The 2019 Women's College World Series starts Thursday, as eight teams remain in contention for a national title. Here are the stories worth watching.
The 9 best storylines in the Women's College World series
Top of the list?
Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso has led some pretty salty squads since her arrival in 1995. Is this year’s version her best?
Wisconsin’s 2-1 victory in the Regional round broke a 41-game winning streak, but the Sooners rallied a game later to take out Wisconsin and move to the Super Regionals, where Arizona State transfer Giselle Jaurez (27-1) outdueled Northwestern’s talented freshman Danielle Williams in Game 1. Five homers in an 8-0 rout in Game 2 sent the Sooners (54-3) to Oklahoma City for a 13th time and in search of a third championship in four years.
Senior third baseman Sydney Romero, in Norman for two decades it seems, is one of three finalists for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award, and freshman shortstop Grace Lyons is off to a Lauren Chamberlain-type start to her career, not unlike Jocelyn Alo, who hit 30 home runs as a freshman in 2018. Add seniors Caleigh Clifton and Shay Knighten and you have an offensive and defensive powerhouse proven by the school-record 108 home runs, a team batting average over .350, and a razor-thin team earned run average below 1.20.
The 2000 WCWS champions went 66-8, with the 2017 championship team going 61-9. The 2013 team, behind Keilani Ricketts and Chamberlain, won 57 of 61 games and went 5-0 at the WCWS. The Sooners will no doubt be the favorites in OKC.
“There are times I wonder, ‘Why aren’t we celebrating harder? Why aren’t we dog-piling?’” Gasso said. “It’s this commitment to excellence they have, the expectations.”
Just an hour away
The Sooners have been a regular participant at the WCWS. Oklahoma State, about 90 miles north of Norman — and barely an hour from Hall of Fame Stadium in OKC — has not. But the 13th-seeded Cowgirls took out reigning NCAA king Florida State in a Super Regional in Tallahassee over the weekend and will make its first appearance in Oklahoma City since 2011 and for just the eighth time in school history.
Head coach Kenny Gajewski has taken OSU to the postseason all four years since his arrival in Stillwater, and this season marked the first time since 1998 that a Regional was held on the campus in Stillwater. Michaela Richbourg’s 2-run homer in the top of the ninth off FSU lefty Meghan King gave OSU (43-15) the win in Game 1, and after FSU rallied to force a third game, it was bad defense and the pitching of Samantha Show and Logan Simunek that punched the Cowgirls’ ticket.
There will be no repeat champ in 2019, a trend of late with Florida winning in 2014 and 2015 and Oklahoma in 2016 and 2017. The Seminoles (54-8) are the first defending champ since Florida (2016) to fail to qualify for the WCWS.
Welcome to the show
The Minnesota Golden Gophers hosted a Super Regional for the first time in 2019. And after two wins over LSU, the Big Ten program earned a spot among the final eight in OKC for the first time. Right-handed workhorse Amber Fiser has thrown every postseason pitch for Minnesota, 559 in total, and takes a 31-7 mark to the WCWS.
After a 147-pitch grinder in Game 1, Fiser came back a day later to toss a 3-hit shutout. Second-year head coach Jamie Trachsel entered this season with a lot of unknowns, including trying to replace talented catcher Kendyl Lindaman, who transferred to Florida after earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors in 2018.
“So many people said you can’t do it. We didn’t have this, we lost this, we lost that,” said Trachsel after Saturday’s win. “Who are these kids? They don’t have the experience. We came together instead of pulling apart. I think when you keep overachieving, you just keep winning and proving people wrong, it’s a great compliment.”
Been a long time
Arizona was once a staple in Oklahoma City, winning eight WCWS championships under head coach Mike Candrea, the first in 1991 and the last in 2007. With two wins over Mississippi in the Super Regional over the weekend, the Wildcats (46-12) return to OKC for the first time since 2010 and 23rd time overall.
“We’re playing well as a team and I know what it takes in Oklahoma City,” UA head coach Mike Candrea said. “It’s a grind, every pitch, every at-bat. You can’t get ahead of yourself and you can’t worry about what happened. And then you have to have the ball bounce the right way.”
Candrea’s 2019 squad likes to hit home runs, with juniors Jesse Harper (28) and Dejah Mulipola (22) combining for 50 of the team’s 106. Only UCLA, with 11, has more national championships in softball.
Just plain good
Washington, WCWS champs in 2009, advanced to the best-of-three championship series in 2018, when it fell to Florida State. A sweep of Kentucky in the Super Regionals has the Huskies (50-7) back in OKC for a third straight year. Leading the pack is hurler Gabbie Plain, who has not allowed a run over the last 31.2 innings, besting a streak of 29 straight in March. The sophomore from Australia is 23-2, owns a 1.14 ERA, and has struck out 229 in 172.2 innings this season. Senior Taran Alvelo is not bad either, sporting a 25-4 mark with 268 strikeouts in 185 innings, giving head coach Heather Tarr a potent 1-2 punch in the circle. It also helps having Sis Bates in the field, perhaps the best shortstop in the country.
