NORMAN — As Oklahoma fans flapped red fans back and forth and passed water bottles down the row, sweat beaded around the face of the best collegiate softball pitcher in the nation.
Keilani Ricketts reached for her rosin bag, the red dirt, the sleeve of her jersey or the towel tucked in her left back pocket to dry her hands or her face, before pitching her way to a 10-5 victory against Arkansas in the NCAA Regional. But the victory didn't come without its slip-ups.
WeatherChannel.com said game time temperature was 81 degrees but “felt like” 86 degrees and there was 84 percent humidity. All that caused Ricketts to struggle to keep her grip on some pitches due to sweat.
The heat of Oklahoma is nothing new to the four-year starter.
“It's Oklahoma,” Ricketts said, before abruptly dropping the subject. “It's hot and humid. I'm used to it by now.”
Yet her actions in and out of the circle show that there's a little bit more to it then that. Ricketts often wears a special vest that cools her down. She has a fan in the dugout and she often changes her uniform to stay cooler and dry, like she did on Saturday.
“She sweats a lot and sometimes that gets in the way of her grip,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “You could see on both sides, the pitchers were starting to run out of gas. It comes down to fitness level as well and Keilani is pretty fit.”
By the sixth inning, with No. 1-ranked Oklahoma up 6-1, Ricketts looked hot. She kept grabbing at her towel in her back pocket.
With two outs and one on for Arkansas (35-19), the problems started happening for Oklahoma (49-4). First, Arkansas coach Mike Larabee put in Andrea Sullivan to pinch-hit. She smacked a two-run homer well beyond the 255 numbers of center field.
Then Ricketts hit the next batter, allowed a single, threw a wild pitch to advance both of those runners, walked the next batter and then gave up a two-run single. She also had several pitches during that time that catcher Jessica Shults saved from going astray.
Gasso pulled Ricketts, and Michelle Gascoigne pitched three straight strikes to get the third out of the inning.
“It was definitely huge,” Ricketts said of Gascoigne's quick out. “Our team definitely fed off of that.”
The Sooners gave themselves some breathing room in the bottom of the sixth when, with two outs, Callie Parsons knocked an RBI double and Lauren Chamberlain hit a three-run double to give Oklahoma the 10-5 lead.
Gascoigne, with the help of a double play, faced four batters in the top of the seventh. She shouted as she joined her teammates to celebrate another postseason victory.
Gasso said Friday night she was likely not going to start Gascoigne on Saturday because Oklahoma's No. 2 pitcher was having problems with things like her rosin bag collecting too much moisture. Oklahoma's coach did not say whom she would start on Sunday. However, she knew Ricketts' work and her team's defense that led to Saturday's victory were important for many reasons.
“They get rest, get out of the heat, get hydrated,” Gasso said. “What we just played was the biggest game of our season and we knew that. Now, every game we play is the biggest game. Winning this game sets you up big time and that's important. That's why we knew the fight was important.”