The field is set for the Women’s College World Series. As Arizona, Florida, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Texas and UCLA make their way to Oklahoma City, what are eight things every fan needs to know about this year’s extravaganza?
Arizona, Oregon State and Texas make it the most unlikely WCWS in the super regional era
For the first time since super regionals debuted in 2005, three unseeded teams advanced to the World Series. Previously, two unseeded teams represented the high-water mark. It is best to be cautious with sweeping narratives about what the bracket upheaval means for the future. After all, it was just four years ago that the top eight seeds reached the World Series for the third time in the super regional era. You could even argue that this bracket is still less of a shock to the system than 2010, when neither of the top two seeds reached OKC. Outliers are going to be outliers.
But with Oregon State going from seventh in the Pac-12 a year ago to one of eight in Oklahoma City this year, Arizona climbing from the precipice of missing the tournament in Caitlin Lowe’s first season to the familiar confines of Hall of Fame Stadium, and Texas going from down a game in a super regional against the two-time reigning SEC champion, parity has absolutely shaped this postseason.
It is the first WCWS without multiple SEC teams since 2007
Even that required No. 14 Florida upsetting No. 3 Virginia Tech in a super regional – the first time the Gators won a super regional on the road (because they almost always play them in Gainesville). If not for a Gators offense that averaged four runs per game in the SEC suddenly finding the light with 47 runs in five postseason wins, this would have been the first SEC-less World Series in 20 years.
In 2015, the SEC accounted for five of the eight teams in Oklahoma City, and Florida won its second consecutive national title. An SEC team played for the national championship in seven consecutive seasons between 2011-17. The conference appeared to be taking over the sport. But 2017 was also the last time an SEC team played for the title. Again, make a trend out of a small sample at your own risk. But there’s no getting around that the takeover that appeared imminent has at least stalled.
It is a chance for the Big 12 to go out with a bang
Sure, barring major developments, we still have two more seasons until Oklahoma and Texas decamp for the SEC (with BYU, Houston and UCF in the queue to join after next season). But the end is nigh. Again. In 2011, on the eve of the last round of departures from the conference, the Big 12 accounted for half of the World Series field. It remains the only conference other than the Pac-12 or SEC to do that.
It couldn’t do that this time around because it didn’t even get four teams in the field of 64. But with Texas finally putting the pieces together the past two weeks, all three teams that made the tournament are back in OKC (where they were just three weeks ago for the Big 12 tournament).
The SEC (Florida vs. Alabama in 2014) and Pac-12 (too many times to count) are the only conferences to have members square off in the championship game or best-of-three championship series. But the Sooners and Cowgirls are the highest remaining seeds in their respective halves of the bracket. The Longhorns carrying as much momentum as anyone (if Hailey Dolcini is available). And OSU and Texas are the only teams to beat Oklahoma this season.
Cue the music, Big 12 fans.
A new schedule means new strategic options
Opening day remains unchanged, which means a quadruple-header and a Thursday that rivals Thanksgiving as the best binge of the year. But even with a field that accounts for 27 of 38 national titles, there is going to be a learning curve after the opening day.
Let’s say Oklahoma State wants to pitch Kelly Maxwell as much as possible because, well, obviously. If Maxwell pitches and wins Thursday, Oklahoma State wouldn’t play again until Saturday, giving its ace a day of rest. If Maxwell then pitched Saturday, a win would mean the Cowgirls wouldn’t play their third game until Monday. That’s another full day of rest for the ace. If she improved to 3-0 on Monday? She would get another day of rest before the opening game of the final series on Wednesday.
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That’s just an example. With Miranda Elish limited solely to hitting duties because of an injury, Morgan Day has proved perfectly capable of piloting the Cowgirls against good teams. But whether it’s Maxwell or another of the aces, the format is now noticeably kinder to one big arm.
One change that isn’t happening involves bracket crossover.
Last month, the NCAA released a schedule that mirrored the Men’s College World Series, in which the World Series essentially operates as two four-team brackets entirely independent of each other until the last teams standing meet for the title. With that in place, one of Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma State or Oregon State would be guaranteed to play for the title. But after a lengthy delay, the NCAA acknowledged its error. The bracket instead continues to include a crossover path in the losers bracket. In practice, that means the loser of a potential game between Oklahoma and UCLA could still make it through to a championship rematch.
Northwestern is the throwback team in the circle
The Wildcats are back in the World Series for the first time since back-to-back appearances in 2006-07. And the Big Ten team’s pitching bears a certain resemblance to the dominant pitching philosophy of that period in college softball.
Danielle Williams pitched 23.1 of a possible 26 innings in the Tempe Super Regional. She pitched every inning in the 11-inning marathon that opened the series. She threw 121 more pitches the next day, returning for a second stint in the game when it went to extra innings. And even after Northwestern fell behind by four runs in Sunday’s finale, she kept pitching through the comeback that sent the Wildcats to Oklahoma City.
When it comes to which ace in Oklahoma City shoulders the most responsibility, or perhaps which shoulder, thighs and lower back carry the most responsibility, it’s not even close.
