Big 12 is raising expectations
Oklahoma in 2000 is only league team to win title in Big 12 era
The Big 12 did not plan to have a postseason tournament in 2011.
It appears that there will be one anyway, and it will even take place at the usual site of ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. But this time, it’s called the Women’s College World Series. Four Big 12 teams, first-place Missouri (52-8, 15-2 Big 12), fourth-place Baylor (44-13, 11-7), fifth-place Oklahoma (44-17, 10-8) and seventh-place Oklahoma State (42-18, 8-10) will take to the field on Thursday.
History says it should be the Pac-10 Conference with this kind of dominance in the field. Although seven of the Pac-10’s softball-playing schools were selected to the NCAA tournament and six advanced to Super Regional play, only Arizona State and California made it all the way to Oklahoma City. Southeastern Conference representatives Alabama and Florida complete the eight-team field.
Although this is Missouri’s third consecutive WCWS appearance, it is the first time the Tigers truly anticipated coming to Oklahoma City.
“Two years ago we kind of snuck into this thing,” said Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine. “We didn’t expect to beat UCLA (in the super regional), and neither did anybody else. And last year we snuck in again. We lost our ace pitcher and thought all hope was lost, but we found a way here.
“This year we actually kind of expected to be here. We had everybody healthy, including (pitcher) Chelsea (Thomas), and had some players returning from last season who we felt could give us a good chance. I say that just to say that we feel a little more comfortable this year, and hopefully we can get the monkey off our back and win some ball games.”
While Missouri’s appearance at this year’s WCWS isn’t exactly a surprise—the Tigers were seeded fifth by the NCAA Selection Committee—the remaining Big 12 teams were not predicted to advance this far.
Oklahoma had some dreadful stretches early in the season, most notably a 1-4 weekend at the Cathedral City Classic at the end of February. But the Sooners were able to rebound enough to claim a No. 9 national seed and play the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament on campus in Norman. The Sooners responded, winning the home Regional and then taking their first Super Regional title in program history last weekend in Tucson, Ariz., to advance to the WCWS for the first time since 2004.
“It means a lot to bring the program back here,” said Oklahoma sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts. “We know that they have been waiting a while to get back here; we have been hearing about it a lot from the fans and coaches every day. It’s good to be the team to finally break the drought.”
Ricketts was also quick to express support for the other conference teams.
“It’s exciting that half of the teams here are from the Big 12,” Ricketts said. “It just makes us feel better about having to struggle through the Big 12 this year. We want the Big 12 to show up. We will be wanting them to do well.”
The 11th seed in the tournament, Baylor survived a tough Super Regional in Athens, Ga., to advance. Coach Glenn Moore credits the preparation gained from the strong conference schedule for his team’s advancement.
“I thought the Big 12 this year was very strong and it looked like it could go any direction,” Moore said. “(We) went through Georgia to get here. One of the toughest environments I have ever played in as a coach, and I am certain that (pitcher) Whitney (Canion) has ever pitched in.”
Baylor opens WCWS play against perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2011 WCWS field, Oklahoma State. The Cowgirls weathered a brutal six-game losing streak to end their regular-season schedule, but rebounded to win the Knoxville, Tenn., regional before hosting Houston during Super Regional play. This is Oklahoma State’s seventh WCWS appearance, but its first since 1998.
|California vs. Alabama||1 p.m.|
|Oklahoma State vs. Baylor||3:30 p.m.|
|Oklahoma vs. Arizona State||7 p.m.|
|Missouri vs. Florida||9:30 p.m.|
OSU coach Rich Wieligman points to an early win against Georgia and a tough Big 12 schedule for his team’s success.
“We started out the year playing a couple of tournaments, playing No. 1 Georgia in Palm Springs and coming out on top 1-0. At that time I told our team that if they stuck together we could be here. They believed that,” Wieligman said. “We went through the Big 12. We got beat up a little bit, took some knocks, but they never quit. They never stopped practicing. For them to go out every day and look at the outfield wall with the College World Series banners on it—with players like Michele Smith, Lauren Bay, Melanie Roche—and for them to put themselves on that wall is really special and exciting for them. I think they have a lot of pride in that, and they will always be able to come back and look at that.”
Despite the long history of WCWS appearances for Big 12 programs, current conference members have captured just three NCAA championships: Texas A&M in 1983 and 1987 and Oklahoma in 2000. Only OU’s title in its first WCWS appearance took place during the Big 12 Conference era. The four conference schools competing this week in Oklahoma City are aiming to change that.