5 Questions Heading Into Women's College World Series
There aren't going to be many introductions needed in Oklahoma City this week.
For the first time since the 2006 softball season, chalk might as well have been ink in the NCAA tournament. While not without some drama, first in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then to even greater lengths in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the top eight seeds advanced to the Women's College World Series. Not only does that mean a sequel of sorts to the SEC tournament, with five SEC teams advancing to the World Series, the most for any conference since the Pac-12 sent the same number in 1999, it means all four World Series openers will be repeats.
While waiting for those remakes, here are five questions to ponder.
1. Whose legacy changes the most with a championship?
Samantha Findlay will always be the slugger whose home run delivered Michigan -- and an entire segment of the country east of the Mississippi River -- its first championship. Taryne Mowatt stepped out of the shadow of all the legendary players who preceded her at Arizona with one memorable, and lengthy, week in Oklahoma City. Keilani Ricketts and Danielle Lawrie cemented legacies with championships. Cat Osterman, perhaps the best pitcher who ever lived, still has to hear about not winning one because she played for a team that scored 11 runs in her 11 World Series games.
It takes a team to win the World Series, but the effect a title can have on individual legacies is everlasting. Just ask Hannah Rogers, who rewrote her place in history with scoreless inning after scoreless inning for Florida in the NCAA tournament a season ago.
And the player whose story could change the most this season may be the one who could barely get an inning in the circle for the Gators during their title run because of Rogers.
Lauren Haeger is no stranger to big moments. As a high school senior, an eternity ago in softball but just four years in reality, she hit a seventh-inning home run to give her team the lead in the state championship game. She retired the side in the bottom of the inning to clinch that title. A few months later, still before she played an official game for the Gators, she shut out Japan in the final of the ISF Junior World Championship a day after the Japanese battered American pitching and forced Team USA into the loser's bracket.
But in college, while always a good hitter for the Gators, she never seemed like the best with first Michelle Moultrie and then Kelsey Stewart around. She was always a good pitcher, but she never seemed like the ace with Rogers around. When Stewart continued to produce this season, and freshman Aleshia Ocasio pitched as well as she did against the best opponents early in the season, it seemed that might remain Haeger's lot in softball life -- to be the best player not in the conversation about the best player in the country.
Yet here we are in Oklahoma City with Haeger working on a streak of 29 scoreless innings in this season's NCAA tournament and the SEC career leader in home runs hit. She is one of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, the winner of which will be announced before the World Series. When her teammates couldn't produce a run in the regional final against Florida Atlantic, she delivered an RBI double in the top of the eighth inning, then retired the side in the bottom of the inning. Just like back in that high school title game.
And if she proves to be the driving force behind a second consecutive title, the biggest reason Florida does something only Arizona and UCLA have done to date, it would be the final entry on the resume of an all-time great.
Ally Carda, UCLA: Well, look which team is back in the World Series. That this will be Carda's Oklahoma City debut as a senior says everything about the wilderness in which the Bruins wandered since they won their most recent national title in 2010. And in truth, just getting college softball's most storied program back as both the pitching ace and key run producer goes a long way toward securing Carda's legacy. Visor pulled low over her eyes when she pitches, she exudes confidence without drama, not a bad recipe for dealing with a role that is in this sport akin to playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or shortstop for the New York Yankees. But if she, with the help of a lineup that hit 14 home runs in five NCAA tournament games, could bring the title back to Westwood and the Pac-12, it would be less a paragraph than a chapter in the history books.
Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon: Like Carda, Hawkins has an opportunity to win one for both the Pac-12 and pitching generally. But in the case of Oregon's junior, a title would not only make that school the sixth in the Pac-12 to win it all, at a time when it is one of the few in that conference that appears willing to compete financially with the SEC, it would position her to make a run at becoming the first pitcher since UCLA's Keira Goerl to be the ace of repeat winners. A finalist for player of the year, Hawkins is already the best pitcher of the moment. Dominate Oklahoma City this week and she becomes an all-time ace.
Sierra Romero, Michigan: It's not just pitchers whose legacies are shaped, as Findlay proved back in 2005. If Romero, already espnW's player of the year and still in the running to win that honor from USA Softball, hits some lasers over the fence and leads the Wolverines to a title, all as a junior, she becomes the face of the college game and potentially the face of an American entry in the 2020 Olympics, should softball return. (Much the same argument, it's worth pointing out, could be made for Alabama's Haylie McCleney.)
