Oklahoma recharging the battery
Still early enough on the second morning of her freshman season that the chill of the desert night had only recently dissipated, Kelsey Stevens stared in from the familiar confines of the pitching circle during a tournament in Arizona. What stared back was an entirely unfamiliar challenge. Called out of the bullpen in a game against Oklahoma, the Stanford freshman faced the scariest part of one of the best lineups in the history of college softball.
The first batter came and went, retired on a fly ball. So far, so good. Then it was just so far -- very, very far. The first pitch she threw to All-America slugger Lauren Chamberlain sailed over the outfield fence for a home run.
The wake-up call had arrived.
"It was more fun than anything," Stevens recalled of her second appearance as a collegian. "Of course I had a lot of nervous energy going on, but I was just excited. Coming into it, I was just really trying to show that I could step up and face those kind of hitters."
And indeed, she did not crumble. After Chamberlain circled the bases, Stevens completed the inning without further damage, even coaxing a popup from Keilani Ricketts for the final out. Oklahoma already had a six-run lead, more than enough to support a no-hitter from Ricketts, but Stevens worked five more innings and allowed just one more hit.
In the Oklahoma dugout, meanwhile, Sooners freshman catcher Whitney Ellis waited, watched and learned, unused.
The two teams went their separate ways that day. When Oklahoma's fearsome lineup and its two senior pitching stars finished off the competition in the Women's College World Series some months later, Stevens watched from afar on her computer, stealing a few minutes from studying as she completed the school year at Stanford.
But when players from the team that won the championship returned recently from a White House visit recognizing the accomplishment, Stevens was waiting for them in Norman. Waiting for her Sooners.
If pitching against the team Oklahoma put on the field a season ago was a challenging way for an opponent to begin college life, Stevens took on an even more daunting encore. With help from Ellis, the successor to a catcher, Jessica Shults, who was the Big 12's all-time home run leader when last season ended, Stevens took on a challenge unlike just about anything seen before in college softball. Not only did she replace Ricketts, the two-time national player of the year, but also Michelle Gascoigne, one of 10 finalists for the same award a season ago and the winning pitcher in the championship clincher.
The remarkable thing is that she and Ellis are pulling it off.
"We all know that the majority of your success happens in the circle," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "It's obvious that they play a huge role."
Despite replacing Ricketts, Gascoigne and Shults with two sophomores, and despite losing Chamberlain to injury for a month, Oklahoma awoke Wednesday with a 39-10 record and a real chance to make it back to the Women's College World Series and defend its championship.
Stevens isn't better than the combination of Ricketts and Gascoigne. That isn't the point. But given the lack of a safety net with which the Sooners are working in the circle, the pitcher who is second in the nation in wins, second in the Big 12 in ERA and responsible for 64 percent of her team's innings this season might just be equally indispensable. Maybe more so.
The old saying in sports is it's better to be the person who follows the person who follows a legend than the one caught in the middle. It's an old saying because it's true much of the time. Not all the time.
"I don't really care who came before or who is going to come after," Stevens said. "I think it's just more important that I found a good fit, found girls and the coaches that I like. ... I'm my own person, so I'm not worried about following anybody."
That's partly why she ended up in Norman this past summer anyway.
For as long as the notion of college had taken shape in her mind, Stevens hoped and planned to go to Stanford. Her older brother went there and was a member of the wrestling team. The softball coaches there knew her and recruited her when she was barely in her teens. She grew up in New Mexico, but Palo Alto was where she figured she was eventually supposed to be. Still, as her freshman year wore on, she said, she began to feel like it was just that -- the place she thought she was supposed to be for her future.
It turned out that wasn't necessarily the same thing as the place where she was happy in the moment.
I don't really care who came before or who is going to come after. I think it's just more important that I found a good fit, found girls and the coaches that I like.Kelsey Stevens
"I guess I really just wanted to find that competitive spirit, that drive to be as good as you can," Stevens said. "I just wasn't feeling the vibe. I wasn't feeling like I was in a place where I wanted to be necessarily."
