Road to the 2018 Women's College World Series is paved with pressing questions
It takes two wins to earn a championship in college football's playoff. It take six in the basketball tournaments. But for softball teams that spent all spring fighting for a place in the postseason?
Some team is still a minimum of 10 more wins away from lifting the trophy.
It's a long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series, but the bracket provides a map. Here's a look at some of what softball fans will encounter along the way.
Will the second time be the charm for No. 1 Oregon?
The No. 1 overall seed is a tribute to a regular season well spent -- in Oregon's case not just in the rugged Pac-12, but through one of the most challenging nonconference schedules in the country. In addition to 12 games against Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington, the Ducks played seven games against six other seeded teams.
In all, Oregon earned its place by going 14-5 against seeded opponents.
That's the good news. The bad news is that since the tournament moved to its current format in 2005, with 16 national seeds and the addition of the super regional round, the No. 1 seed won the title on just five occasions, mostly recently when Florida won its second title in 2015. The top spot isn't even a guarantee of a trip to Oklahoma City, as Florida subsequently learned in 2016 and Alabama learned in 2010 -- those favorites were eliminated by walk-off home runs from Georgia and Hawaii, respectively.
Oregon made the World Series as the No. 1 overall seed in 2014, its lone prior experience in the role, but it has yet to make it to the championship series in five World Series appearances. The Ducks are a complete team. They rank in the top 10 in ERA, fielding percentage, slugging percentage and runs per game. But after trying and coming up short with the likes of Jessica Moore and Cheridan Hawkins in recent years, their greatest strength is a pitching staff led by Megan Kleist (20-5, 0.96 ERA) and Miranda Elish (20-1, 1.01 ERA).
So it is all the more interesting that Oregon's path could include a regional matchup against unseeded Drake. The Missouri Valley champion ranks fourth in the nation in ERA, the only mid-major in the top 10. That makes Eugene one of only two regionals, along with No. 6 Florida State and Auburn, to feature two teams ranked in the top 10 in ERA.
Will Oklahoma make history?
Two-time defending champion Oklahoma wouldn't be the first team to win three consecutive NCAA championships. In fact, this year is the 30th anniversary of UCLA winning the first of three titles in a row. Those Bruins of Lisa Longaker and, eventually, Lisa Fernandez are a part of the sport's lore. But considering how much the postseason has changed -- that 1988 NCAA tournament featured 20 teams, no super regionals and no best-of-three championship series -- the Sooners are chasing something that is in its own way without precedent.
Consider that Sooners ace Paige Parker already has eight all-time wins in the Women's College World Series, which is as many as Florida State and more than Baylor, Georgia or Texas.
Those aren't minor softball programs. This isn't a minor run the Sooners are on.
The Sooners caught a break in confining their path back to the World Series to the scant few miles between campus in Norman and Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. As the No. 4 seed, the Sooners will host a regional and, should they advance, one of eight super regionals.
That home-field advantage wasn't a given despite a gaudy 50-3 record, the core intact and enhanced by freshman Jocelyn Alo, second in the nation in home runs. Twice in the past three seasons, the selection committee sent Oklahoma on the road for super regionals despite popular consensus, in the form of both major polls placing the Sooners in the top five at the time. That was the case a season ago, for instance, when after nearly losing its own regional, Oklahoma won a super regional at Auburn. The problem is the Big 12, which has too few softball-playing schools and too few opportunities to build a résumé (dooming Baylor, which went 36-16, to go unseeded this year).
But as comfortable as home should be, Oklahoma's bracket oozes intrigue. The regional includes not only Tulsa, which still has the same ace in Emily Watson as the team that had two chances to eliminate Oklahoma a season ago, but also Missouri. The SEC team, which made the NCAA tournament without qualifying for the SEC tournament, is the former home to both Paige Lowary and Parker Conrad, who found success with the Sooners.
We're not done. Oklahoma is the only seed in the tournament -- and presumably one of the only seeds ever -- that will open its regional against a team that already defeated it this season. Boston University handed the Sooners their first loss in February. That game, played at a neutral site in New Mexico, came after a week when most of the Sooners were sick with flu-like symptoms. Still, the Terriers aren't likely to be awed by a team chasing history.
What end awaits Florida's seniors?
Each Florida senior stands at least 5-foot-7. This is relevant because roller coasters have height requirements. And no group endured a ride quite like this quartet of Gators over the past three years.
Nicole DeWitt, Kayli Kvistad, Aleshia Ocasio and Janell Wheaton won a national championship as freshmen, in each case playing significant roles in the process. All four started at least once in the championship series against Michigan.
As sophomores, Florida's hopes for a third consecutive championship ended on a walk-off home run from rival Georgia that eliminated the No. 1 seed on its own field. Again, all four were on the field in that final game; Ocasio threw the final pitch.
Most recently, as juniors, they made it to the championship series -- more excruciatingly, the 17th inning and sixth hour of the opening game of that series -- before falling short. Those four came to the plate nearly 30 times combined on that long, frustrating night that spilled into morning.
