NORMAN — This time last year, Jessica Shults was lying in a hospital bed, feeling so weak that it was difficult to stay awake long enough to watch her Oklahoma teammates play in the NCAA regionals on TV.
Sunday afternoon, she was smiling and moving her arms like an airplane as she came down the third-base line to meet her teammates at home plate after blasting her second home run of the Norman Regional championship game against Oregon State.
What a triumphant turnaround it's been for Shults, who drove in five runs on a grand slam and a solo homer to help the No. 4 Sooners capture a 6-0 victory over Oregon State to clinch the regional title and move on to face Arizona in next weekend's super regionals.
“It's just an honor to be able to even have this experience again,” Shults said. “Last year, I didn't even think this would be an opportunity to have, to be back on the field. Just being back with my team is the best thing ever.”
Shults' health scare of last season has been well-documented. The OU catcher was hospitalized just before the 2011 regionals began after she had suffered from stomach pains, nights of vomiting and dramatic weight loss for months prior. The diagnosis was pan-ulcerative colitis, a rare colon disease.
While Shults was in the hospital, OU coach Patty Gasso tried to keep Shults feeling engaged and included by using her iPhone's video chat feature to virtually bring Shults into the Sooner locker room. But Shults said she felt she had let her team down by not getting the illness checked out sooner.
“I wanted to play so bad,” she said. “In the end, I feel like I kind of hurt my team. But they all picked me up. I felt that from them. Even though I wasn't there, I was kind of there in spirit.”
Shults physically returned to her team for the Women's College World Series, even getting two at-bats in the Sooners' final game. But she has really returned to form in 2012 as a critical piece of OU's potent offense. She hit .360 during the regular season for the Sooners (48-8) with 16 home runs and 48 runs batted in and was named to the All-Big 12 first team.
This past weekend, she was even better, recording six hits in nine at-bats with three walks and seven RBIs. Her success has allowed Gasso to stick with a recent tweak to the OU lineup, which has moved freshman Georgia Casey into the leadoff spot.
“I knew (moving Casey to the leadoff spot) was going to put a little bit of added responsibility on Jessica Shults,” Gasso said. “I wanted to see how she was going to handle that, and she just nailed it. Literally.
“This lineup, I really like it. As long as Shults is swinging the way she is, we're going to stick with it.”
Shults' first home run Sunday, a grand slam just over the wall in right in the first inning, came on a screw ball that rose from Oregon State starter Marina Demore. That gave an early cushion to OU ace Keilani Ricketts, who was masterful again in a two-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts. Shults then went deep to right again in the sixth inning.
Shults' disease is now in remission but incurable, meaning she will have to take medication to keep the inflammation under control for the rest of her life. But she always hoped she would have the chance to help her team get back to the WCWS.
She certainly did her part Sunday afternoon.
“I'm just really honored and just grateful that everybody put all the time in for me,” Shults said. “All my doctors and everything, and all the hard work they've been doing.”