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College softball: With Women's College World Series, five locals' seasons spill into June

Locals eye national title at College World Series

Posted: May 31, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 31, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Oklahoma’s Jessica Shults celebrates a grand slam against Oregon State during an NCAA college softball regional game, Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Norman, Okla.

 

The University of Oklahoma softball team is in familiar territory — back in the NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series for the second straight year.

But after a quick, two-game exit last season, the Sooners are expecting bigger things this time around.

Of the eight teams beginning competition today in Oklahoma City, the Sooners are one of three that feature local high school graduates.

“I think we have a really mature team this year. All the butterflies are going to be under control because we’ve seen the crowd, we’ve been there,” said Hart graduate and Sooners catcher Jessica Shults. “It’s a very different crowd you play for at the World Series. Everything is a lot bigger in perspective.”

And Shults would certainly be the one to talk to about differences from last year.

Last season, the now junior missed the first two rounds of the postseason after being diagnosed with pan ulcerative colitis, which threatened her softball career.

She returned just in time for the College World Series, but the Sooners quickly lost two games and were eliminated.

Now fully healed, she’s one of the best players in the nation on perhaps the hottest team in the field — and with a new outlook on the game, she’s ready to bring home Oklahoma’s first national title since 2000.

“Being healthy this year has been a big part of it. I’m excited to be a big part and help my team,” she said. “I feel like I’m not stressing out about anything (this season), just letting things happen. Not being too emotional about things ... It’s an honor to be back.”

But she’s far from the only familiar face Santa Clarita Valley softball fans can see on television this week.

Shults’ Oklahoma teammate Brittany Williams was one of the best players in the Foothill League when she attended Canyon from 2007-2010.

She was an All-Santa Clarita Valley second team selection as a freshman and led the league as a junior in batting average (.472), RBIs (29), home runs (11), slugging percentage (1.125) and on-base percentage (.591).

And for a school with limited softball pedigree, Williams is a prime example that the valley’s softball talent is spread wide.

“I looked up to many players as I went into high school ... I’ll go back to Canyon once in a while and see how they’re doing,”
Williams said. “They look up to me, but I think it’s more they can do it too. It’s not just they look up to me — it gives them hope that they can do it.”

Perennial Foothill League powerhouse Valencia will be well represented in Oklahoma, too.

Former Viking and current Tennessee Volunteer Madison Shipman has become one of the best players in the country in her own right, and will join Shults this summer to compete for the final spots on the team USA National Team roster.

Arizona State freshman Bethany Kemp will also join the group in Oklahoma City, but is not expected to start for the Sun Devils. Kemp is also a Valencia graduate.

Like Oklahoma, Tennessee also features a second local athlete.

Hart graduate Melissa Brown, an NCAA Division I District 3 All-American, will suit up for the Volunteers.

And if stars align, an Oklahoma/Tennessee final this weekend could rekindle some old Foothill League rivalries — something Shults would love.

“Yes, definitely. I remember the pitches they can hit so I’m really excited to get back on the field with them,” she said. “It would be crazy seeing them in different uniforms — not Valencia, not Hart — it would be cool to see them with the success they’ve had.”

It would take a lot for Oklahoma and Tennessee to meet up. The teams are on opposite sides of the bracket with Oklahoma facing South Florida today at 10 a.m. in the opening game, Arizona State opening with Oregon at 6:30 p.m. and Tennessee squaring off with Alabama at 4 p.m.

But Oklahoma has caught fire lately, winning of 15 of its last 17 games and coming off a two-game sweep of Arizona — a team that featured Valencia graduate Jessica Spigner — in the Super Regionals.

Oklahoma also has 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year pitcher Keliani Ricketts in the circle.

“We feel confident going into the World Series this year,” Williams said. “It was just more of expectations for us (last year). We have a really good team this year. We had a good team last year, it just didn’t go our way.”

The Volunteers had a more difficult time getting to Oklahoma City — coming from behind to defeat Georgia 2-1 in the third game of its Super Regional.

But regardless of wins and losses, the presence of five locals at the highest level of college softball is a valuable lesson to the valley’s younger girls.

“We are well represented at the (NCAA) Division I level,” said Valencia High head coach Donna Lee, who coached Shipman and Kemp in high school. “All the schools will be next year, so that says a lot about our league and the strength of our league and the parity. So that’s really important for the future of not only this valley, but the future of the younger girls if they realize ‘Hey, guess what? I have something to aspire to.”

Shults and Browns’ former coach, Steve Calendo, agrees.

“The girls in our area, the Hart recreation ball league gets them started off and the coaching that’s involved really helps propel their softball skills and enhance their skills,” he said. “But it takes the right individual. You have girls like Jessica and Melissa. Brittany Williams and Madison Shipman — these kids all work really hard on their own. That’s what it takes. The young girls that want to get better and see themselves on TV have to realize the hard work it takes to get there.”

For five locals, the hard work isn’t over — they’ve reached the summit of college softball — with just one goal remaining.

“To win — I feel like the team, we want to win it,” Shults said. “Going there last year and just having the experience isn’t enough this year. We want to make some noise and win a national championship.”


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