Tornadoes and long balls
Oklahoma has seen a record-setting number of tornadoes in May. Hopefully Mother Nature is fatigued and takes a few weeks off. College softball has also seen a large number of home runs. Hopefully, with all due respect to those in the circle, the long balls will continue in OKC.
Oklahoma sent a message in Game 2 of a Super Regional sweep of Northwestern, busting five homers to move their total to 108 for 2019. Four OU players — Romero, Clifton, Alo and Green — have at least 15 homers. Here are some more notes on the long ball:
- Alabama’s Bailey Hemphill moved her total to 26 with a blast in the decisive Super Regional win against Texas.
- Oklahoma State’s Samantha Show, a transfer from Texas A&M, set a school record this season with 18 for the Cowgirls.
- Arizona has 106 homers with four — Harper, Mulipola, Alyssa Palomino, and Malia Martinez — having at least 14.
- Washington’s Morganne Flores has 22 homers in 2019.
- Minnesota’s Hope Brandner (19) and freshman Natalie DenHartog (17) lead a Gopher team with 72 this season.
Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo, who smashed 30 homers in 2018, was named the Schutt Sports/NFCA National Freshman of the Year. Her teammate, Grace Green, is in the running for the award in 2019. The Sooners first baseman has just three errors in the field, hit her 16th homer of 2019 in Saturday’s Super Regional-clinching win, and ranks among the Sooners’ best in batting average at .395. OU opens against Alabama on Thursday, meaning Green and the Sooners should square off with the Tide’s outstanding rookie hurler Montana Fouts, who is 18-5 with a 1.28 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 153.2 innings in the circle.
UCLA’s Rachel Garcia was the nation’s top rookie in 2017. She has a pair of teammates worthy of mention in regards to top rookies in 2019. “Hit-it-and-run” Kelli Godin leads the Bruins with a .446 batting average and 23 stolen bases, while pitcher Megan Faraimo is 16-4 with a 1.42 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 113 innings.
"I feel like every year we just get one step closer ..."— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) May 26, 2019
Is this the season @UCLASoftball goes all the way? #Pac12SB Player/Pitcher of the year @raaaccchhheeell talks #WCWS with @katetscott 📽️ https://t.co/cFnonG7orJ pic.twitter.com/UMgMWgpXnQ
Minnesota’s Natalie DenHartog has had a fine season, hitting .374 with 17 homers and a team-leading 63 RBI.
Pac-12 back in business
The Pac-12 once dominated the WCWS, winning 25 championships from 1982 to 2011. However, no Pac-12 team has hoisted the trophy since 2011 when Arizona State ended a six-year drought for the league. UCLA, Arizona, and Washington, all in this season’s field, have a combined 66 appearances.
UCLA’s 11 championships and 29 appearances rank first since the WCWS’s inception in 1982. Arizona owns eight WCWS titles in 23 appearances, with Washington, the 2009 champion, at 14.
The SEC won three of four from 2012-15, with Florida going back-to-back in 2014 and ’15. Alabama, champs in ’12, and Florida, who won a decisive third game against rival Tennessee in the Super Regionals on Sunday, return to OKC.
The Big 12, thanks to Oklahoma’s title runs in 2013, 2016 and 2017, has shared five of the last six with the SEC. Bedlam rival Oklahoma State gives the league two representatives. Michigan’s 2005 championship is the last for the Big Ten. Minnesota makes its first WCWS appearance in 2019.
Barnhill, Gators back in OKC
SEC rivals Florida and Tennessee played the only Sunday game in the Super Regional session over the weekend. Less than 24 hours after dropping a 9-inning Game 2 to the Volunteers, the Gators (49-16) got a walk-off hit by Jamie Hoover in the bottom of the eighth to win 2-1 and advance to OKC for the 10th time in 12 years.
Senior right-hander Kelly Barnhill (34-12) showed again why she is one of the best in the circle, tossing 23.1 innings (383 pitches) and striking out 19 against Tennessee. Her 2019 totals show 279.1 innings pitched with 349 strikeouts and a 1.45 ERA. As a junior she was 29-3 with a 1.08 ERA; as a sophomore there was 359 strikeouts and 24 wins; her freshman campaign saw a 15-1 mark with 167 strikeouts in 108.1 innings. The Georgia native was part of a memorable 2017 championship series with Oklahoma and another WCWS run in 2018. Florida did not advance to OKC in 2016, a year after winning the second of back-to-back titles.
“We set a standard at Florida, and I’m the first one who will tell you I haven’t been happy all the time with the way we’ve played all season,” UF head coach Tim Walton said entering last weekend. “I think this team finally found its identity. They’re comfortable. They’re not chasing shadows anymore. We get in this brand-new facility, there’s some shadows in the facility. You walk down the hallway and there are some great players.”