With a recruiting assist from Sooners third baseman Shelby Pendley, a bitter rival in their days growing up in the Albuquerque area but also someone who made a similar move when she transferred from Arizona after the 2012 season, Stevens settled on Oklahoma. It wasn't a move without its trials and tribulations. The Sooners lost four times in the first two weeks, matching their total of losses from a season ago. Stevens didn't pitch poorly in most of them, but she did pitch in all of them. She had new coaches asking her to try new things, new teammates to trust behind her and whose trust she had to earn.
There are specific reasons for what then happened, the 10-2 record and 1.63 ERA in Big 12 play and impressive performances out of conference against the likes of LSU and Tulsa. Among others, she is putting her riseball in a place where it can tempt batters and doing more with her changeup. Her walk rate is down. But whether it's cause or effect, part of it is that she feels comfortable in the uniform.
"I think the biggest thing right now is I've just found my confidence," Stevens said. "I think I've got presence out there on the mound. Whether I'm very loud or not, you can tell that I'm confident. Right now, I've been very effective at getting ahead of batters, and from there I can just kind of control the count the way I want to."
She is essentially the first, second and third option in the circle. Pendley, an All-American for her work with the bat and glove at the hot corner but someone who hadn't pitched since high school until this season, is the team's second-most effective pitcher at the moment. It is a lot to place on the newest Sooner's shoulders. Then again, Stevens long ago learned to deal with that particular form of discomfort. She suffers from scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. By the time she was old enough to have a say, doctors told her that the curvature had stopped increasing but surgery was an option to lessen the day-to-day back pain associated with her condition. Used to pitching with her body the way it was, she worried any procedure might affect her pitching motion. She chose instead to manage the pain.
While not a debilitating condition, the result can be instances like the Texas series earlier this season when she suffered a dislocated rib before the final game. With the rib back in position and with a doctor's clearance, she made her third straight start against the Longhorns in the finale and shut them out in the series-clinching win.
"I think earlier in the season she would have tapped out and said, 'OK, I can't.'" Gasso said. "Those are things I absolutely respect. I have gained great respect for her, her will to want to win, her will to want to lead this team. She doesn't talk a lot -- it's not leading by vocal, it's leading by example."
The other half of the battery makes the load easier to bear. Ellis eventually did get into a game a season ago -- she even hit a home run in her first at-bat -- but she spent most of those months watching Shults, "being her little shadow," as the younger player put it. Ellis is one of the most notable erasers in the sport this season. Aware of her arm, opponents have attempted only 19 stolen bases against her. Considering they've been successful just seven times, that is still too many. She has also been a key contributor to the run support behind Stevens, especially when Chamberlain was out of the lineup with a back injury. Her 1.010 OPS is better than what Shults provided a season ago.
"It's really important to have that connection with your catcher, because if you're on the same page it's so much easier," Stevens said. "Knowing if I shake off a pitch, what pitch I want, or just what to do in certain situations. I feel like I've grown with Whitney really quickly and we're just working well together."
And beyond the tangible contributions Ellis makes with her bat and her arm, that chemistry matters. If Stevens had come in and pitched to a returning star or if Ellis had caught one, it would have been more difficult for either to establish her own identity. Working together, relying on each other, accelerates the same process.
"I feel like we're both growing," Ellis said. "We're kind of building our own space for ourselves. It helps having someone that's kind of in the same situation, trying to break out and be our own people."
What to some would have seemed an impossibility was also an opportunity. And even with two more years together, one thing seems clear in Norman: Stevens and Ellis will be a tough act to follow.
"It's great to have a team you feel like you're so connected with and coaches you love to play for," Stevens said. "It's just been a lot of fun. Coming into it, we kind of started off rough, and people were kind of saying, 'Oh, I bet you're mad that you moved.' I would rather struggle through any hard times with this team than be anywhere else."