The huge initial Division I softball field has been whittled down to just eight teams left, all vying for the Women's College World Series title.
Time to study up.
A year ago, head coach Patty Gasso’s Oklahoma Sooners appeared human, losing to North Dakota State in the first game of NCAA Regionals. The Sooners, however, responded with 11 consecutive wins including five straight in Oklahoma City to claim a second straight Women’s College World Series championship. All this year’s squad has done is win 55 of 58 games, not losing since April 19 at Oregon. Since the beginning of Regionals, the Sooners have outscored opponents 40-2. The last program to win three consecutive WCWS titles is UCLA (1988-90).
“They know how to do this,” said Gasso, in her 24th year in Norman. “This program has gone to heights of where the expectation is ‘We do this. We should be one of the eight final teams (at the WCWS), and if we’re not, it’s a disappointing season.’ It’s a hard place to live, but it’s a world they’ve embraced. They love the challenge.”
If you were not paying attention last weekend, you missed a wild collection of Super Regionals:
In Gainesville, in a winner-take-all third game, Florida’s Gators took a 2-1 lead into the seventh against Texas A&M, who promptly took a 3-2 lead on Tori Vidales home run. UF’s Jordan Matthews responded with a dramatic 3-run homer in the bottom of the inning and the thrill of victory and agony of defeat was on full display.
LSU and Florida State had a slugfest — and a marathon — in Tallahassee with the Tigers taking the opener 6-5. LSU tied Game 2 at 5-5 only to see a pair of Seminole homers give FSU an 8-5 win in an 11-inning, weather-delayed affair. Game 3, starting at 10:50 p.m. on the same Saturday, saw Jesse Warren homer and Kylee Hanson work her magic in the circle for a 3-1 win.
Georgia held off Tennessee in Game 1, then got a home run from Cortni Emmanuel, only the third of her career, in the eighth inning to win 2-1 and advance to OKC.
In Seattle, Washington’s Huskies tied the first game with a 2-run single in the seventh, then won it with another in the ninth. A day later, Taran Alvelo struck out eight and pitched a shutout, punching UW’s ticket to OKC.
Arizona State and UCLA, along with reigning champion Oklahoma, won twice in Supers with not as much drama but with equal excitement upon qualifying for collegiate softball’s best week.
The WCWS’s annual party has plenty of familiar guests in 2018. UCLA, a winner of 12 NCAA titles, qualified for a fourth straight and NCAA-record 28th overall. The Bruins last won WCWS gold in 2010. Reigning champion Oklahoma has been at the big dance seven of the last eight years; 2018 marks the program’s 12th appearance at the WCWS. Florida is in OKC for a ninth time and won back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015; a year ago the Gators lost to Oklahoma in the best-of-three final series. The 2011 champion Arizona State Sun Devils are back for a 12th time, while Washington (13th), Florida State (10th) and Oregon (seventh) have all been regular members of the party. Georgia is the new kid on the block, playing in the WCWS for just the fourth time.
Oklahoma freshman Jocelyn Alo is the Big 12 Conference Freshman of the Year and a finalist for NFCA National Freshman of the Year. The native of Hawaii has been Lauren Chamberlain-like all year and takes an NCAA-leading 28 home runs and a gaudy .415 batting average into the final week of the season.
With the way she swings it, do not be surprised if she adds a long ball or two to her total; all eyes will be on Alo every time she steps to the plate because certain players make you want to pay attention.
The last team to beat OU
Oregon is the last team to beat Oklahoma (back on April 19 in Eugene) and brings a 52-8 record mark to the WCWS. Considering the Ducks won a Pac 12 Conference that has four of the eight teams in this week’s field they should be the No. 1 national seed.
The old guard
The Pac 12 Conference owns 24 of the 36 championships since the WCWS’s first pitch in 1982. UCLA won six of the first 10 gatherings and easily leads the pack – and nation — with 12, the last coming in 2010. Arizona, who UCLA took out last weekend in Super Regionals, has won eight WCWS trophies, the last coming in 2008.
Arizona State won championships in 2008 and 2011; California won in 2002 and Washington earned top honors in 2009.
