The Women's College World Series begins Thursday at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. A season after Alabama won the SEC's first national championship, two teams each from the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will compete over a week to settle the season. As Arizona State, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington prepare, what is ahead?
1. Is the best team already in Oklahoma?
The Women's College World Series first came to Oklahoma City in 1990, and, but for one year spent in Georgia, there it has remained ever since. But it wasn't until a decade after college softball's best first came to Hall of Fame Stadium that the University of Oklahoma first made the short trip north from Norman on Interstate 35 to take its place among softball's best.
Even then, local fans didn't have the highest of expectations for the local team making its first World Series appearance.
"Let's just hope they win one game, and that would be great," Sooners coach Patty Gasso recalled of the prevailing sentiment back in 2000. "I don't think anyone expected in our first trip to the World Series that we knew what we were doing. And we were up against the heavy hitters: UCLA and Arizona and Cal, and so forth. So, it was more, 'Bless their hearts. Good luck to them.' That kind of attitude."
Oklahoma won the national championship and beat Pac-12 powers California, Arizona and UCLA along the way.
Expectations will be different when the No. 1 seed welcomes the softball world this week. The result might be similar.
The most-dominant postseason run in recent memory, at least since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 2003, probably belonged to Arizona State when it outscored opponents 56-3 in 2008 and ran up a perfect 10-0 record en route to a title. Oklahoma can't match that on the run-prevention side after it allowed eight runs in its first five tournament games.
But then there is this.
Oklahoma has already scored more runs (59) in this tournament than six of the past 10 national champions scored in their entire postseason runs. And these Sooners have played 28 innings.
There is no diminishing what Keilani Ricketts can do in the circle. The senior star is expected to join Cat Osterman and Danielle Lawrie as back-to-back winners of USA Softball Player of the Year when the award is presented before play begins in Oklahoma City, and her work in the circle (31-1, 1.22 ERA) is a big reason.
She's big, she's powerful, she's experienced and she's a lefty. But it's what she and the rest of the Sooners do with their bats that sets this team apart. Ricketts hasn't been perfect in the circle this postseason, but there's little reason to linger on that when she and her teammates are run-ruling folks right and left.
This is a team that reaches base almost 47 percent of the time. Think about that.
Florida State coach Lonni Alameda saw plenty of Ricketts when the pitcher one-hit the Seminoles earlier this season, but the ace is only part of the problem in solving the riddle.
"What Shelby Pendley's done, [Lauren] Chamberlain's done for them offensively, they've got a lot of confidence," Alameda said. "That's what makes them scary, too, as a team. It used to be the Keilani show, with the crop-duster and all that good stuff. But she's got a complete team. They're a complete package. They're just a well-rounded ballclub, and she's the leader of that. You can see that she doesn't get rattled by giving up a few hits. She knows that the team is behind her, where I think in the past she's been the kid that's had to strike out people."
Seven of college softball's best teams will make their way to Oklahoma City this week. One team will be waiting for them.
2. Will one pitcher win the World Series?
History points aggressively toward an answer in the affirmative, but the times, they might be a changing.
Since the addition of the best-of-three championship series in 2005, the eight eventual national champions used one pitcher for 96.5 percent of their collective World Series innings. In only two instances did the champion not use one pitcher for every inning (and when UCLA used three pitchers in 2010, it was in large part because of blisters that plagued eventual most outstanding player Megan Langenfeld). In Oklahoma City, one ace beats two of a kind.
That rule might be tested this season.
No World Series entrant used one pitcher exclusively in the first two rounds of the tournament. Nebraska was the last to split up its innings, and all freshman Emily Lockman did in her first appearance was beat No. 3 Oregon on the road in the third game of a super regional. That's the same Lockman who shut out Oklahoma to give that team its first loss of the season.
Arizona State (Dallas Escobedo), Texas (Blaire Luna) and Florida (Hannah Rogers) are the teams that seem most unlikely to go away from an ace as a matter of strategy -- rather than necessity -- but all have viable second options.
Michigan (if Haylie Wagner is healthy after a late scratch in super regionals), Tennessee and Washington split starts between two pitchers throughout the regular season and kept doing so right through the first two rounds of the tournament. And while Ricketts started each of Oklahoma's five games en route to the World Series, senior teammate Michelle Gascoigne joined Ricketts among the final 10 players in the running for national player of the year.
No matter who starts games, this World Series could feature more calls to the bullpen among the favorites than ever before. That's the role in which Gasso cast Gascoigne once the regular season concluded.
Perhaps Ricketts, Rogers, Luna, Escobedo or someone else will turn this into yet another pitching soliloquy, but there are a lot more than eight good arms in Oklahoma City this week.
3. How important is Thursday?
You want to watch from the outset. The World Series is an eight-team, double-elimination tournament (at least up to the point of the championship series). It's all set out on the giant bracket that greets fans entering the main gate at Hall of Fame Stadium. Except that, when it comes to winning a championship, the field is effectively cut in half on the first day of competition.
