Starting off with a bang
WCWS provides monumental contest on first day, Sooners vs. Tide
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 2012 Women's College World Series best of three championship series had a little bit of everything. ... wild weather, dramatic hits, gutsy pitching performances. In the end, Alabama beat Oklahoma for the program's first national title.
A year ago, it was head coach Patty Gasso's Sooners who hoisted the trophy, beating a Tennessee program that knocked out Alabama in Regional play.
So, in conversations about college softball's current top programs, the red-clad schools immediately come to mind. Of the eight participants this week, they are the only two who have reached the top of the NCAA ladder.
But instead of waiting around for a big Friday-night showdown, or a key game late in the tournament, the 2014 WCWS bracket provides a monumental contest on Thursday's first day. It's only fitting that the two heavyweights, each 50-11 this season, meet in primetime.
"Our numbers are pretty similar [this year] but when you put us on the field you have two teams that have won national championships and that understand what is at stake in the first game and two teams that are going to get after it."
Gasso has built a softball powerhouse in her 20 years in Norman. The 2013 crew was an amazing 57-4. This time around, however, there is no Keilani Ricketts, a fire-balling left-handed pitcher and hammer at the plate. That Ricketts-led 2013 club has been compared to the best in NCAA history. At times, even against NCAA tournament competition, it appeared too easy. The 2014 run has been anything but easy.
"The biggest difference is they don't have Keilani Ricketts," Murphy pointed out. "[Oklahoma] still has a heck of a good offense, great defense, the coaching staff is intact; they are always going to win. But, the biggest difference is Ms. Ricketts."
One star is back for the Big 12 powers.
On course to become the sport's most prolific home-run hitter, Lauren Chamberlain, missed a month due to injury. She was, as you might expect on her return, a big part of the Sooners' Super Regional victory versus Tennessee, hitting a pair of homers. Chamberlain, a junior from California, has 14 long balls in 2014 after combining for 58 in 2012 and 2013. With 18 more over the fence she would tie UCLA's Stacy Nuveman atop the NCAA all-time list.
"I've never seen somebody so in tune and so confident," Gasso said of Chamberlain. "I don't even know the words to describe the hitter she is because she can hit anything. Nothing rattles her; nothing makes her uncomfortable. She just thrives on pressure situations."
Since an April 18 loss to Texas, OU is 17-1. The cast of contributors is endless -- sophomore pitcher Kelsey Stevens is 37-8; junior Shelby Pendley has 74 RBI and boasts a .429 batting average this spring. Key moments have also been provided by Georgia Casey, Javen Henson, Erin Miller, and veteran Destinee Martinez.
Bama ain't so bad either.
Murphy is the only coach the Crimson Tide program has known. In 16 years of existence under the 1988 Northern Iowa graduate, Alabama has been to the WCWS nine times.
Like OU, his squad has also had a wide array of contributors. It starts with senior Jaclyn Trainor, the SEC's Pitcher of the Year. She has 103 career victories, including a 42-3 record during the Tide's run to the 2012 title. The hard-throwing veteran is 23-3 with a 2.02 earned run average entering Thursday. Sophomore Haylie McCleney is hitting .451; Kaila Hunt has 11 homers and 52 for her career; Jadyn Spencer leads the club with 47 RBI.
What a way to get it all started.
The rest of the field includes just one program -- Florida -- with a winning record in WCWS play. The Gators have been to Oklahoma City five times, including a win in three games in 2013. Tim Walton, a 1996 graduate of Oklahoma, leads the Gators (50-12) against Baylor (47-14) in the tournament's opening contest at noon ET Thursday.
Kelsey Stewart, a sophomore from Wichita, Kansas, is the table setter for UF, leading the squad in batting average (.435), hits, runs, doubles, triples, and stolen bases (34). Junior Lauren Haeger has been big at the plate -- her 20 home runs and 66 RBI are both team highs -- and in the circle -- 10-3 with a 1.69 ERA in 23 appearances. Haeger has teamed with senior Hannah Rogers (26-8) and Delanie Gourley (14-1) to give Walton three good arms. Rogers has been the workhorse, tossing 960 innings in 186 career appearance.
Baylor is making its third WCWS visit. The Bears, under 14th-year head coach Glenn Moore, were also in Oklahoma City in 2011 and 2007. Senior Whitney Canion, a lefty, is the program's all-time wins leader and brings a 31-10 mark with a 1.40 ERA into Thursday. She has struck out 296 in 239.2 innings. Second basemen Ari Hawkins has been good in her first season of college ball, hitting .370 to rank second on the squad behind junior Kaitlyn Thurman, who hits at a .387 clip.
The second game of the first day pits top-seeded Oregon against Florida State. The Seminoles (55-7) are just 6-14 in seven WCWS appearances, the last coming in 2004. Junior shortstop Maddie O'Brien leads FSU with a .431 batting average, 24 homers, and 83 RBI. Senior outfielder Courtney Senas brings 15 homers and a .349 average. Junior Lacey Waldrop has handled the circle, working 257.1 innings and compiling a 38-5 mark with a razor-thin 1.01 ERA.
Oregon has played in two previous WCWS (2012 and 1989). Head coach Mike White, in his fifth season, continues to put a quality product on the field. The Pac-12 champions have outscored five postseason opponents this month by a combined 40-6; senior third basemen Courtney Coe is among the hottest, hitting .611 in the tournament. Sophomore Cheridan Hawkins, another left-hander in the circle, is 33-4 with a 1.55 ERA. She has struck out 313 in 230 innings this spring. Junior Karissa Hovinga is 17-2 and has worked 124.1 innings.
The appetizer to the OU-Alabama slugfest features two programs not usually in the national spotlight -- Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette. For Kentucky and seventh-year head coach Rachel Lawson, 2014 marks the program's first WCWS appearance. The Wildcats, behind the arm of sophomore Kelsey Nunley, went to Los Angeles and knocked off tradition-rich UCLA in a Super Regional last week.
"This is a special event, especially for Kentucky," Lawson said, whose club is 49-17 this season. "This is a big milestone for us because it's the first time we've been able to be on this great field and in this great venue. I feel a sense of accomplishment for our school, for our university."
The Ragin' Cajuns are in OKC for the sixth time, the last visit coming in 2008. Twelfth-year coach Micheal Lotief represents the little guys this week -- the Sun Belt Conference. The eight-team field includes three from the SEC, two from the Big 12, one from the ACC, and one from the Pac-12. With Christina Hamilton (29-2, 1.53 ERA) in the circle and four players with at least 10 home runs, led by Lexie Elkins' 22, Loteif's program will get plenty of support from those looking for a Hoosiers story.
That being said, ULL is not completely under the radar. Ever since joining wife Stefni in the dugout in 2003 as a co-head coach, Loteif and the Ragin' Cajuns have won at least 40 games every season and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The 2014 campaign marks the first for Mr. Loteif without his wife on staff.
"The older you get, the longer that you are around, this generation, they renew you," Loteif said. "You understand that they are willing to dream and then go out and chase those dreams."
Softball's main event kicks off Thursday. A national champion will be crowned either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.