As college softball goes deep on pitching, Oklahoma is going deeper

As college softball goes deep on pitching, Oklahoma is going deeper

OU’s deep pitching rotation signals promise for another title defense in Norman and an insight into the broader direction of college softball.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Feb 6, 2024, 2:00pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Feb 6, 2024, 2:00pm CST

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NORMAN — It wasn’t so long ago that college softball’s elite could be shouldered by one pitcher from February to June. Programs like Oklahoma simply aren’t using pitchers the way they used to. 

A look into the evolution of the Sooners’ pitching staff over the past 14 seasons — and how OU has managed its most coveted arms on the way to six national titles in 11 years — tells part of the story.

Over eight seasons from 2010-17, Sooner pitchers eclipsed 200 innings eight times.

Keilani Ricketts became the program’s all-time innings pitched leader (1,071.1) with four straight 200-inning campaigns from 2010-13. Kelsey Stevens followed with a career-high 275 innings pitched in the circle in 2014. Then came Paige Parker, who averaged 226.2 innings from 2015-17.

That trend broke after Patty Gasso claimed her fourth national championship in 2017.

In five full seasons since, OU’s top pitchers averaged only 151 innings in the circle, coinciding with the 2018 arrival of pitching coach Jen Rocha. Tthe Sooners have not allowed a pitcher to reach 150 innings pitched since 2019.

OU has often stayed on college softball’s cutting edge in its rise to the top of the sport.

This spring — at least in the early weeks of the program’s fourth-straight title defense — the Sooners are poised to take their pitching evolution another step another step further. 

“We’ve got six very viable pitchers,” Gasso said Monday. “All of them could help us in some way shape or form.”

Gasso plans to begin her 30th season in Norman with six pitchers in the rotation when top-ranked OU opens in the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge on Thursday (10:30 a.m., FloSoftball).

Preseason All-Americans Nicole May and Kelly Maxwell arrive in Mexico as the staff’s expected veteran anchors. Behind them, there’s Liberty transfer Karlie Keeney, a 27-game winner in 2023 who has recovered from a fall hand injury. Meanwhile, Wisconsin transfer Paytn Monticelli and second-year left-handers Kierston Deal and SJ Guerin are also likely to feature in the four-game set that includes games with ninth-ranked Duke and No. 10 Washington.

“You’re gonna see a lot of looks this weekend, as well,” Gasso said. “We’ve got to get this figured out as we get to who is going to be a game changer for us in the first three weeks.”

The Sooners step into 2024 without Jordy Bahl, who closed her OU career with 24.2 scoreless innings in last June’s Women’s College World Series. Instead, this rotation returns deeper from a year ago, filled out by two preseason All-Big 12 picks, a pair of promising transfers, the No. 1 prospect in 2022 and another top-20 recruit from the same class. 

There might have been a sense after Bahl’s departure that OU was moving away from the seven-inning starter. In reality, the Sooners have been shifting toward depth and balance since long before the two-time national champion transferred to Nebraska last summer. 

 

Oklahoma's Kierston Deal (11) throws a pitch during a college softball game between the California Golden Bears and the University of Oklahoma Sooners at the Norman Regional of NCAA softball tournament at Marita Hynes Field in Norman, Okla., Sunday, May, 21, 2023.

Sophomore Kierston Deal, the former No. 1 prospect in the 2022 class, is expected to earn increased opportunity in 2024. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman)

 

Gasso lived every moment when Parker started five of the six WCWS games during OU’s 2016 national title run. She was there a year later when Parker carried the Sooners into June again, tossing 210.1 innings on the way to another national championship.

“We won that season but it’s hard to watch because she is so physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted,” Gasso recalled. “So I promised myself we would never do that again. And that is why I’m really trying to get a good stable of pitchers that complement each other.”

Gasso’s rotation construction from 2018-23 reflected that promise and reflected a shift that’s continuing to unfold across college softball.

While Ricketts, Stevens and Parker piled up innings from 2010-18, Michelle Gascoigne was the only OU pitcher to eclipse 100 innings pitched in a season, hitting the mark in 2012 (103.2) and 2013 (129). In the four complete seasons since Parker’s final game, the Sooners have had at least two pitchers log 100-plus innings in a season. 

Last spring, OU had three pitchers — Bahl, May and Alex Storako — reach the century mark. 

“I think what happens for us at least is when we get in the postseason our pitchers are fresh,” Gasso said. “They’re not worn out. That’s a big plus for us.”

Quality pitching depth is one of the Sooners’ many luxuries. However, the rotation trend OU is following in 2024 isn’t exclusive to Norman. In the most competitive era in the sport’s history, college softball programs are using more pitchers less.

In the 2021 season, 277 pitchers among Division I softball’s 286 programs threw more than 100 innings, per stats collected via D1Softball. That number climbed to 409 the following spring. In 2023, the count grew to 431. 

Over three seasons, the number of pitchers working significant innings across college softball ballooned by 64.2%. During the same period, the collection of 200-plus innings pitchers hardly budged, up from 19 in 2021 to 23 last spring. Of the eight teams that landed at the WCWS last spring, seven featured at least two pitchers with 80 or more innings pitched. 

Reaching college softball’s mountaintop in 2024 is about having rested arms in June. It’s also about having a range of different looks to throw at opposing lineups, particularly when programs begin seeing teams multiple times in short spans during the postseason. 

“Hitters are getting better and a pitcher can’t sustain for seven innings much these days,” Gasso said. “We’re looking at who’s our starter, who’s our middle reliever, who’s our closer. Three of these pitchers have a role in a game and they know it.”

 

Oklahoma's Kelly Maxwell pitches during game 2 of OU softball's Battle Series scrimmage at Marita Hynes field in Norman, Okla., Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Oklahoma State transfer Kelly Maxwell brings experience and top-tier left-handed pitching in her debut season with the Sooners. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

 

Gasso didn’t detail specifically how she plans to manage the deep rotation in the opening month of the season. In Stillwater on Monday, Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski outlined some of the ways the Cowgirls plan to vary star pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl’s workload this spring.

Creatively, Gasso and Rocha won’t be short of options.

Gasso called May, who finished with a 0.91 ERA in 2023, “the matriarch” of the staff and hinted at an opening day start for the senior right-hander. In Maxwell, the former All-Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, the Sooners have a left-handed, ace-quality foil to May. Keeney, the right-hander who suffered a broken finger in the fall, stands as another experienced option in the circle for OU. 

 “She’s got a really fun, gritty style about her,” Gasso said of Keeney, who finished second nationally in innings pitched (240.1) last spring. “She’s focused. She’s a fighter. I’m really, really excited to see what she can do for us.”

Monticelli’s command will determine the role she’s able to carve this spring. Arriving with three years of eligibility, the hard-throwing right-hander is a project for the present and future. Deal and Guerin carry promise into 2024 and beyond, as well, with increased opportunities in store in Year 2.

By early May, OU could well find itself leaning on a tight trio of pitchers in the circle, no different from last spring. But in the early parts of 2024, the consensus title favorites have six pitchers expected to factor into Gasso’s plans.

As college softball goes deep on pitching, the Sooners — ever ahead of the curve — are going deeper.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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