Defining “ace” as the pitcher who leads each team in innings this season, Williams laps the field when it comes to the percentage of innings she’s handled.
In at least two cases, the pitcher with the most innings isn’t even likely to be the most-used pitcher in the WCWS. Bahl still leads Oklahoma in innings and may be available, but even if so, logic suggests targeted usage alongside Hope Trautwein and Nicole May. And Hightower has pitched fewer tournament innings than teammates Lexie Delbray and Natalie Lugo.
This isn’t an Angela Tincher situation. The Wildcats don’t need Williams to be perfect every game and hope to win 1-0 or 2-1. As they showed again in Tempe, they have ample power. But they do need Williams in the circle.
Jocelyn Alo’s farewell may yet be Jordy Bahl’s debut
Occasionally, Oklahoma City offers all-time greats a movie-script ending.
Natasha Watley won a title in her final game in 2004. So did Keilani Ricketts in 2013 and Lauren Haeger in 2015, which was the last time the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year won a national title in her final collegiate game. More often, it ends as it did for Cat Osterman in 2006, Monica Abbott in 2007, Sierra Romero in 2016 or Rachel Garcia a season ago. Bittersweetly.
We know which way the oddsmakers expect it to go for Alo, the all-time NCAA home run leader who may be the two-time reigning Player of the Year by first pitch on Thursday. With Tiare Jennings and Grace Lyons hitting behind Alo, opponents tie themselves in a Gordian knot deciding whether to pitch to her. She broke loose in the championship series a season ago, fueling a title by going 7-for-10 with two home runs in the final three games against Florida State.
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She is the biggest star in Oklahoma City. But if Oklahoma does what is expected, Alo may pass the torch before the lights go out in Hall of Fame Stadium next week.
After not pitching in the Big 12 tournament, regional or super regional, freshman Jordy Bahl may be available, according to coach Patty Gasso. Bahl continues to throw bullpen sessions while trying to pitch without pain from an arm issue. A rusty freshman on the World Series stage might not sound all that promising, but Bahl is the most exciting freshman to come along in some time precisely because she seems made for the biggest moments. She pitches with the control and poise of an Olympic veteran and the brash energy of, well, a 21st century freshman.
Oklahoma can win without her, blessed to have options like Hope Trautwein and Nicole May. But as the sport says goodbye to one star, it will see the next if Bahl gets her chance.
Oregon State and Arizona defied the odds more than once
The Pac-12 conference tournament. That used to be the unofficial moniker of the Women’s College World Series, where the nation’s dominant conference would meet to settle regional and national bragging rights over Memorial Day. The Pac-12 is finally getting its own conference tournament next season. But for now, Oklahoma City is still Pac-12 territory.
Arizona State’s exit spoiled the conference fun ever so slightly, but the Pac-12 has at least three teams in the World Series for the fourth time in the past five tournaments.
It’s no surprise to see UCLA, but Arizona and Oregon State are even bigger surprises than their unseeded status suggests. In the COVID age, when additional eligibility allows teams to accumulate more and more experienced players, the Wildcats and Beavers are the two youngest teams in town.
Even these two teams are somewhat shaped by pandemic eligibility. Oregon State certainly wouldn’t be where it is without Mariah Mazon’s two-way talents. And Arizona benefitted greatly in the postseason from an additional season of Hanah Bowen.
But when it comes to who was responsible for producing runs? It’s not even close.
Here’s a look at the percentage of total bases and innings pitched that each WCWS team received from players who first took the field in 2018 and would have naturally exhausted their eligibility last season.
There was a World Series winner before Title IX
With the 50th anniversary now only weeks away, there will be a lot of talk in Oklahoma City about Title IX. That’s a good thing. As a country, we don’t do particularly well when it comes to learning history of any kind, let alone the history of women’s sports.
For softball fans, most of the stories and pictures this week (including Saturday and Sunday, when ABC broadcasts WCWS games for the first ever) will focus on the 40th anniversary of the Women’s College World Series. The NCAA’s World Series, that is.
Again, it’s understandable that people focus on the decades since 1982, when the NCAA first sponsored women’s championships. Attention spans are short. The full story is complicated. Any knowledge gained is good.
But for those who are willing to invest a little more time, softball’s AIAW years are an important part of the full story. Because there were Women’s College World Series before 1982.
In fact, there were Women’s College World Series before Title IX. There was even a dynasty.
In 1969, John F. Kennedy College won the first World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The school from Wahoo, Nebraska, went on to win the first three titles before finally giving up the crown to Arizona State a few weeks before Title IX was signed into law in 1972.
There is hardly any trace of John F. Kennedy College these days (I know, I looked). The school closed in 1975. Even in the dusty annals of AIAW history, its softball dynasty is little more than a whisper. An entry in a record book, an old jersey in the local museum. But those teams, along with the Michigan State teams Carol Hutchins played on and many more, are part of why the World Series exists. Like Title IX, it’s all part of why tens of thousands of fans will file into Hall of Fame Stadium and more people will watch on television than just about anything else happening in sports this week.