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Thriving on the national stage

The Sooners' Shelby Pendley, left, helped to recruit Albuquerque's Kelsey Stevens to the University of Oklahoma last year. Stevens transferred from Stanford. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Sooners’ Shelby Pendley, left, helped to recruit Albuquerque’s Kelsey Stevens to the University of Oklahoma last year. Stevens transferred from Stanford. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

OKLAHOMA CITY – Friends, rivals, and now roommates and teammates. Softball prodigies Shelby Pendley and Kelsey Stevens have added a healthy dose of New Mexico enchantment to this year’s Women’s College World Series.

“I would have to say, New Mexico is not as big as other places. There’s talent there, but there’s not a ton of it,” said Pendley. “I think it’s kinda cool. You don’t hear of someone from New Mexico playing on a big softball team.”

Rarer still is finding two of them on the same team.

Shelby Pendley of Rio Rancho watches as she hits one out of the park during a Women's College World Series game against Alabama on Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Shelby Pendley of Rio Rancho watches as she hits one out of the park during a Women’s College World Series game against Alabama on Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

In a World Series.

They took the long route to the heart of America’s softball country, but Rio Rancho’s Pendley and Volcano Vista’s Stevens are not just teammates at the University of Oklahoma. They are two of the premier players in the nation.

Pendley, a junior third baseman, this week was named a first-team All-American. Stevens, a sophomore, is a first-team all-Big 12 performer and one of the winningest pitchers in Division I.

This week at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, the duo hope to help lead the Sooners to a second consecutive national championship.

Both transferred to Oklahoma – Pendley from the University of Arizona two years ago, and Stevens from Stanford last year. Because they transferred outside their former conference, they were immediately eligible to compete for the Sooners.

Oklahoma (50-12) is the national No. 7 seed. The Sooners fell to second-seeded Alabama 6-2 on Thursday night. Oklahoma only had one hit – a first-inning, opposite-field home run by the left-handed hitting Pendley, her 18th of the season.

“It was a bad game and a wake-up call,” said Pendley. “(Our fate) depends on how we respond to what happened.”

The Sooners will try to avoid elimination this afternoon against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette.

Tucson to Norman

Pendley won’t talk specifically about why she left Arizona, except to say that “things weren’t the right fit.”

Clearly, the match here is a magnificent fit.

“She was a different player a year ago,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. “On a national stage … the harder you try to be great, the tougher it is to make it happen. So it takes a special athlete to know how to settle in and allow pressure to go away and just get locked into what you’re doing.

“Shelby has been one of the best athletes I’ve ever experienced.”

Pendley was batting .429 through last weekend’s Super Regionals, and is one of nine active members of the NCAA career 50-home run club. She even has made 21 pitching appearances for Oklahoma this season, going 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA. She came on in relief of Stevens, who was the losing pitcher Thursday.

Kelsey Stevens, right, from Albuquerque, is one of the premier pitchers in the nation. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Kelsey Stevens, right, from Albuquerque, is one of the premier pitchers in the nation. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“I just always had so much respect for her,” said Stevens. “But we were always competing against each other. I’m so glad to be here with her now.”

Pendley was integral in the Sooners’ 2013 title, and in the process she made good on a longtime pledge.

“She told me when she was a little kid that she was gonna be here and win the World Series,” her father, Jerry Pendley, said. “She told me that when she was 9 years old.”

The no-nonsense Pendley is in every sense a pure softball junkie. Consider that on the day she was accorded All-American honors earlier this week, she didn’t even inform her parents.

“She’s not much about emotion,” Jerry Pendley said. “All she wants to do is play softball. She won’t get caught up in the hoopla. She loves the game. She doesn’t like to talk about it.”

From Shelby’s side, the explanation is simple as to why she didn’t even send a text to her parents.

“My phone would have blown up,” she said with a laugh.

Stanford to Norman

Stevens had an outstanding freshman season at Stanford, even throwing a perfect game. But, as was the case with Pendley at Arizona, Stevens was uncomfortable with her situation in Northern California and sought new environs.

The Sooners’ cocoon has been like a warm blanket for Stevens, Oklahoma’s ace.

“Just playing with this group of girls has made me better,” she said.

Steven selected Oklahoma, in part, because of the presence of Pendley. Stevens’ second option was Texas A&M, but Pendley helped convince her to come to Oklahoma.

“She was really helpful,” Stevens said. “She said, ‘I’ve been through the process.’ It was a family-type atmosphere, and that’s what got me here.”

Albuquerque's Kelsey Stevens, left, and other members of the University of Oklahoma softball team congratulate Rio Rancho's Shelby Pendley (1) after her homer Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque’s Kelsey Stevens, left, and other members of the University of Oklahoma softball team congratulate Rio Rancho’s Shelby Pendley (1) after her homer Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Indeed, both Stevens and Pendley have immediate family in the Oklahoma City area. Stevens’ mother is a native Oklahoman.

“They (the OU program) have absolutely taken care of her,” Francie Stevens said. “And Shelby’s family has been such a support unit for Kelsey.”

Stevens led the country in regular-season wins (33), although she surrendered two home runs and took the loss to Alabama on Thursday night. Her record is 37-9.

“She’s new, kind of like Shelby was last year,” Gasso said. “She’s new to the team, expectations are high and maybe (they’re) putting pressure on themselves. Shelby figured it out, and this one here (Stevens) is smart enough and understands.”

Said Pendley of Stevens, “From the beginning of the season to now, she’s made huge steps, huge improvements.”

Past and present

Only once before this season had Stevens and Pendley ever been teammates. That was on a club team, the Sundancers, many years ago. They were friendly, if not friends. Between the white lines, they have for years been walking a couple of steps ahead of their peers.

“When she did Little League,” said Pendley’s mother Jeri, “I had to tell my husband one night (that) … we have to get her on a more competitive team. She lost a lot of her friends.”

Stevens was equally prominent in the club ranks, and the two often crossed paths – in the junior ranks and, later, as District 1-5A rivals in high school.

“I never thought this would happen, growing up together,” Pendley said of their current affiliation.

“Doing it together,” Stevens said, “is what’s cool.”

And both clearly are relishing this chance to put New Mexico on the softball map during this nationally televised event.

Said Francie Stevens of having two local girls in the World Series, “Isn’t fate something else?”

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