The story with Florida always revolves around junior Kelly Barnhill, the reigning player of the year and likely future Olympian who is trying to avoid joining all-time greats Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman in dominating college softball without winning a championship. But at least as compelling is what happens to these seniors.
Florida's path to Oklahoma City befits its No. 2 seed. Not only have the Gators already beaten several of the teams in their path, they no-hit two of them -- possible regional opponent South Florida and potential super regional opponent Baylor. They swept No. 15 Texas A&M, the more likely super regional opponent. But at some point they will need Ocasio to team with Wheaton, the catcher, to ease Barnhill's workload. They will need the DeWitt and Kvistad to spark a lineup that led the SEC in only one major offensive category while cruising to the conference title.
They will need the seniors.
Will the Pac-12 retake Oklahoma City?
Start here: Between 1987 and 2011, 50 teams played for softball's national championship.
The Pac-12 provided 37 of those finalists.
The structure of the NCAA tournament never allowed the Pac-12 (or Pac-10) to flood the World Series with teams in the early years -- regionals were too dependent on geography. But the World Series became known to some as the unofficial Pac-12 tournament because no matter what other teams showed up in Oklahoma City, those still around at the end were invariably from the Pac-12. And while Arizona and UCLA did much of the heavy lifting early on, Arizona State, California and Washington each also won at least one national title during the first decade-plus of this century.
All of that is why it matters that a Pac-12 team hasn't played for the title since 2011. And it's why it matters that the Pac-12 owned the regular season. Either Washington or UCLA has been ranked No. 1 since the third week of the season, and Oregon beat out both for the No. 1 seed and the Pac-12 title.
Four Pac-12 players are among the 10 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year. Three of those are pitchers: UCLA's Rachel Garcia, Arizona State's G Juarez and Oregon's Kleist (UCLA slugger Aaliyah Jordan is the other). And that short list omitted Washington ace Taran Alvelo, who is 16th in the nation in ERA -- two spots behind freshman teammate Gabbie Plain. Pitching still sets the terms in college softball, and the Pac-12 restocked this season.
So while the SEC has depth, placing all 13 of its softball schools in the bracket, it is the Pac-12 that has the clearest path to controlling the postseason. If seeding holds, four of the eight super regionals should be played in Pac-12 parks: No. 1 Oregon, No. 3 UCLA (potentially in a renewal of softball's grand old rivalry against No. 14 Arizona), No. 5 Washington and No. 8 Arizona State. Until last year, that hadn't happened since 2006. Now it could happen two years in a row.
Which regionals will produce drama?
Perhaps it's a reflection of a growing stratification within the sport, or perhaps it is just the sign of the selection committee -- gasp -- doing an effective job, but upsets have been scarce in recent years.
All 16 national seeds reached the super regional round a season ago. That is still the aberration -- it hadn't ever happened. But it wasn't entirely out of line with the recent trend. The last time as many as three seeds exited in the regional round was 2013, the last of seven consecutive seasons in which at least three seeds exited.
So where might surprises lurk this season?
Lexington: Michigan was the mystery team in the bracket. The Wolverines brought a storied history, 43 wins, the Big Ten regular-season title and freshman sensation Meghan Beaubien. But all that was offset by a low RPI. It became clear the Wolverines weren't going to get a seed, but they do get the prime spot as the top unseeded team in No. 16 Kentucky's regional. Notre Dame's seemingly Sisyphean quest to win a regional is also in play in Lexington, but the headliner is any potential meeting between Beaubien, who leads the nation with 32 wins and is one of 10 finalist for player of the year, and a Kentucky lineup that ranked among the most productive in the SEC.
Seattle: Wherever the Big Ten goes, intrigue follows. At least it seems that way. Minnesota isn't the hot topic it was a season ago when it was shockingly denied a national seed, but the Gophers are among the hottest teams in the nation after winning their third consecutive Big Ten tournament and 19 of their final 20 games overall. Washington is entirely worthy of its No. 5 seed, but the Huskies struggled against the rest of the Pac-12 elite down the stretch, saw their bats go cold through parts of the conference season and appeared cautious with Alvelo's innings in May. The Huskies should win, but nothing that involves pitching to Minnesota's Kendyl Lindaman is ever going to be easy.
Tallahassee: Oklahoma remains the best bet to prevent the SEC and Pac-12 from taking joint possession of the World Series, but No. 6 Florida State is also in that mix. Except that, as already mentioned, the Seminoles will have their work cut out for them scoring runs in a regional that includes Auburn pitchers Kaylee Carlson and Makayla Martin. And that's before we get to Jacksonville State, one of the most consistent mid-major thorns in the side over a long stretch of years, and Kennesaw State, itself 24th in the nation in ERA. Expect a lot of close games.
Tempe: Upsets aren't always born of pitching, but it's the easiest thing to look for in anticipating where trouble might lurk. That leads us to Tempe, where No. 8 Arizona State will like its chances against the field because of the presence of sophomore breakout star Juarez, but also where Long Beach State has its own sophomore breakout star in Cielo Meza (22-4, 1.48 ERA). Any hope Long Beach had of hosting a regional vanished when it lost the Big West title to Fullerton, but this is a team that beat Auburn and Minnesota and lost to UCLA by a single run.