The rest of the country has totaled 12 WCWS titles, including six straight that ended a 6-year run for the Pac 12.
Been there, done that
Six of the eight head coaches have been at their respective jobs for at least 10 seasons, led by Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso, in her 24th year in Norman. Georgia’s Lu Harris-Champer (17), Washington’s Heather Tarr (14), Florida’s Tim Walton (13), UCLA’s Kelly Inouye (12), and Florida State’s Lonnie Alameda (10) also have at least a decade of service. Oregon’s Mike White is in his ninth year in Eugene.
The reason there are so many familiar programs in OKC again? Possibly because of the above-mentioned group of mentors.
It starts in the circle
The days of the 1-0, one-hour pitcher’s duels might be a thing of the past. A gem will be thrown in from time-to-time, but with the way these girls swing the bats now expect plenty of offense. Also, one dominant arm is not enough anymore; pitching staffs need choices. Oklahoma left-hander Paige Parker has 29 wins, an earned run average of .86, and almost 200 strikeouts in 160-plus innings. The other left-handed Paige for OU, Lowary, has 10 wins and an ERA under 1.00, plus plenty of WCWS memories from 2017.
Like the Sooners, Florida relies on Kelly Barnhill (29-1, 1.06 ERA) and her 310 strikeouts in 205.1 innings and Aleshia Ocasio (22-7, 1.35 ERA), who has tossed 155-plus innings. Oregon’s Elish (24-1, .89 ERA) and Kleist (21-6, 1.14 ERA) have combined for 449 strikeouts. Florida State depends on Kylee Hanson (28-5, 1.05 ERA) and Meghan King (22-6, 1.37 ERA). Five different pitchers have started for Georgia with three – Brittany Gray, Mary Wilson Avant, and Kylie Bass – tossing at least 99 innings. However, Gray, the senior ace, was lost for the season to injury in April. Arizona State goes to Giselle Jaurez and Breanna Macha, who have 42 wins and over 400 strikeouts between them. Jaurez, just a sophomore, may be the best of the hurlers in OKC. If a pitcher earns Most Valuable Player honors at the 2018 WCWS they will certainly have earned it.
If compiling a list of “players to watch” for the 2018 WCWS, a good place to start is Patty Gasso’s Oklahoma roster. Previously mentioned Parker and Lowary, plus rookie sensation Jocelyn Alo, lead the pack. But it would be wise to add Shay Knighten, Sydney Romero, Nicole Mendes, and Caleigh Clifton to the conversation.
Florida, a growing rival to the Sooners and who are coached by a former Sooner baseball pitcher in Tim Walton, has, of course, pitcher-supreme Kelly Barnhill, but also has the .433-hitting Amanda Lorenz. The junior also has 11 homers, 61 runs batted in, and 74 hits in 64 games.
UCLA’s Rachel Garcia, just a sophomore, does it all. She is 27-3 with a 1.02 ERA and 273 strikeouts; at the plate she hits .356 with 11 homers and 53 RBI.
Florida State senior Jesse Warren hits .386, has 19 homers, and has 66 RBI. The soon-to-be three-time All-American is possibly the best all-around player in the country.
As a member of the Louisiana roster, DJ Sanders hit an NCAA-leading 29 home runs in 2017. The move to Eugene has not included the dominant numbers of a year ago, but the transfer has 16 home runs and will look to introduce herself to the nation’s fringe softball fans this week. Please do not forget Washington’s Taran Alvelo, who is 22-4 with a 1.12 ERA, and Georgia’s Alyssa DiCarlo with her 20 homers and 66 RBI.
First pitch is Thursday. Expect a few more stars to be identified in OKC.
Last, but certainly not least in Oklahoma, is the weather this time of year. Usually a tornado or two, or five, has touched down within the state’s boundaries by mid-April. This year’s weather has been a bit strange – read: uneventful – with this week’s forecast showing high 90s with a few 100s mixed in.
Most veteran coaches admit that it wouldn’t be the WCWS without some sort of weather delay, interruption, or eminent thunderstorm heading toward ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. Here’s to a quiet, at least in regards to weather, WCWS in 2018.