Women's College World Series: Can Pac-12 end Oklahoma's softball dynasty?
Eight teams travel to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series, which begins Thursday with 7 teams wrestling for a chance to knock out King Kong.
The top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners have a chance to put the finishing touches on nothing short of the best season in college softball history if they can top a loaded field that includes 8 seeded opponents, and one noticeable absence — the UCLA Bruins.
The Pac-12 is still well-represented, with 3 teams — Washington, Stanford and upstart Utah — who will be joined by the Sooners and their rival Oklahoma State Cowboys, as well as a pair of streaking SEC squads in Tennessee and Alabama.
Here are 10 burning questions entering what could either be a thrilling tournament or the continued coronation of the new apex beast…
1. Does any of this even matter?
Of all years, it really does feel like this tournament is all for show. Oklahoma is that good.
The Sooners are better-than-Georgia-at-football good. The Sooners are what the Bulldogs would be if Stetson Bennett had won the Heisman.
Oklahoma vies for its 3rd consecutive national title with the nation’s best offense, best pitching and best defense. The team is 56-1 and has won 48 straight games. This is absurd. This doesn’t happen.
Patty Gasso and her best-in-class program have lapped the competition. Against fellow WCWS teams, Oklahoma is 7-0. The Sooners beat the banished UCLA Bruins — who, despite a shockingly early exit were the 2nd best team in the country most of the year — 14-1.
This has the feeling of a fait accompli, destiny all but realized. Should Oklahoma close it out with a World Series win, it’ll cap maybe the greatest season in softball history. The Sooners could set a record for the best winning percentage in a single season, currently held by the 1992 UCLA team, which went 54-2.
2. Is this the best field in the past half-decade?
Last year, just 5 seeded teams advanced — No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 UCLA, No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Northwestern and No. 14 Florida. In 2021, James Madison and Georgia snuck into a field that also included 6 seeded squads, including top-3 Oklahoma, UCLA and Alabama.
The 2019 tourney — the last one not won by Oklahoma — had 8 seeded teams but a surprise appearance by No. 13 Oklahoma State. The 2018 edition was legendary for the Pac-12, with 4 teams advancing, including No. 1 Oregon, No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 Washington and No. 8 Arizona State. So who won it? Florida State, of course, the most recent first-time winner.
3. Can a new 1st-timer win it all?
In 4 decades of the WCWS, just 13 programs have claimed titles, while UCLA and Arizona have shared 20 of them. Both of the Pac-12’s legendary squads are gone, though big, bad Oklahoma — with its 6 titles and 5 since 2013 — still remains as the absolute juggernaut of the bracket.
Alabama, Washington and the Seminoles are each chasing their 2nd titles, which means half the remaining field has a shot at its first trophy.
Can either Tennessee, Stanford, Utah or Oklahoma State take it home?
4. Is this the Volunteers’ year?
Back in the WCWS for the first time since making 4 appearances in 6 years from 2010-’15, Karen Weekly has the Volunteers seeded 4th and zoned in on a title game appearance for the 1st time since 2013.
First, Tennessee must take out Alabama before meeting the winner of Oklahoma and Stanford, so the path ahead is not easy.
But the Volunteers are streaking, having won 8 straight, including the SEC Tournament, after dropping their regular season finale at home to South Carolina on May 7.
Much will come down to Tennessee’s terrific trio of sluggers, Kiki Malloy, Zaida Puni and McKenna Gibson. Milloy has been arguably the best hitter in the country, batting .420 with 25 home runs and 56 RBIs, along with an otherworldly .981 slugging percentage. Puni isn’t so puny either, batting .372 with 13 homers and 56 RBIs while Gibson is batting .369 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs.
The Volunteers’ trio of starters isn’t too shabby either, as Ashley Rogers (18-1, 0.75 ERA, 173 strikeouts), Payton Gottshall (16-1, 1.42 ERA, 129 strikeouts) and Karlyn Pickens (9-6, 2.84 ERA, 94 strikeouts) ranks among the best in the game.
5. The Pac-12 has 3 teams in — and UCLA isn’t one of them?
Stanford, Washington and Utah all had fine seasons, but the Bruins were the No. 2 team in the country almost all season and had lost just 4 games this year before falling to the Utes, 7-4, in the Pac-12 title game. Then UCLA was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in stunning fashion, with back-to-back losses to Grand Canyon and Liberty, which allowed San Diego State to emerge as the winners of the Westwood Regional.
