Babe Ruth of Softball ready to go out on top

NORMAN, Okla. — A few days before the season started, long-time Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso said Lauren Chamberlain is the best hitter she’s ever seen.

Quite a compliment, considering the Sooners have Keilani Ricketts on the team.

Chamberlain is an accomplished hitter, but Ricketts is the best player in softball and the kind of rarity who has a chance to grow the game and transcend the sport.

That big.

“I think she’s already done that somewhat,” said Gasso of Ricketts. “She’s recognized wherever she goes, and in the softball world, she’s a superstar, so she’s done that. Keilani will probably represent some company as she goes on. I don’t think she will go pro because she’s hoping to play in the Olympics. She might be a superstar in Japan. That’s where you’ll see her make a lot of money.”

The future seems full of potential, money and prizes for Ricketts, who heads into her senior season as the best combination of hitting and pitching in the nation for an Oklahoma team that very well could go undefeated in 2013. OU is ranked No. 1 in the nation for just the second time in school history.

That good.

Ricketts is a 2012 All-American, the National Player of the Year, a 2011 All-American and the 2012 Big 12 Player of the Year. She is a member of Team USA  and went 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 27 innings of international competition while hitting .429 at the 2012 International Softball Championships.

This year, as the Sooners are less than three weeks from their home opener, Ricketts already has two no-hitters, is 2-0 and has 28 strikeouts in 14 innings. She’s hitting .300 with a home run and an on-base average of .533.

And if the Sooners keep winning – 5-0 so far with 10 games upcoming on a California tournament trip – Ricketts will become more and more recognizable in a sport that gets very little publicity beyond the College World Series. There is no softball in the Olympics and its virtually unheard of at the pro level. A break-through wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it would be a rarity.

The Sooners win, as they are expected to, Ricketts dominates and she could easily be the next big thing, the face and the name of softball.

“That doesn’t really matter to me,” Ricketts said.  I’ll just go wherever it takes me. That’s OK and enough for me.”

A season ago, Ricketts led the Sooners in hitting and pitching and her stats have been the reason for a remarkable trophy case. Last year, Ricketts was 37-9 and pitched the Sooners to the NCAA championship series. She had 1.08 ERA and struck out 457 in 292 innings. For her career, she has 100 wins and a 1.28 ERA. Strikeouts are now over 1,200 and her popularity has potential.

“Right now Keilani has reached that pinnacle and has a lot of attention,” Gasso said. “A lot of people are acknowledging who she is, and I guess in our sport, she’s pretty famous.”

All this, and with a whole season to go, but the real future of Ricketts is what she does after softball. If she wants.

“I have another season to go,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll do as good or better. I don’t know how I’ll do. There are lot of players who go up and down. I just need to be consistent.”

What softball needs is not consistency, but something wild and unexpected. What softball needs is a face and voice and a player who has the stats and the ability to go beyond them.

Ricketts isn’t big on talking about herself, offering very little past a smile.

“She crushes the ball and dominates as a pitcher,” said teammate Jessica Shults. “I see her as one of those figures who can be something bigger.”