After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the Women's College World Series a year ago, this year's event might be greeted with even more fanfare to celebrate its 30th anniversary in Oklahoma City.
For one, there are no attendance restrictions at Hall of Fame Stadium, which has been expanded by nearly 5,000 seats to 13,000. For another, both No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma and No. 5 Oklahoma State are sure to add some extra home-state flair to the event.
But beyond the Sooners and Cowgirls, this year's event features a little bit of everything: two unseeded teams in Georgia and James Madison -- the latter being the first team outside the Power 5 conferences to make the WCWS since 2014. Then there is defending national champion UCLA and two-time player of the year Rachel Garcia, one of three players in the WCWS who will head back to the U.S. Olympic team when the tournament ends to prepare for Tokyo.
Plus, there is the sentimental, with Arizona hoping to add one more national title to the long, legendary career of coach Mike Candrea. The games get underway Thursday, with the championship series set to begin on Monday.
No. 1 Oklahoma (50-2)
Road to Oklahoma City: The Sooners made quick work of Washington in the super regionals to clinch their fifth straight WCWS appearance, continuing with their dominance at the plate -- the story of their remarkable season. They secured their spot in Oklahoma City with a 9-1 victory over the Huskies, their whopping 34th run-rule victory in 2021. Once again, the Sooners put on a home-run-hitting clinic, upping their season total to 146, just 12 away from the Division I record set by Hawai'i in 2010. Another deep run this weekend could put that record within reach. Through their first five games of the NCAA tournament, the Sooners have scored 63 runs, the most by any team in the tournament before the WCWS. Perhaps even better news: Pitchers Shannon Saile and Nicole May both had terrific performances when Oklahoma needed it most.
Player to watch: Jocelyn Alo. The best hitter in softball delivered once again. In the two-game Washington series, Alo went 4-for-5 with two homers, four RBIs and two walks. Alo, a finalist for national player of the year, now has 30 home runs, tying her single-season school record set as a freshman in 2018. The Big 12 Player of the Year leads the nation in home runs and slugging percentage (1.135), ranks second in RBIs (82) and is No. 4 in batting average (.487). She also holds the school record with a 40-game hitting streak, which ended in early April. This won't be the last we see of her, either. Alo plans to return next year for her "super senior" season.
Next up: vs. James Madison, Thursday, noon ET, ESPN/ESPN App
James Madison (39-2)
Road to Oklahoma City: Even though the Dukes have been on a tear all season -- including absolute domination in the CAA tournament (outscoring opponents 32-0 in 17 total innings) -- they did not receive the most favorable draw during NCAA tournament selection. But James Madison did not let that stop it. First, the Dukes went on the road to the Knoxville Regional, where No. 9 overall seed Tennessee awaited. No problem. James Madison beat the Vols in the opener 3-1, then beat Liberty to clinch a super regional spot at Missouri. No problem. James Madison ran its winning streak to 28 games in the opener before losing the next game. No problem. Behind pitcher Odicci Alexander, James Madison won the decisive third game to make its first WCWS.
Player to watch: P Odicci Alexander. Without question Alexander can do it all, as the ace on the pitching staff and a terrific hitter as well. Take what she did in the clinching 7-2 win against Missouri. Alexander (16-1) threw a complete-game four-hitter while also going 2-for-4 with an RBI. What made that effort even more satisfying is what happened the day before in a loss to Missouri. Alexander allowed six runs in her only loss of the season and made it through just 1⅔ innings. Her bounce-back performance was crucial in getting James Madison this far, in addition to everything else she has done this season.
Next up: vs. Oklahoma, Thursday, noon ET, ESPN/ESPN App
Road to Oklahoma City: The Bulldogs have been a difficult team to read this season. On the one hand, they broke Oklahoma's 41-game winning streak on April 20. But then they lost 10 of their next 11 games and entered the NCAA tournament on a seven-game losing streak. Everything came together for the Bulldogs at the right time, though, starting in the regionals, where they beat ACC tournament champion Duke to make it to the super regional in Gainesville. Against Florida, their hitting and pitching were equally stellar -- Georgia shut out the Gators in both games and posted a combined 10 runs. Mary Wilson Avant earned both wins, while Jaiden Fields went a combined 4-for-5 with two home runs in the victories. Georgia became the eighth team to not allow a run in a super regional since the format began in 2005.
Player to watch: OF Sydney Chambley. A member of the SEC All-Freshman Team, Chambley is one of three Georgia players to hit better than .300 and tally more than 40 hits. In the Athens Regional, Chambley drove in a team-high six runs -- including a grand slam to end the game in the opener against Western Kentucky. Then she drove in the game-winning run to beat Duke 10-9 and reach the super regional.
Next up: vs. Oklahoma State, Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
No. 5 Oklahoma State (47-10)
Road to Oklahoma City: Oklahoma State advanced to its ninth WCWS thanks to both its offensive power and clutch pitching. In the regional round, the Cowgirls scored a combined 29 runs. Then in the super regional against Texas, they hit six home runs, the most of any team in the super regionals this year. The Cowgirls have homered in their past 17 games. But in the decisive win over the Longhorns that clinched their spot in Oklahoma City, Carrie Eberle pitched a gem, allowing just four hits en route to her 19th complete game and seventh shutout in the 2-0 victory. This is the first time the Cowgirls have reached the WCWS twice in a row since 1993-94.
