That was a long week. But after watching it for years on television, my first in-person and up-close experience at the Women’s College World Series can only be rated as an ‘O’. No, not for Oklahoma City, but for outstanding.
I arrived a day before the action started and headed from the airport straight to the ballpark. You want easy access a sports venue? ASA Hall of Fame Stadium has it. Located right off the highway, the facility has undergone huge renovations and seen improvements in recent years to add better facilities for the players (new locker rooms, additional practice areas) and fans (more restrooms, although, can you ever really have enough?), making it a great spot for the sport’s crowning event.
During my eight days, I saw 15 games and each time I was impressed about something new on the field. Sure, there were some ugly games that got out of hand. That happens in almost every tournament, no matter the sport. But overall, the level of play was outstanding, and better than even my high expectations.
Arizona State came away the victor, riding a blistering offense, the rocket arm of a freshman pitcher and a sterling defense. It was nearly a perfect script, with fans and media alike wondering aloud if ASU was one of the best teams to ever win a championship. Could be.
I’ll leave that discussion for others who have been around the sport the longest. Instead, I’ll just give you five things I learned in my first WCWS experience.
5. This is what college sports is about – I’m as big a college football and men’s basketball fan as there is, but those events are different. They always have been and always will be. They’ve morphed into something bigger than anyone could have imagined, almost to the point that they feel larger than college events but not quite the same as professional contests. This? There’s still a college vibe to the WCWS. There’s a feeling that the first baseman’s mom could be sitting next to you at any game and she’d gladly recite all the statistics for every player on the field. It’s still family friendly and feels as if it could be held on campus. It’s like being home for many people, which is why so many – who are often fans of teams that didn’t even make it to OKC – come year after year.
4. Chicks dig the long ball – Even 10 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the power these players displayed. Not just one player, but everyone. Each inning when Florida or Arizona State came to the plate, I started watching the flags in center field to see which way the wind was blowing, because there was a chance it was going out. Twice the single-game WCWS record was tied with four home runs by a team; once the combined team total of seven was matched. Not everyone is a 5-foot-3 slapper who only gets lucky to get one out of the infield every third game. These are athletes who are dedicated to their strength program, take nutrition seriously and work at their craft. They are the biggest and the best, and are making the game exciting.
3. Size matters – Seeing the size of some of the pitchers, many who stand above six feet tall, is shocking. Oklahoma’s Keilani Ricketts is 6-foot-2, Arizona State’s Dallas Escobedo is 6-foot-1, Alabama’s Kelsi Dunne is 6-foot, Baylor’s Whitney Canion is 5-foot-11 along with ‘Bama’s Jackie Traina while Missouri’s Chelsea Thomas and Florida’s duo of Stephanie Brombacher and Hannah Rogers are all 5-foot-10. They are powerful. They are competitors. Most of all, they’re fun to watch. The masterful battle between Canion and Thomas across 13 innings in an elimination game between rival conference teams was one for the record book. Canion threw 175 pitches, Thomas 194. Never once did either let up. Ricketts and Escobedo also each had fans on the edge of their seats for every powerful pitch. Impressive.
2. They can defend – I know it’ the Internet and I have all the space I want to be able to write, but I don’t think justice can be done in any amount of words for the tremendous defense displayed at the WCWS. I can’t recall how many times I was left just shaking my head, nearly speechless (which is a big accomplishment) by athletic ability displayed on the field. These players are more than willing to give up their bodies for an out. Diving in the outfield, running into walls and guard rails behind the plate. Every game another spectacular defensive play was added to the list. Arizona State went without an error, just the third time in the event’s 30-year history a champion has not committed a miscue in the WCWS. Freshman pitcher Dallas Escobedo appreciated it as she went 5-0 despite a 2.40 ERA that would have been higher without defensive stops by Sun Devils like Krista Donnenwirth. The effort led coach Clint Myers to say Donnenwirth was the best third baseman he’s coached—men or women—in three decades. There were plays like hers that deserved praise in every game.
1. The Pac-10 is still queen – The Big 12 Conference had half the field in Oklahoma City, but the four teams combined for just three wins, two by Baylor and one by Missouri. The Southeastern Conference is a late comer, having joined the elite level of softball in the past decade, and Florida is one of just two SEC teams to play in the championship series. But the league has yet to win a title. Why is it so hard? Because the Pac-10 is synonymous with the WCWS, having won 23 crowns in the 30 years softball has been an NCAA sport. Arizona State won its second title in four years, handing the Pac-10 Conference its 400th all-time national championship. Even though the other leagues are gaining ground, there is no let up in sight.
The opinions expressed are solely of the writer.