- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oklahoma could be looking at its best chance to win its first NCAA softball championship since the Sooners sealed the deal in 2000.
Lead by USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts, the Sooners play South Florida to open the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City on Thursday.
Here are some things you should know about the Sooners' chances in the WCWS:
First-round opponent: South Florida earned a WCWS berth with a 2-1 Super Regional series win over Hofstra. The Bulls are led by Sara Nevins, who has a 1.03 ERA which ranks fourth in the NCAA. Thursday’s matchup between Nevins and Ricketts could be the best pitching matchup of the WCWS -- don’t expect a high-scoring affair.
USF’s 1.18 team ERA ranks them second in the NCAA behind OU. They knocked off No. 5-seed Florida in regional play before defeating Hofstra.
Biggest obstacle: If both teams win their first round game, OU would face top-ranked California in its second WCWS game. The Bears are 56-5 this season and are lead by Valerie Arioto, who excels at the plate and on the mound. And Golden Bears ace pitcher Jolene Henderson threw back-to-back shutouts against Washington in Super Regional action.
The Bears are considered the favorite as the No. 1 seed but the top four seeds in the tournament, including No. 4 OU, are in Oklahoma City.
Three reasons why the Sooners could win the title:
• Ricketts is a dominant force on the mound and she can change games with her bat as well. The Big 12 Player of the Year, Ricketts had an 0.99 ERA with 33 wins and 393 strikeouts. She is hitting .407 to lead the Sooners with a .558 on-base percentage and .841 slugging percentage.
• The Sooners have an explosive offense with Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain and Jessica Shults leading the way. That trio finished 1-2-3 in the Big 12 in slugging percentage and Chamberlain led the conference in home runs (27), RBIs (71), runs scored (62) and slugging percentage (.869).
• Even though the Sooners have great pitching and power, they can still beat you by manufacturing runs. Brianna Turang and Destinee Martinez excel at getting on base and creating havoc with their speed. They help make OU one of the most complete teams in the field.
Three reasons why the Sooners might not win the title:
• Youth. Chamberlain and Georgia Casey are freshmen, so they’ll need to get comfortable quickly during their first experience in the WCWS . OU coach Patty Gasso spoke of Casey’s nerves during Super Regional-play so the Sooners will need both players to overcome any butterflies.
• Pac-12 dominance. Only two non-Pac 12 teams have won a NCAA softball title since 1999. The Sooners won in 2000 and Michigan won in 2004. Arizona State is the defending champion and have returned to Oklahoma City to defend their title.
• Defense. The Sooners made 46 errors this season and had four in their two wins over Arizona in super regional play. One error can decide a game in the WCWS so the Sooners will have to tighten up their defense to win a championship.
“Our team’s a lot deeper than last year. With the desire that we had last year and how deep we are this year with our lineup, I think that we are coming into the World Series stronger than we were.” -- Ricketts on this year’s team compared to last year’s squad.