Only twice in the history of the tournament did a team lose its opening game and come through the losers bracket to win the championship. And neither Texas A&M in 1983 nor UCLA in 2003 had to contend with a championship series, playing only a single championship game once getting through the rest of the bracket.
That makes Thursday's game between No. 4 Texas and No. 5 Arizona State the headliner on opening day, even if the other evening game, featuring No. 1 Oklahoma against No. 8 Michigan, will likely draw the biggest crowd in support of the local team. Both the Longhorns and Sun Devils are serious challengers to the Sooners (no national champion since 2005 has been seeded lower than No. 6, and Oklahoma and Florida are the only other teams that qualify in this field). One of them is going to be all but out of the running by the end of the day after a pitching duel between two of the best aces in the country in Escobedo and Luna -- aces who must deal with hitters like Texas' Taylor Hoagland, Arizona State's Amber Freeman and two of the nation's best offenses.
Speaking of the top seeds, No. 2 Florida and No. 7 Tennessee have the opening day's second-most-intriguing game. Florida swept the SEC regular-season and tournament titles this season, but all three games of a home series against Tennessee went to extra innings. Throw in another extra-inning game in last season's SEC tournament and a pair of one-run games in the regular season and these two teams have been separated by inches for two seasons.
4. Does Thursday's all-sleeper matinee matter to the title race?
Ask Pac-12 champion Oregon and Missouri: Those two expected contenders won't be in Oklahoma City because of No. 14 Nebraska and No. 11 Washington, respectively. And while the two double-digit seeds set to meet Thursday are definitely the long shots this week, they are both considerably more consequential than the typical Cinderella who makes it to Oklahoma City.
Nebraska is a defensive beast. Its 49 double plays are more than any other team in Oklahoma City, but that's underselling the point. No other team in the field turned even 30 double plays. Third baseman Gabby Banda, shortstop Alicia Armstrong and second baseman Hailey Decker, who have combined for more than 370 assists, might as well be Tinkers to Evers to Chance. No team in the Big Ten was tougher to steal against, a credit mostly to Taylor Edwards behind the plate. Pitchers Tatum Edwards and Emily Lockman pitch to their defense, having allowed just 16 home runs in 59 games. Given Michigan's tough draw, the Huskers might be the Big Ten's best bet.
Or maybe, given Arizona State's opener against Texas, it's Washington that is the Pac-12's best hope. No defensive slouches themselves (tied with Oklahoma for the fewest errors among WCWS teams), the Huskies look a lot like the Huskers, right down to two pitchers in Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker who both appear capable of performing on this stage. The question mark is the lineup that scored seven runs in six games this season against fellow World Series participants (a win and two losses against Arizona State and losses against Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas).
5. Who are the five most-compelling figures in Oklahoma City not named Ricketts?
Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma: There are only eight Division I softball players active this season who have more career home runs than Chamberlain. This is notable because Oklahoma's first baseman has yet to finish her sophomore season (not surprisingly, the other eight players on the list are all seniors). Chamberlain is Oklahoma's leadoff hitter, and any team would take a .463 batting average, .623 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases from the top of the order, even if all she did was hit singles. Chamberlain doesn't hit a lot of singles. It's difficult to hit singles when you swing as hard as she does.
Raven Chavanne/Lauren Gibson, Tennessee: Sorry, you just can't separate these two infielders and close friends. Gibson was the SEC player of the year, but Chavanne is the lone non-Oklahoma player among the three finalists for national player of the year. The second baseman and a Team USA regular, Gibson leads the Lady Vols with 18 home runs and an .820 slugging percentage. Chavanne, the third baseman, is perhaps the fastest player in college softball, a slapper successful on 39 of 40 stolen-base attempts but who still has the power to drive the ball over the fence.
Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State: It has been almost a decade since Keira Goerl won back-to-back national titles as UCLA's ace. No pitcher since has been the ace of more than one championship team (Arizona's Taryne Mowatt won a pair of titles but was Alicia Hollowell's understudy for the first one). A champion as a freshman and heading to her third World Series in as many seasons, Escobedo is building a serious softball legacy. But as a result of the home runs, she is prone to serve up when not otherwise dominating hitters. She is always edge-of-your-seat material.
Kaitlin Inglesby, Washington: For Washington fans, she's a two-way cornerstone, one of the most potent power hitters in the Pac-12, a pitcher who is 41-18 over the past two seasons and proof there is life after Danielle Lawrie. For neutral observers, she's an endless supply of really cool stories, whether it's the quirkiness of her background as a national-level youth racquetball player or the inspiration of her success at the highest level of college athletics as someone with a severe hearing impairment. For opponents, she's just a headache. But, hey, you can't please everyone.
Blaire Luna, Texas: Through no fault of either pitcher, she spent four seasons rarely hearing her name without also hearing Cat Osterman's name in the same breath. Now, she has a chance to gain the upper hand on one of the greatest pitchers in the history of college softball by leading the Longhorns to their first national title. Third among active pitchers in career strikeouts and the leader this season in strikeouts per seven innings, she punctuated the trip to the World Series with a no-hitter in the super regional clincher against Florida State. It was a far cry from past postseason disappointments for the team and its ace.