That, in turn, benefitted the Utes, who banished the Aztecs despite dropping the opener to earn their first Super Regional and advance to their first WCWS in nearly 3 decades. Washington and Stanford’s roads to OKC were much less difficult — the Cardinal have cruised to this point without a tourney loss while Washington survived a scare from McNeese.
With all this Pac-12 talent still remaining, it remains a shock that UCLA isn’t.
6. Can Florida State’s speed help swipe a win?
Florida State boasts the best team speed remaining, or at least the most aggressive group on the bases.
Will a little shiftiness help the Seminoles eke out a win against better-hitting squads?
FSU ranks 11th nationally with 126 stolen bases, far more than any other WCWS team; Utah, the 2nd-feistiest, has just 98 steals.
Five Seminoles have at least a dozen steals, including Devyn Flaherty, who has 30 swipes on 31 attempts, and super-sub Amaya Ross, who has just 36 at-bats across 46 appearances yet 20 steals in 21 attempts.
7. Can Stanford’s pitching prowess help the Cardinal rule?
In a Pac-12 loaded with consistent lineups that included 3 of the top 5 team batting averages (UCLA, Utah and Arizona), kudos to Stanford for putting forth one of the top pitching staffs in college softball.
Despite the thin air out west, the Cardinal rank 4th in team ERA (1.55) and lead the country in strikeout-to-walk ratio, with a simmering 5.33 (416 Ks to 78 walks).
It helps to have arguably the best freshman pitchers in ages, NiJaree Canady, who has allowed all of 8 runs in 116 1/3 innings for a nation-leading 0.48 ERA. Astounding. Alana Vawter isn’t too shabby, either, as she sports a 1.83 ERA that ranks 47th nationally.
8. Is Montana Fouts back, or just playing?
Just 2 weeks ago, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said superstar pitcher Montana Fouts was dealing with a hyperextended knee that put her postseason availability in doubt. Fouts injured her knee in the SEC Tournament and, for a week, many wondered whether she had thrown her last pitch.
She did, in fact, miss the regional, before returning for the Super Regionals against Northwestern, where it was clear she was not at 100%.
She appeared in all 3 games against the Wildcats, allowing 9 hits and 4 runs in 10 innings, with her velocity clearly down.
But she helped Alabama stem the tide (sorry) — notching her 100th career win and she got some extended rest for her hyperextended knee. If she returns to form in OKC, Bama has a chance.
9. What are the Utes doing here?
Utah was just 27-27 a season ago under long-time head coach Amy Hogue, a proud Utes alum from 1991-’94, the last year Utah advanced to the WCWS. Hogue had the Utes close a couple of times, with Super Regional appearances in 2016 and ’17, but not like this.
This Utah squad is talented, hungry and hitting like few teams in the program’s history.
The Utes bat .330 as a team, 4th in the country and one of the top 5 marks in the school’s record books, yet Utah has just one batter in the top-50 individual rankings — infielder Aliya Belarde (.401) — which means the Utes are dangerous throughout their lineup. The Utes do have 3 players — Haley Denning, Sophie Jacquez and Abby Dayton — batting between .380 and .390, as well as a staff ace in Moriah Lopez who sports a 2.15 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 191.2 innings.
Utah certainly belongs in Oklahoma City, even if it is a surprise they’re here.
10. Who are the top players headed to OKC?
The tournament will kick off with some truly inspired individual matchups.
Game 1 features the Crimson Tide and Volunteers in a rematch of their SEC Tournament semifinal game, which Tennessee won, 7-6, en route to the title. The Volunteers also took 2-of-3 from the Tide in the regular season behind their big 6 of Malloy, Puni, Gibson, Rogers, Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens. The Vols were 2nd in the SEC with 76 home runs this season. Alabama will counter with Fouts (we think) and a lineup led by Ashley Prange and Ally Shipman.
Like the Game 1 SEC matchup in its familiarity, Game 4 pits a pair of Pac-12 rivals in Washington and Utah, who split their 4 games this season. Belarde, Denning and Jacquez will lead the Utah offense against the Huskies’ Ruby Meylan (2.19 ERA, 197 strikeouts). Washington will turn to the big bats of Bayle Klingler (.388 batting average, 12 homers) and Sami Reynolds (.365, 8 homers).