WCWS foes join forces for Team USA
OKLAHOMA CITY -- During an exhibition game in West Virginia a week after the Women's College World Series, Team USA's Keilani Ricketts stumbled and fell on the field. It was a minor moment of embarrassment, but all the invitation teammates needed to have a little fun at the expense of the reigning college player of the year.
"I made a joke when she came in the dugout," Jackie Traina said. "And I was like, 'Oh, is this too early for jokes?' I didn't want to make her mad or anything."
To borrow a familiar punch line: Too soon?
Short of the assorted despots, tyrants and other genuinely unpleasant folks who roam the globe, Traina surely was just about the last person with whom Ricketts and Jessica Shults wanted to cross paths in the days that followed the latter duo's last appearance at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in the Women's College World Series.
No individual, after all, was more responsible for the Oklahoma battery's shared softball misery than Traina, the Alabama sophomore ace who was named the Most Outstanding Player in a World Series that saw the Crimson Tide rally to win the final two games of the best-of-three championship series against the Sooners.
Traina and her teammates hugged the trophy and celebrated a national championship. Shults, Ricketts and the Sooners made the longest imaginable 26.8-mile drive home -- the distance highlighted on the first page of the team's media guide.
Fortunately, all three players had ample time to put things in the proper perspective before they found themselves cast together for the biggest opportunity of their young careers, one that brings them back to Hall of Fame Stadium for the championship of the World Cup of Softball (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), a warmup event for the upcoming world championships in Canada.
That is assuming that about two days qualifies as plenty of time.
That's roughly how long it took for Traina, Shults and Ricketts to go from foes in the wee hours of the morning June 7 in Oklahoma City to teammates at the Team USA selection camp the following weekend in Ashland, Ohio, where Traina and Shults earned places alongside the previously selected Ricketts on the final roster.
"I think we knew each other were going to be there, and I think it was a little -- not so much with Shults, but with Keilani, I'm sure she can say the same thing, it was kind of like bitter feelings in the beginning," Traina said of the two pitchers who went pitch for pitch against each other in all three games of the championship series.
If only detente came about as quickly in international affairs as it did in this instance in international softball.
"She has such a great personality; I don't think anything really fazes her," Traina said of her pitching counterpart. "She's a great person, and we get along so well now. When you know them on the field, you don't know them at all. When you know their personality off the field, that's when things get better."
Softball can be a small world at the highest level, but it isn't quite so tiny at the top that everyone knows everyone. A native Floridian who went only as far as Alabama for college, Traina didn't know Shults or Ricketts, Sooners by way of California, from youth softball. Nor did they know her. To the extent they regarded each other at all, it was as impediments to success -- a name attached to a scouting report heavier on details of pitch selection or plate discipline than personality.
"What I knew of her is just always watching her and what type of pitcher she was," Ricketts said. "So once I got to know her as a person, it was a lot easier to handle, I think. She's a people person. Everybody gets along with her, so it's easy to have a conversation with her."
If you're looking for an argument to break out, it seems the best you can hope for is a debate over who is more amiable.
"They always want to have a great time; there is never a dull moment, ever," Traina said. "Keilani is so goofy, and Shults just goes right along with it. They're very similar in their personalities. They're very funny, goofy."
That doesn't make it any less strange to see a sight like Shults catching pitches from Traina a few weeks after the two battled through some memorable at-bats in the World Series (Shults finished the final series with three hits, six RBIs and a home run against Traina, but Alabama's ace struck her out in their final encounter).
It's a new perspective for those involved, too. The vantage point behind the plate isn't that far removed from the batter's box, but receiving Traina's pitches rather than trying to hit them proved an eye-opening experience.
"She throws really hard, that's for sure," Shults said. "Because she's such a smooth pitcher, you don't expect it to come in that hard. So the first one [as a catcher], I was like 'OK,' and then it just pops you and I'm like 'Oh my gosh, she throws really hard.' That was the first thing I said in my mind when she threw her first pitch."
Team USA coach Ken Eriksen acknowledged he was as curious as anyone if the two sets of finalists would play nice with each other, purposely pairing Traina with Shults at times in the selection process. What he counted on, what his experience in international softball told him was players who are good enough to play at the international level generally have at least as much in common, if not more, with each other as with even their college teammates. What makes them compelling rivals -- an almost maniacal devotion to success -- is what makes common ground easy to find as teammates.
Shults wouldn't be who she is or where she is, in other words, if putting on the mask didn't narrow her focus to her pitcher and how the two of them are going to dominate anyone in a different uniform. All the better if that pitcher, like Traina, can light up the radar gun and drop breaking balls off the table.
"I think it's really important because when you're on the mound, you kind of have to have that connection of what they want to go to and throw, what their go-to pitches are," Shults said of chemistry between pitcher and catcher. "If you don't have connection, it can be a mess, trying to call different pitches and they're shaking you off and you're just on two different pages."
What role all three play against Australia on Monday or in the games to come this summer remains to be seen. Ashley Holcombe, another Alabama product who graduated in 2009, appears to be ahead of Shults in the pecking order behind the plate for the biggest games, while Eriksen's two-year tenure with Team USA has been marked by his willingness to use all four of his pitchers, with Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas and former Michigan ace Jordan Taylor joining Ricketts and Traina on the current roster.
But if the national team is to have any continuity in the difficult years ahead outside the Olympic umbrella, it's difficult to think of three players better suited to emerge as mainstays than the aforementioned trio.
If USA Softball is going to be the best it can be for the next few years, Shults, Traina and Ricketts are going to spend a lot of time together.
That seems just fine by them. Like Ricketts, Shults has nothing but affection for Traina these days, calling her the kind of person "you want to hang out with."
Just don't expect newfound camaraderie to get in the way of any potential grudge match when all three return to the college ranks next season. They can forget they like each other for seven innings.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm still not over it," Shults said of the World Series. "It was a great experience; I wouldn't trade anything -- I mean, the outcome isn't what we wanted, but Jackie Traina's a great pitcher. She's got a great team and they deserve everything they got.
"I'm just really excited for next year; we've got a lot of returners. I'm not over it, but I'm just really excited to get back on the field next year."