It’s opening week for NCAA Division I softball, and that means it’s time for my yearly column chock full of excitement, per usual! This year, however, is a little different. I didn’t think I could get more hyped about yellow ball season, but it appears I was wrong. Add in a possible trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series and I’m like a kid in a candy store.
For those of you who might be lost already, here’s the skinny. The Women’s College World Series is the holy grail of softball. Even though there’s a pro league and the sport has been added back to the Olympics this summer (only to be stripped for the 2024 Games, but that’s another story), it is widely accepted that playing in the WCWS—aside from winning it, of course—is the pinnacle of a player’s career. Different from the MLB’s World Series that sees two teams go head-to-head in a 7-game series, World Series events put on by the NCAA for softball (and baseball) are played tournament-style with eight teams advancing from conference, regional, and super regional play.
Conference play starts this week for some schools while others are gearing up for the important part of their season with non-conference games. The WCWS is always played the last weekend of May through the week of June. The double-elimination format rids of all but two teams by Sunday night, and the 3-game championship series starts Monday and runs through Wednesday if a decisive game is necessary. Since 1990, the WCWS has been played at OGE Energy Field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, with the exception 1996 when it was moved to the Olympic fields in Columbus.
I, along with every other softball player I know, can recall watching television as the best of the best played in OKC. I’ve wanted to plan a trip to watch the WCWS in person for as long as I can remember, and I’m excited to say this year might actually be a reality! A friend and I have started making plans, and if nothing fails, I’ll be seated in right field for the entire duration of the tournament, watching as the 2020 champions stake claim to the most coveted trophy for all of softball.
Just for giggles and maybe a little recordkeeping, should I be correct, I’ve come up with early picks for contenders.
My ideal WCWS field would include Tennessee, LSU, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida State, and Georgia. I’ve long been a Lady Vols fan because of Pat Summit, the Weeklys, and Monica Abbott, and to be fair, I want to see them take that elusive win because it has been a long time coming. I want to see LSU’s Beth Torina join the company of the few women coaches who have won the WCWS, and she runs as classy a program as you’ll find. I’m a huge fan of some of the legends Heather Tarr at Washington has churned out, like Morgan Stuart and Danielle Lawrie. Oregon had a tough year last year when Melyssa Lombardi took over as head coach, so I’d like to see the underdogs make a statement this year—and they have the talent to do it. Carol Hutchins at Michigan has had a few years to rebuild, and I look forward to seeing her team come out scrappy like usual. Some might call me a bandwagoner for pulling for OU, but Patti Gasso has been a trailblazer for our sport for as long as I can remember. I’d also like to see the Sooners break a record in the sport and bring home title number 5. Florida State—one of my favorite pitchers transferred there this off season for her senior year, and I want to see her gamble and hard work pay dividends. Also, Lonnie Alameda deserves her second win after all she’s done for softball as well. I’m a new Georgia fan and I know a young lady who is on the roster this year, so I’d love to see the home state pull out a win (although the state of Georgia’s track record as a whole in big games is a little frightening, but I digress).
My actual predictions for this WCWS? UW, Bama, OU, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA, and Florida. Washington has a deep pitching staff, and Bama returns Montana Fouts in the circle, who will undoubtedly have power at the plate to back her up, thanks to the players who are returning from the Tide’s impressive offense from last year. OU is more of my dark horse pick because the feasibility of them getting it done with basically an entire new team compared to years past looks daunting, but their ace is coming back and the Sooners always find a way. Minnesota enters the 2020 season with a chip (or two or three, depending on how short- or long-term they want to their memory to be) on their shoulder from seasons past, and Amber Fiser is a workhorse in every sense of the word. Tennessee—I just can’t leave out my team. I believe in them, despite their shortcomings when it comes to pitching. Catcher Ally Shipman is back, though, so that’ll be a tremendous help. Besides, Florida just did edge us out last year, even without one of our best players. Texas—Mike White. I don’t think I need to say any more, but just for the record, Miranda Elish will be the difference maker for her coach and team this year in her final campaign. UCLA lost “Baby Goat” Rachel Garcia to the U.S. National Team, but their team is pretty much the same (AKA stacked) from last year, and they won it all last year. Tim Walton’s Gators have a good shot this year in my opinion but have been overlooked by most softball-covering media outlets, with good reason I suppose. The loss of star pitcher Kelly Barnhill will be difficult to overcome, but their huge senior class knows how to win and is hungry to right last year’s heartbreaking, disappointing showing in OKC, performing the worst Florida ever has as a program on the big stage.
The title series, I think, will be an SEC/PAC12 showdown between Bama and Washington. The Tide and the Huskies are almost tit-for-tat at the plate and defensively. If newcomer Kelley Lynch can find her footing and transfer her success from competitive Georgia high school ball to Division I, Washington will pick up its second-ever national championship. If not, the Tide will win their second title.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll pen some more columns as the season progresses. In response, say a prayer or send good vibes that our plans work out. If they do, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll have a recap column!