For the first time since before any of the current participants were born, the Women's College World Series will be without the familiar names of Arizona and UCLA. But a field that includes two finalists for player of the year, two local teams, three programs vying for a second national championship and seven of the top nine seeds is anything but short on star power.
While we're talking numbers, here are five questions for the games ahead:
Is this the most intriguing field ever?
As the Women's College World Series completes its third decade, "ever" is an increasingly difficult accolade to justify.
But this year has a chance to make the conversation.
Thursday alone is a four-act blockbuster. Alabama and California open play with a now-familiar Pac-10-SEC grudge match. Oklahoma State facing Baylor gives fans of the field's Cinderella from Stillwater an opportunity to pack Hall of Fame Stadium, and in so doing, set the bar for Bedlam rival Oklahoma when it opens the evening session against top seed Arizona State. All of which leads up to the nation's most powerful offense squaring off against perhaps its best pitcher, Chelsea Thomas, when Florida and Missouri meet in a game between teams with seven World Series appearances between them in the past four years.
Softball needs Arizona and UCLA back in Oklahoma City. Love or loathe the two dynastic programs, the week after Memorial Day is never worse for having one or both around to engender either emotion. It just doesn't need them this time.
Which team could hit its way to a championship?
The pendulum isn't likely to swing all the way back to the days of Debbie Doom throwing multiple no-hitters or striking out 20 batters, but don't expect exact replicas of last season's three-hour slugfests in Oklahoma City, either. Only three teams in the field this year ranked among the top 15 in the nation in slugging percentage entering super regionals: Florida, Alabama and Arizona State. A season ago, five World Series teams ranked among the top eight nationally in slugging. On the opposite end of the scale, Baylor, California and Oklahoma State didn't even crack the top 50 this season (Cal checked in at No. 124, last among the eight teams). All eight teams last season ranked in the top 28.
All of which makes a certain group of Gators stand out. Florida leads the nation in slugging percentage, but it only now appears to be hitting full stride, pun very much intended. Forget the early summer heat in Oklahoma City; at least six hitters in the lineup could make a pitcher sweat in a Winnipeg winter, led by SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Bruder, SEC all-time home run champ Megan Bush and proven postseason slugger Brittany Schutte. Not to mention that most teams would dearly love to have Tiffany DeFelice, an expert at prolonging at-bats, and freshman Kasey Fagan as ostensibly the seventh- and eighth-most productive hitters. Throw in at least a smattering of small ball, often sparked by leadoff standout Michelle Moultrie, and it's a great offense peaking at the right time.
Which team could pitch its way to a championship?
Pitching changes remain a novelty for championship teams. Megan Langenfeld's blister forced UCLA to use multiple pitchers in last season's championship series, but that's the only time since the best-of-three final series began in 2005 that the winning team didn't start the same pitcher in every game (and with the exception of two innings for Michigan in 2005, the first time one pitcher didn't throw every inning for the champion). If you have a pitcher like Jennie Ritter, Alicia Hollowell, Taryne Mowatt, Katie Burkhart or Danielle Lawrie, conventional wisdom says stick with her, if only because you don't have another one like her. So it goes for at least six of the eight teams this year, potentially seven depending on how much Florida uses Stephanie Brombacher (although it's worth noting both Arizona State's Hillary Bach and Missouri's Kristin Nottelmann also have World Series experience).
The exception is Alabama, which finds itself blessed not only with two immensely talented pitchers but two pitchers whose disparate styles complement one another. On her own, senior Kelsi Dunne would put the Crimson Tide near the top of the pitching list. For one thing, no pitcher in this field has more World Series experience than Dunne's 40.2 career innings. Alabama coach Pat Murphy compared her to Greg Maddux, and like the former ace, she's able to pile up strikeouts while relying on location, movement and guile. But with freshman Jackie Traina throwing 70-plus miles per hour (very "plus" on some radar guns), the Tide have the option of using both within the weekend or within the same game, as they did in the super regional finale against Stanford.
Which team could field its way to a championship?
It's not so much that the tournament's top seed wins primarily with its defense. It's just that when you put a defense like Arizona State's together with a lineup as good as the Sun Devils and a pitcher as talented as Dallas Escobedo, it seems almost unfair to everyone else, like a Powerball winner claiming the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.
The Sun Devils committed just 26 errors in 61 games en route to the World Series. Granted, Escobedo is a prolific strikeout pitcher, averaging 9.2 strikeouts per seven innings, and there are times when the defense may not be asked to do a lot, as with her 15-strikeout effort in the first game of the super regional against Texas A&M. But the freshman isn't in Monica Abbott or even Katie Burkhart territory when it comes to shielding a defense's weaknesses by way of overwhelming strikeout totals. The Sun Devils still needed to come up with nearly 800 outs behind their pitchers this season, and did it with just those handful of errors. Shortstop Katelyn Boyd may be the most dynamic offensive player in Oklahoma City, arriving with 17 home runs and 19 stolen bases in as many attempts, but she's every bit as good with the glove as she is with the bat. Put her next to third baseman Krista Donnenwirth, who some feel is a defensive player of historically great proportions at the hot corner, and you have the foundation of a team that shouldn't beat itself.
Who are the five most compelling World Series characters?
Whitney Canion, P, Baylor: Often overlooked in a debate about Big 12 pitching aces that seemed to center on Blaire Luna, Keilani Ricketts and Chelsea Thomas, the southpaw has the Bears back in the World Series for the second time ever -- where they drew Oklahoma State, the only team to beat Canion twice this season. Still overshadowed by Ricketts as a dual-threat strikeout pitcher and slugger, she could seize the spotlight for herself in Oklahoma City.
Kaylyn Castillo, C, Arizona State: The top seed has star power to burn with Boyd and Escobedo, but Castillo is the biggest 5-foot-2 cornerstone you'll ever find. A transfer from Louisville who had to earn her way onto a roster loaded with prized recruits by way of a walk-on tryout before the 2009 season, she has six RBIs in the postseason and was the team's best hitter in Pac-10 play, batting .438 with a league-best .614 on-base percentage in 21 games.
Jolene Henderson, P, California: If the Bears have their way, you're going to see more of Henderson than any other player in Oklahoma City. Expected to be part of a devastating one-two pitching punch with Valerie Arioto this season, the sophomore has instead handled 86 percent of her team's innings with the latter injured. Her stuff is great; her mental makeup and toughness might be even better. That's a familiar combination among pitchers who last through the weekend in Oklahoma City.
Nicole Hudson, 3B, Missouri: The degree to which large swaths of the country have been ravaged by weather disasters this spring is evident in a World Series field that includes both Alabama and Missouri's Hudson, a native of the Joplin area whose family was directly affected by the storm that tore through that city and destroyed a business her father owned. That alone would make her a compelling figure as a representative of her community. But she is also a player of uncommon skill, sometimes overshadowed by Thomas, but a third baseman worth the price of admission for defense who also anchors the middle of the Missouri batting order.
Keilani Ricketts, P, Oklahoma: A young superstar with uncommon size and an easygoing demeanor who seems destined to win a championship in Oklahoma City? Kevin Durant, meet Ricketts. Oklahoma's sophomore ace, and frequent cleanup hitter, was good all season but is performing at an even greater level in the postseason.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.