2. Why will defense decide the championship?
Softball has historically been the domain of the pitching ace, from the pre-NCAA days of Bertha Tickey and then Joan Joyce to the more recent exploits of Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Osterman, Angela Tincher and dozens of aces whom fans watched in person or on television in the Women's College World Series. But all dynasties eventually fall, even if only gradually, and the barbarians at the gate in this case carried better and better bats (and received better training on how to use them). Hitters now rule the land, or at least larger and larger swaths of it. Runs are scored at a record pace and pure hitters like Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain, McCleney and Romero are the sport's rock stars.
But as the struggle for the sport's soul continues between pitching and hitting, it may be fielding that determines which team holds the trophy in Oklahoma City.
Consider this: Michigan's Megan Betsa enters the World Series with 310 strikeouts this season and will be the only pitcher in Oklahoma City with as many as 300. Go back not even a decade to the all-chalk 2006 field and seven of the eight aces who made it to the World Series finished that season with at least 345 strikeouts. Five of them finished with more than 400. Osterman stuck out 630 batters, more than any two of this season's aces.
Granted, some of that is because teams spread their innings around now more than they ever have, particularly in this World Series field heavy on pitching staffs. No pitcher is going to come close to the 345 2/3 innings Monica Abbott threw in 2006. But the strikeout rate is down almost as noticeably. There were 12 pitchers from major conferences who averaged at least 10 strikeouts per seven innings in 2006. This season there were three.
All of which is important because outs in softball are like the law of conservation of mass. In the closed system of a game, there will always be 21 outs. And if fewer of them are strikeouts, more plays have to be made by the other eight people wearing gloves.
Fielding percentage is a wholly unsatisfying means of measuring defensive abilities, but it's still worth noting that Florida, as usual, leads the nation in it, with Auburn also in the top 10 (as Arizona State typically was under Clint Myers) and Alabama and Michigan in the top 20. At the other end of the spectrum, LSU (No. 124), Tennessee (No. 87) and Oregon (No. 72) have to this point been more prone to errors.
3. Which opening game can you absolutely positively not miss?
The best way to experience Thursday, assuming you aren't in the stands at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium munching an elephant ear and sipping lemonade, is to sit on the couch and soak in a quadruple-header of softball goodness. While the World Series is double elimination, history shows title hopes are all but extinguished for opening day losers, so every game matters. But if you can't budget double-digit hours for the full day of games, block off some time to watch No. 3 Michigan play No. 6 Alabama (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
Each of Thursday's games is a rematch from earlier this season, but the most time has elapsed since Michigan handily beat Alabama twice in Tuscaloosa in late February. A 4-1 loss against the Wolverines was the first loss and first significant start of freshman Alexis Osorio's college career. While there have been some more losses since, Osorio is a star in the making, if not a star already made after her marathon effort in a super regional comeback against Oklahoma. If her arm bounces back from a pitch count that crept toward 400 in three games against the Sooners, it could mean the same kind of opening salvo that Dallas Escobedo offered in 2011, when Arizona State's then-freshman beat Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts in a pitching duel en route to a national championship.
Of course, shutting down Michigan won't be easy. The current Wolverines hit four home runs in their two wins against the Crimson Tide in February, 15 percent of the total home runs allowed all season by the Tide. Michigan will be trying to win a World Series opener for just the second time since winning the national championship in 2005.
The only other instance came in 2009 at the expense of Alabama.
Florida vs. Tennessee (ESPN, noon ET): The teams didn't meet in the regular season, but the Gators couldn't solve Erin Gabriel in the conference tournament. That game, in which Gabriel continued a late-season surge by striking out 10 batters and allowing three hits, helped Tennessee secure the final top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament and a chance to host a super regional. It also handed Haeger what remains her lone loss of the season.
Auburn vs. LSU (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET): The two teams played a three-game series in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to close the regular season, which saw LSU outscore Auburn 8-4 in total but lose two of the three games. If there has been a trouble spot for an LSU team that spent most of the regular season ranked in the top three and received the No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, it's offensive consistency. While deep and talented, LSU scored three or fewer runs on 14 occasions. Among the teams seeded ahead of them, only Florida, which played the most difficult schedule in the country, had more such games.
Oregon vs. UCLA (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET): The good news for the Pac-12 is one of its teams will definitely be in the driver's seat after Thursday. The bad news is one of its teams definitely won't be. Statistically speaking, Carda had one of her best starts in the series opener when the teams met in the regular season, allowing two hits and striking out 14 batters. She also had one of her worst starts in the decisive series finale. A season earlier, she worked 13 total innings in the series against Oregon and allowed 16 hits and 10 earned runs. That said, the Bruins have collected their share of hits and runs off Hawkins, too.