Player to watch: P Carrie Eberle. Eberle became the first Oklahoma State player to win Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors this season, helping the Cowgirls to their best-ever Big 12 winning percentage while leading the league in wins, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched. She is 25-3 with a no-hitter this season. Eberle transferred to Oklahoma State last season from Virginia Tech, where she was 2019 ACC Pitcher of the Year. After the pandemic ended the 2020 season early, she opted to come back this year.
Next up: vs. Georgia, Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
No. 11 Arizona (41-13)
Road to Oklahoma City: Arizona went 5-0 in NCAA tournament play to make it to its 24th WCWS, outscoring its opponents 45-17 in those five games. But not every game was a foregone conclusion. In the regionals against Ole Miss, Arizona overcame a 6-0 deficit with an eight-run fifth inning to advance. Then the Wildcats had to do it on the road in the super regional at Arkansas. But playing away from home did not derail them, as they outscored the Razorbacks 15-5 in two games. The biggest question now that coach Mike Candrea is going for the program's ninth national championship is whether this will be his last season coaching the Wildcats. The sport's all-time winningest coach (1,674 victories), Candrea has not yet addressed what his future might hold. His players have used the hashtag #4Coach on social media, and there's little doubt they want to try to help him get one more national title -- and his first since 2007 -- before his coaching career ends.
Player to watch: C Dejah Mulipola. A member of the U.S. national team since 2019, Mulipola leads the Wildcats with 21 home runs (tied for seventh in the country) -- her second season with at least 20. She is also batting .401 with 63 RBIs. Last year, before the pandemic shut down collegiate sports and the Arizona softball season, Mulipola was taking a redshirt to train with the U.S. Olympic team. As soon as this season ends, she will head to play with Team USA and prepare for the Olympics in Tokyo.
Next up: vs. Alabama, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
No. 3 Alabama (50-7)
Road to Oklahoma City: Alabama enjoyed the comforts of home perhaps more than most. In addition to staying home for the SEC tournament, Alabama hosted both a regional and super regional, allowing the Crimson Tide to play 11 straight home games. They won all those games -- in fact, Alabama goes into the WCWS with the longest active winning streak in Division I at 18 games, with its last loss coming to Florida on April 17. Alabama has outscored its opponents 28-4 in the NCAA tournament. In the super regional opener against Kentucky, Alabama overcame a 2-0 deficit early in the game to take a 4-2 lead. In the top of the seventh, Kentucky closed the deficit to one. With the bases loaded, Montana Fouts got the strikeout to win the game, and Alabama cruised to the win the following day to earn its 13th WCWS trip.
Player to watch: Bailey Hemphill. The SEC Player of the Year, Hemphill is the career home run leader at Alabama with 62, which ranks fifth in SEC history. She's also second in Alabama history with 235 RBIs. Hemphill has started since she arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshman, and in 2019, she made the WCWS all-tournament team and first-team All-SEC. In addition, keep an eye on Fouts, the Co-SEC Pitcher of the Year: 25-3, 22 complete games, nine shutouts, 314 strikeouts and a single-season record of games with 10 or more strikeouts (20).
Next up: vs. Arizona, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
No. 10 Florida State (44-10-1)
Road to Oklahoma City: Florida State had perhaps the most thrilling and nerve-wracking route through the super regionals on the road against LSU. The Seminoles won the first game 1-0 on a sacrifice fly and dominant pitching from Kathryn Sandercock. In the second game, the Seminoles trailed 2-0 before tying the game at 2 in the seventh inning. After falling behind in the eighth, they tied it up again in the bottom of the inning when Elizabeth Mason hit a two-out home run. Then in the ninth, pinch hitter Kiersten Landers hit the game-winning single down the third-base line to clinch the Seminoles' 11th trip to the WCWS. Unlike nearly everyone else in the WCWS, the Seminoles aren't a powerful offensive team: They've relied on their pitching. The Noles' 0.76 postseason ERA is the best among all teams headed to Oklahoma City.
Player to watch: P Kathryn Sandercock. The unquestioned leader among the Seminoles' pitchers, Sandercock made first-team All-ACC this season, going 24-2 with a 1.09 ERA to rank No. 11 in the nation. She has 105 strikeouts in 147⅓ innings, and opponents are hitting .179 against her this season. In the NCAA tournament, Sandercock pitched a one-hitter against UCF to advance the Seminoles to the super regionals. In the 1-0 win over LSU to open the super regionals, she only allowed two hits.
Next up: vs. UCLA, Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
No. 2 UCLA (46-5)
Road to Oklahoma City: UCLA enters the WCWS as the reigning national champion, but the Bruins got a bit of a scare to start the super regionals. In the opener against Virginia Tech, the Hokies scored six runs on Rachel Garcia and the Bruins had only three hits in the 7-2 loss. But UCLA regrouped in the next two games, allowing a combined three hits to advance to their record 30th WCWS appearance. Megan Faraimo helped even the series with a one-hitter in a 2-0 win, then Garcia made up for her first-game loss, pitching a two-hit shutout in a 6-0 win to send the Bruins back to Oklahoma City.
Player to watch: P/1B Rachel Garcia. The 2018 and 2019 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, Garcia has done it all for the Bruins from the moment she set foot on campus. In the clinching win over Virginia Tech, Garcia had 13 strikeouts to move her record to 17-1 on the season with an 0.95 ERA. In addition, she is hitting .351 with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs. She and teammate Bubba Nickles sat out last season to train with Team USA, and they both will compete on the Olympic softball team headed to Tokyo when the season ends.
Next up: vs. Florida State, Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App