NORMAN — Relentless.
That's the word Keilani Ricketts used to describe Oklahoma's mindset on its quest for a second consecutive berth in the Women's College World Series. That begins this weekend when the Sooners (45-8), the No. 4 overall seed in the tournament, host the Norman Regional. OU will open against Lehigh at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Oregon State and Tulsa are the other teams in the regional and will play at 5 p.m. Friday.
The winner of the Norman Regional will face the winner of the Tucson Regional, which could peg OU against Arizona, two teams that faced each other in the Super Regionals last season.
“It's just really special with this group,” Ricketts said. “Everyone's out there playing with full passion, from the freshmen to the seniors.”
It's an attitude that's fostered inside the team during the past year. The Sooners surprised some last season when a young squad went on the road to beat a traditional power in Arizona in the Super Regionals, but then left its first WCWS appearance since 2004 without a victory.
This season, way more is expected after OU captured the Big 12 title.
“The mindset is we're not going to lose any more games,” freshman infielder Lauren Chamberlain said. “Our mindset is that we're taking it all, but it is kind of an unsaid thing. We expect it out of each other.
“When we look at each other, we're kind of just (saying), ‘We're doing this, we're going all the way.'”
Not to say this squad doesn't still feature quite a bit of youth, as the Sooners have just three seniors. But other than Chamberlain and fellow freshmen regulars Georgia Casey and Erica Sampson, OU now has the experience of playing against the best in OKC, including defending national champion Arizona State.
Ricketts, now considered a veteran, is one of the more well-rounded players in college softball. A finalist for the National Player of the Year award, Ricketts ranks in the top 10 in the nation in both ERA (1.10) and strikeouts (344) while also posting a .400 batting average.
In the lineup, Ricketts has been supported by Chamberlain, who has blasted a Big 12 record 25 home runs in her debut season. And this year the Sooners also have the benefit of a healthy Jessica Shults (.360 average, 16 home runs, 48 RBIs), who missed all but one postseason game last season after undergoing treatment for an intestinal disease called pan ulcerative colitis.
Where Ricketts has noticed the most difference, however, is in team chemistry. It's been that way since before the season began, when the Sooners had to work together to labor through difficult CrossFit workouts during offseason conditioning.
The goal for the Sooners last season was to make the WCWS. Once they accomplished that, however, Ricketts admits it was a bit difficult to boost those expectations.
That won't be a problem in 2012.
“Once we got (to Oklahoma City), it was hard to refocus on new goals,” Ricketts said. “This year, we're really focusing on winning a national championship.”