4. Is Auburn Cinderella or another Goliath?
Let's just say that in a field of chalk, there is still a team that is difficult to figure out.
The only program making its World Series debut, the Tigers don't have experience. But they will have the only coach in Oklahoma City with multiple national championships -- a coach who won one of those titles with a freshman pitcher new to the biggest stage.
Auburn doesn't have a clear ace. But in May alone, its pitchers held Alabama, Missouri, South Alabama and LSU (twice) to two or fewer runs in a game.
For goodness sake, the Tigers rank 11th nationally in both slugging percentage and home runs per game but staged a five-run, two-out rally against Louisiana-Lafayette in the opening game of a super regional on the strength of seven walks and a single.
Newcomers don't fare well when it comes to winning championships. The first time Clint Myers brought Arizona State to the World Series in 2006, which was not so long after the program's most recent trip before that, the Sun Devils exited quietly after back-to-back losses. It was two years later, the third consecutive appearance for many of the key players, that they won it all. Be it Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma or Washington, most recent champions didn't just have institutional experience with the World Series, they had players who had themselves experienced the games in Oklahoma City before. It's the progression that Oregon must hope will help it stay beyond the weekend this season.
Except that Auburn has already smashed through normal measures of development. With many of the same players who missed the NCAA tournament in 2013, and certainly with few players handpicked by Myers, Auburn shouldn't have become one of the smoothest, surest-handed defensive teams and most patient offensive teams in the most competitive conference in the country.
By most measures, Auburn should struggle this week. But by most measures, it shouldn't be here yet. Yet here the Tigers are.
5. Who could become stars this week?
Kelly Christner, LF, Michigan: She opened the season with an RBI double to drive in Michigan's only run in a 2-1 loss at Florida. She batted eighth in that game. She didn't bat eighth for long. Christner hit a home run off Alabama's Osorio, something only a handful of players did this season. She went 3-for-4 against reigning USA Softball Player of the Year Lacey Waldrop. She hit a triple and reached base every time against Western Kentucky's Miranda Kramer, the national strikeout leader. She hit two home runs against Baylor. So forget Big Ten inflation. The season was one sustained showcase for an emerging star slugger, the protection for Romero much the way Shelby Pendley was for Chamberlain.
Kasey Cooper, 3B, Auburn: This team doesn't lack for candidates. It could be second baseman Emily Carosone, who was among the final 10 players in the running for USA Softball Player of the Year. It could be Haley Fagan, the youngest of three sisters to play in the SEC and an athletic power-hitting shortstop with a penchant for big plays. But when presented a year ago, during Cooper's freshman season, with the comparison to another of his former players, Auburn's coach didn't shy away from the similarities. Yes, Myers acknowledged at that time, Cooper does a lot of things like former Arizona State All-American and Team USA outfielder Kaitlin Cochran. That hasn't changed.
Rainey Gaffin, RF/P, Tennessee: She may start. She may relieve. She may hit for power. She may steal bases. She will definitely dance. A model of versatility, and one of the most vibrant personalities in Oklahoma City, Gaffin will be in the middle of things if the Vols succeed. At the plate, her on-base percentage ranks among the best in the lineup and she leads the team in stolen bases -- but still hits for some power. In the circle, she's most often the bullpen half of a terrific partnership with Erin Gabriel, Gaffin's team-best 2.19 ERA accrued mostly through 28 relief appearances. But as demonstrated in a complete-game effort in the winner-take-all super regional finale, she can go seven innings, too.
Carley Hoover, P, LSU: There is still ample room for someone purely a pitcher to take the World Series by storm. One of the stories all season for LSU has been the depth of its pitching staff, and the Tigers still have multiple viable arms that would likely see the field during any extended run in the World Series, first and foremost Allie Walljasper. But Hoover looks more and more like the ace. She pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the super regional against Arizona, allowed just four hits and snuffed out a rally when she came out of the bullpen in the finale. Through the first two rounds, both starting and in pressure relief situations, she worked 24 2/3 innings and allowed just 11 hits and one earned run.
Jenna Lilley, 3B, Oregon: One of the most comparable players in terms of run production is Florida's Kelsey Stewart. That's a good start on stardom for the Oregon freshman, one of three finalists for the award honoring the nation's best newcomer. The Ducks imported some run production this season with the arrival of transfers Hailey Decker and Geri Ann Glasco, but Lilley proved to be the most notable new face. Her first tournament has been a challenge, with just two hits in Oregon's five games thus far, but she also walked six times and was hit by a pitch in those games. Hits will come and go, but evidence that her patience hasn't wavered is reason to believe good things are ahead.