Riley Ludlam is thriving in her final college chapter with OU

Riley Ludlam is thriving in her final college chapter with OU

Patty Gasso didn’t know Riley Ludlam eight months ago. Now, the veteran catcher is one of OU’s steadiest bats off the bench and a key piece in its four-peat bid.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Feb 28, 2024, 8:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Feb 28, 2024, 8:00am CST

(Eli Lederman’s “OU Week in Review” newsletter hits inboxes every Saturday morning. Subscribe here.)

NORMAN — After four seasons behind the plate at Furman, Riley Ludlam wanted something different. So last summer, the veteran catcher set out to find a new challenge. 

Ludlam didn’t know where she would land when she hit the transfer portal. But the 2023 Southern Conference Player of the Year had a defined vision of what she wanted from the final season of her college career. 

So Ludlam set out in search of a spot with a program that could give her a chance to reach the Women’s College World Series; a place where she could contribute to something big, regardless of her role. 

Clemson, most certainly, could offer that. 

Fresh off an NCAA Super Regional trip to Norman, the Tigers would return in 2024 as a consensus preseason top-10 team, favored this spring to make their first WCWS appearance in program history. Clemson had Julia Knowler, a fellow alum of the softball program at Fort Myers (Florida) High School. Roughly 30 miles from the Furman campus and a short flight from home, the Tigers felt like a perfect fit.

It’s why, for a brief moment last summer, Ludlam was committed to Clemson, prepared to see out her final season with John Rittman’s upstart program in the ACC. 

But when Patty Gasso calls, you pick up the phone. Even when you don’t believe it’s Patty Gasso.

“I called her on the phone and I said, ‘Riley, this is Coach Gasso from Oklahoma.’” Gasso explained last week. “She’s like, ‘Shut up. Who is this? Oh my gosh.’ I’m like, ‘It’s really coach Gasso.’ ‘No it’s not. Who is this?’ She might’ve said somebody’s name, like someone’s pulling a trick on her.” 

This was no prank. Gasso admits now that she’d never heard of Ludlam before seeing her name while scouring the portal for a backup catcher last summer. But when they caught Ludlam’s film, Gasso and her staff identified an attractive bat. Ludlam’s offensive numbers ticked all the boxes, too. 

All that was left to find out was whether Ludlam would be a fit in the Sooners’ program.

So Gasso called Ludlam early last July. A few days later, Ludlam was headed for Norman and OU had a new catcher. 

“Once that happened, Riley felt like that was where she was going to be,” said Johnny Manetta, Ludlam’s coach at Fort Myers High School.

Said Ludlam: “It was the conversation with Coach basically saying she wanted me. She wanted to turn me into the best player I can possibly be in my last year. What a way to go out with this team.”

Eight months ago, Gasso didn’t know who Ludlam was and the Sooners’ new backup catcher was headed to Clemson. Four weeks into the 2024 season, Ludlam has asserted herself as one of Gasso’s most trusted reserves in the Sooners’ pursuit of a fourth-straight national title.

Through 14 games, Ludlam is hitting .353 with six hits, four walks and five RBI in 17 at-bats, primarily off the bench. Her game-tying, pinch-hit single sent OU to extra innings with No. 7 Washington on Feb. 9 and stands now as a pivotal moment in the Sooners’ 67-game win streak. Last weekend in California, Ludlam flashed her power with the first home run of her OU career in an 8-0 win over Seattle.

Prior to the Sooners’ season opener, Gasso described Ludlam as a hitter capable of changing a game with one swing. A month into her debut campaign at OU, Ludlam has proven cool, confident and everything Gasso was looking for in her search for a backup catcher last summer. 

She gets in big moments and she’s free as a bird,” Gasso said. “She’s not caught up. She just wants to hit the ball hard. She’s keeping it really simple and a great example to our team what it looks like.

“It’s a really great success story because we didn’t have a lot of options or a lot of great information on her. Turned out, we hit the jackpot.”

The same maturity and poise Gasso has identified in Ludlam, Manetta saw at Fort Myers while Ludlam emerged as quiet leader for the Green Wave. Before that, Manetta first had to get Ludlam onto the softball field in the first place. 

