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Roger Moore | | June 1, 2014

Moore: Softball community excited by growing parity

lafayette-529.jpg Louisiana-Lafayette is in the WCWS for the first time since 2008.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Since the Women's College World Series opened for business in 1982, twenty-four times a program from the Pacific-12, formerly the Pac-10, has claimed the top prize.

Powerhouse UCLA leads the pack with twelve NCAA championships, while Arizona (8), Arizona State (2), California (1), and Washington (1) have also earned top honors.

The history books show a WCWS champion coming from the Pac-12 75 percent of the time. From 1988 to '97, the league reigned supreme. From 2006 to '11, again, it was the Pac-10 turned Pac-12 hoisted the trophy at the end of the week.

But there has been a slight shift in the softball universe. Alabama won the first title for an SEC team in 2012, followed by the Oklahoma Sooners a year ago. Facilities have been improved, commitments have been made to women's athletics, and quality coaches have tapped into a nation-wide group of girls who have grown up watching the WCWS.

Still, a Pac-12 school, Oregon, enters 2014 as the top seed. The Ducks are the only Pac-12 representative.

"I'm glad to be the one [from the Pac-12]," Oregon head coach Mike White said on Wednesday. "I thought UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona all had great teams this year, but that tells you about the parity of the game right now. It's great for the game.

"Rising tide lifts all boats so the better everyone gets, the better this game gets and the more media, again, just rolls."

There was a time when California girls stayed close to home. The best softball was played at institutions up and down the coast and in bordering Arizona. Now, coaches from programs across the country are tapping into that talent. At the same time, girls who traveled hours by plane, train, and automobile to Oklahoma City's Hall of Fame Stadium or who watched every pitch of every game on ESPN are now all grown up.

There are more choices –- for coaches and the top prospects.

"I think the greatest example is [Kentucky head coach] Rachel [Lawson] has her starting pitcher from Soddy‑Daisy, Tennessee, and [Louisiana-Lafayette head coach] Michael [Lotief] has his starting pitcher from Leesville, Louisiana," Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. "How does that happen? It's a credit to their coaching.

"Kids are growing up now anywhere in the country – Patty's [Gasso] is from New Mexico. There is softball all over the country. They sit at home and watch this event on ESPN every year and all the kids that watch dream of coming here and I think that's why the parity has spread."

Lawson's starting pitcher is sophomore Kelsey Nunley, a right-hander who set a school record for wins as a freshman. Lawson, a three-sport star, led Soddy Daisy High to two state titles in softball. The 2014 Wildcat season opened with a no-hitter by Nunley.

For Loteif, Christina Hamilton, a product of Rosepine High in Leesville, La., has battled back from knee surgery in 2012. A year ago, she worked just thirty-five innings in the circle. In 2014, Hamilton is 29-2 with a 1.53 ERA, working all 34.2 innings of the postseason.

Defending national champion Oklahoma has asked sophomore Kelsey Stevens to try to fill the void left by Californian Keilani Ricketts. Stewart, a product of Albuquerque, N.M., has been very good, starting 48 games and tossing 259 innings. Another New Mexico native, sophomore Shelby Pendley, has been another key cog in the Sooners' return to Oklahoma City.

All eight programs in OKC this week have rosters filled with student-athletes from all parts of the country.

Loteif's Ragin' Cajuns have 15 players from Louisiana. Senior Shelbi Redfearn, a transfer from Baylor, leads the team with a .471 batting average; she is from Stillwater, Okla., about an hour north of Hall of Fame Stadium.

The Kentucky roster includes players from South Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. Florida is also diverse with players from Florida to Kansas to Arizona. Likewise for Florida State, whose Courtney Senas hails from Hawaii and Lacey Waldrop, is a native of Virginia.

Oregon and Texas have kept a localized recruiting base with White digging mainly into California and Baylor boss Glenn Moore sticking with Texas girls.

"No disrespect to the Pac-12, you realize what quality of softball is being played in that conference," Loteif said on Wednesday. "I think it's more the focus of what's going on around the rest of the country, and I think because of the exposure, first of all, the exposure that this sport gets has allowed the sport to grow across the country. Then you watch as coaches take over programs that may not have the tradition and they go in there and they build it day by day, by day, by day, and you see the same opportunities that are being afforded female athletes on the West Coast being afforded athletes across the country."

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