was a big, long overhand throw, which she couldn't do.”
“I like Shelby at third. I think she's very aggressive, and she reads the ball well. It just kind of worked itself out.”
And Pendley likes it at third. Actually, she likes everything about Oklahoma. The coaches, the teammates and even the classes.
“I normally don't like school,” she said. “But I really do like school here.”
But what she likes the most is that, so far this season, she is injury free.
On Tuesday, the Big 12 named Pendley its Player of the Year. She was stunned and humbled by the honor, though she led Big 12 players in homers (10) and RBIs (30).
Gasso was amazed at her sophomore's ability to transition.
“She didn't have a fall with us,” Gasso said. “This is a kid that was probably a little uncomfortable making this big move — I mean, I'm a starting shortstop for the University of Arizona, the University of Arizona, and I make this big decision to leave and everyone is up in arms about it.
“She comes here and even some here are like, ‘What are you doing? You're messing with the mojo of the team.' She made them believers.”
In return, Oklahoma made her believe again, too. The Sooners are Big 12 champions. Ranked No. 1 in the country with a 47-4 record.
“This is the dream I was looking at when I was a little kid,” Pendley said.