Growing up, Ludlam had been a standout baseball player, dominating leagues filled with boys her age across southwest Florida. When she turned 13, Ludlam had to make a decision: stick with baseball as her age group jumped to playing on a bigger field or flip to softball. 

Softball ultimately won out. Soon, Ludlam was starring on Manetta’s school and travel teams.

“Riley has always been mature beyond her years,” he said. “She came over to Fort Myers as a freshman and she was the starting catcher from the day she stepped on campus.”

The shift to softball marked the beginning of Ludlam’s smooth transition into the sport and the start of a journey now in its final chapter in Norman this spring. 

Ludlam capped her sophomore high school season in 2017 with a three-run home run that propelled the Green Wave to a state championship. Two more trips to the state title game over the next two years gave college coaches a chance to see the 6-foot catcher with a powerful right-handed bat. 

Initially committed to Kennesaw State out of high school, Ludlam’s college plans shifted to Furman after a coaching change and she made 26 starts as a freshman in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The following spring saw Ludlam hit .302 in 40 starts, and she earned all-conference honors the next season as a junior in 2022. 

In her fourth season with the Paladins last spring, Ludlam hit a career-best .372 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI that also ranked as career highs. All told, Ludlam made 169 starts during her time at Furman, and another 50-60 starts would have been waiting for her again this spring.

But as Ludlam contemplated where she wanted to spend her fifth college season, her top consideration was a June trip to Oklahoma City, not playing time.

“I think she knew she was good enough to go to a place where she could contribute and help out a team no matter what her place was,” Manetta said. “Getting to the world series was the ultimate goal.”

After Ludlam entered the portal, Manetta turned to the list of contacts he’s developed over his years coaching travel softball. Tennessee’s catching depth was full following the addition of OU transfer Sophia Nugent. Same for Florida with former Sooner Jocelyn Erickson bound for Gainesville.

A move to Clemson, however, made perfect sense for both sides. And as June turned to July, Ludlam appeared destined to be catching pitches from All-American Valerie Cagle this spring. 

Yet before Ludlam could put pen to paper, her phone buzzed with a call from a number with a 405 area code.

“It was a random Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m.,” Ludlam said. “I got a phone call from a phone number I didn’t recognize. Thank goodness I picked it up. I heard her speak. She was like, ‘Hello, I’m Patty Gasso.’ and it was the absolute last thing I was expecting.”

Gasso didn’t need to give Ludlam the full spiel — OU’s allure was simple. Norman had a storied program and a legendary coach looking for a backup catcher. And a season with the three-time defending champion Sooners in 2024 all but guaranteed Ludlam the WCWS trip she was looking for when she entered the transfer portal.

What surprised — and intrigued — Ludlam on the phone? The questions Gasso asked about her personal life and the way OU’s coach pitched the personal development she saw for Ludlam with the Sooners.

“Knowing she was invested in me as a player like that … even off the field, a lot of the stuff she does off the field for us is very appealing as a young woman going into the real world next year,” Ludlam said. “Her confidence in saying I want you to go all out when you get here and have no regrets about your career. Do the best you can and be the best player you can be.”

That was enough to get Ludlam to Norman, where the prospect of playing behind All-American catcher Kinzie Hansen — a starter of 167 of her last 185 games — was never a deterrent.

In fact, Ludlam is enjoying the opportunity of working with Hansen this spring.

“Every day I think I learn something from her about the game, about how to handle the type of environment that we play in, something I did not come in here being used to, hitting-wise, everything,” Ludlam said. “I have truly appreciated her stepping up and playing the role and helping me kind of (get used) to this level.”

To borrow Gasso’s phrase, Ludlam’s run with the Sooners to date has been a success story for all involved.

Ludlam has given OU an uncommonly experienced backup catcher and a seasoned bat to balance the cast of newcomers on the Sooners’ bench that includes Ella Parker and Kasidi Pickering. For Ludlam, the early week of the 2024 season have included four starts and several key at bats on a team barrelling once again to late spring championship contention.

Everything she was looking for when she left Furman? Ludlam has found it at OU.

“The portal has helped and hurt college sports, but it’s worked out for Riley,” Manetta said. “She’s one of those stories where you say the portal really is a good thing.”

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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 eli@selloutcrowd.com.

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