ASU celebrates after clutching title.
AP

Arizona State put together a flawless team performance to capture the 2011 Women’s College World Series championship. But with eight seniors departing, it will be a tall task for the Sun Devils to repeat as champions in 2012.

One of the top challengers will be California, who like ASU is a member of the soon-to-be Pac-12. Cal was expected to be a conference also-ran after senior Val Arioto broke her leg on the first day of practice, but instead, the team finished tied for fifth in the country at the WCWS. Arioto was granted a medical redshirt to return next season, and Golden Bears head coach Diane Ninemire can see her program’s future is blindingly bright.

“I’m a very fortunate coach,” said Ninemire, after Cal was eliminated with a 5-2 loss to Florida on Saturday night, “because I don’t have to say goodbye to one player. All of them will be back next year with a whole bunch of new ones.”

That group of incoming recruits includes Danielle Henderson, the younger sister of pitcher Jolene Henderson, who pitched 333.1 of a possible 383.0 innings as a sophomore for the 2011 Golden Bears, despite battling a hip injury that took her out of the batting lineup. Arioto’s return will give the Golden Bears another top-notch option in the circle, as well as a power hitter, something the 2011 squad was sorely lacking.

NCAA runner-up Florida will lose five seniors, all of whom were starters. That class includes outfielder Kelsey Bruder, second baseman Aja Paculba, first baseman Megan Bush, catcher Tiffany DeFelice and pitcher Stephanie Brombacher. That group made four consecutive trips to Oklahoma City and helped to build the Gators into a national power. Those departing Gators will leave some very big cleats to fill for the 2012 squad.

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“I’m sending off my kids, my five seniors,” said Florida head coach Tim Walton on Tuesday evening. “It just means so much to me how they’ve worked to get here all four years of their career. The legacy they have left our program, the All-Americans, the Academic All-Americans, community service. Just building our program and building it the right way.”

The Big 12 was the talk of the town a week ago, comprising four of the eight WCWS teams, but at the end of the day, the group of Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State went 3-8. None of the three wins were against non-conference opponents.

Baylor and Mizzou put on the marathon show of the tournament with Whitney Canion and Baylor outlasting Chelsea Thomas and Missouri, 1-0 in 13 innings. Both of those outstanding pitchers are sophomores and will be back to help their teams return to Oklahoma City next year. Oklahoma lost one of its most critical players for all of their NCAA Tournament play, save their elimination loss to Missouri on Saturday, when sophomore catcher Jessica Shults was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and spent 10 days in the hospital, spanning both NCAA Regional and Super Regional play.

All three of the finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award, Mizzou’s Thomas, Arizona State’s Katelyn Boyd and winner Ashley Hansen of Stanford, will return in 2012. Of the Top-10 finalists for that award, only Bush, Alabama’s Kelsi Dunne and Michigan’s Jordan Taylor will not return next season.

The 2011 WCWS set a number of attendance records with six of the nine games setting new records, along with a total attendance of 67,631 and an average attendance of 7,515 fans per contest. Four of the top-10 all-time WCWS single-game attendance marks were set in 2011. Softball fans should expect another dramatic season in 2012.