OKLAHOMA CITY – Earlier this week the conversation revolved around parity in women's college softball. Coaches and players talked about the increased emphasis placed on facilities and programs outside the programs of the Pac-12.
After four days of play at the 2014 Women's College World Series, that parity may have already left the building. Might the Southeastern Conference become a dominant force similar to a Pac-12 that won 24 of the first 32 WCWS?
Two SEC teams, Alabama and Florida, open the best of three championship series Monday night. Whichever wins, the conference will be the home of the national champion for the second time in three years and the home of a finalist for four consecutive seasons."I know the SEC, to go through a 24-game schedule is very, very tough and you're prepared every weekend because if you're not you're going to get beat," Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. "But I know the Pac-12, they challenge themselves every weekend, as well … the Big 12, too.
"I just think there are so many good athletes now in the south that are staying home, playing softball at all the SEC schools. We can compete with anybody."
Florida is in the championship series for the second time in four years; the Crimson Tide won the 2012 title. Tennessee lost to Oklahoma in the 2013 final.
"I think the depth is obviously really improved," UF head coach Tim Walton said. "I said it this year: If you took the top two teams out of the SEC and the bottom two teams out and you bunched them all up in the middle, I haven't seen anybody better. I thought the way the whole league competed this year was what's showing right now.
"The athletic directors and administration, they are pouring a lot of resources into facilities and are doing a great job supporting the student-athletes. These kids are treated first class."
Alabama (54-11) has moved to the top of the softball ladder with local talent. Murphy's roster includes just one player west of Texas – Leona Lafaele of California. Six players come from Alabama, including rising star Haylie McCleney, an All-American outfielder from Morris. All-American pitcher Jackie Traina is from Naples, Fla.
Three Californians start for the Gators and one of the top left-handed pitchers, freshman Delanie Gourley, could be in line to fill the void left by Hannah Rogers, a native of Lake Wales, Fla. Walton's roster has seven from Florida, but more of a national flavor with players also from Missouri, Kansas, and Virginia.
"This is a national game, but with the success of the SEC, a lot of the top players are looking south and east," Walton said. "And those players [from the south] are starting to stay closer to home."
"The competition we face all year, I think that has a lot to do with why we are here," said Rogers, a three-time All-American who will pitch in the championship series for the second time in four years.
The championship series features a pair of teams that have been on a collision course since the opening day of the 2014 WCWS.
The Gators (54-12) hammered Baylor, 11-0, beat Oregon, 4-0, and held off a feisty Baylor squad, 6-3, on Sunday. Rogers (29-8) earned all three wins in the circle; she has allowed three runs in the past 35 innings.
Alabama beat defending champion Oklahoma 6-2, in its opener, and shutout Kentucky and Oregon by identical 2-0 scores. Traina (26-3) is 3-0 in the circle, allowing just nine hits and striking out 23 in 21 innings.
Both squads have speedy sophomores at the top of the lineup. Florida's Kelsey Stewart, a second baseman from Wichita, Kan., sets the table for the Gators, while McCleney opens things for the Tide. Both hit more than .400 and each has at least 30 stolen bases in 2014.
The long ball has also been a part of the offenses. McCleney's solo shot gave Traina all she needed on Sunday; Lafaele homered against Kentucky and Jadyn Spencer and Peyton Grantham each went deep in the win last Thursday. Bailey Castro, Kirsti Merritt, and Chelsea Herndon have each hit homers for the Gators.
Defense, an ability to move runners, play situational softball, and take advantage of opposing teams' mistakes are hallmarks of both teams. In other words, it appears the two best teams in the field from the nation's best conference will square off.
Asked who has the edge following his team's loss to Alabama on Sunday, Oregon head coach Mike White tried to answer.
"Great question, I'm not sure," said White, whose squad opened the week as the top seed. "It's going to be whoever gets most of their breaks. They're both pitching very well. Obviously Hannah Rogers has given up her first runs in I don't know how many innings, and there are no secrets between those two. They know each other pretty well.
"Defensively, Florida, I think may have a little bit of an edge; the way they play the middle infield there is pretty tight. Not to say that anybody is bad, but I'm just [saying] who's got the edge there. And offensively, possibly Florida may have a little bit of an edge there; but they're very equal. It's going to be a great series."
The two SEC rivals open the best of three at 8 p.m. ET Monday.