NORMAN — When Oklahoma's softball season ends in the coming months, it won't quite be the end of playing for the four Sooner seniors.
Keilani Ricketts, Jessica Shults, Michelle Gascoigne and Brianna Turang were drafted this week in the National Pro Fastpitch College Draft, setting a record for the most Sooners taken in the NPF. (The previous record was three in 2008.) All four were chosen within the first nine selections.
The four seniors, all from California, are stars and role models on OU's squad. Ricketts is the best pitcher on the squad, if not the best in the nation. Gascoigne holds the program record for winning percentage. Shults, a catcher, ranks second all-time in home runs for OU, while Turang is a base-stealing machine.
Although the four Sooners have their first Big 12 series this week, against Baylor starting Friday and continuing through the weekend, they are more than halfway through their final collegiate season.
So what's the future look like? Due to NCAA rules, though, the team isn't allowed to communicate with the draftees and vice versa yet. The draftees also can't sign until their college season is finished.
“It definitely is exciting that all four seniors were chosen to represent Oklahoma in the professional league of softball,” Ricketts said.
While NPF might extend the athletes' playing time through the summer, there isn't much life after college softball — except for Keilani Ricketts.
Although Ricketts can't talk to her potential team, she can talk to the media, and despite the announcement of her selection, Ricketts said Tuesday she's thinking of taking the USA Softball route this summer, where she has also spent her last two summers. She won silver last year with Team USA during the ISF XIII Women's World Fastpitch Championship.
It's not that she doesn't think NPF is a good route. Her older sister, Samantha, was selected 12th in the 2009 Draft and was in the league for two years.
“She loved being able to play with the girls that are just well-known players from college,” Keilani said. “It was a good experience and it really helped her network with the softball world.”
Samantha's now an assistant coach at Wichita State.
The problem for Keilani is she's the exception.
Her bio for Oklahoma athletics reads like a direct admit into a Hall of Fame: “Entered 2013 with the school record for strikeouts in a career (1,255), season (457 in 2012) ... Tied for the school record in career shutouts (38) and wins in a season (37 in 2012) ... Places third at OU in victories (98) ...”
After Team USA, Keilani said she might move to Japan to play. There's also the possibility of the Olympics, one of the sports that was withheld from the 2012 Summer Games.
“I'm still just trying to be optimistic about the Olympics since they won't vote about it until the end of summer,” she said. “That's why I want to continue to do USA.”
Softball remains off the Summer Olympics slate for the 2016 Games. It could potentially rejoin in 2020, yet it's now in the IOC battle with wrestling.
Bandits. Diamonds. Racers. Pride.
That's the four-team NPF League. It's a summer league, like baseball's version of Cape Cod. The NPF plays 44 games. The average NPF player makes between $5,000 and $6,000 for the season, which runs from June through August, according to the league's official website.
At the end of that season, Brianna Turang will return to school. Despite finishing her degree in multidisciplinary studies, Turang will start on a new bachelor's degree next fall: nursing.
She said being drafted a moment she'd been dreaming about since she was little.
“My dad played professional baseball,” Turang said. “So I've kind of always looked up to him for that.”
Yet she knows she can't quite have the career he did because there aren't the same options. Turang will have to find a job after college softball.
With so many games during the summer and being in a new town, Turang said she will just enjoy her final months of NPF softball.
“Now I can kind of relax and not put so much pressure on myself but at the same time, that relieved pressure will probably help me do a little bit better,” Turang said. "I'll use (NPF) as a time to compete and continue playing the sport that I love.
“I don't want to look at it as something I'm getting paid to do. I love the game. If I didn't get paid, I would still play.”