Big 12 accounts for half of WCWS field
For the past few years, college softball has found itself a nation increasingly divided, split down the middle by the rising tide (and sometimes Tide) of the SEC and the continued championship reign of the Pac-10.
Fans of the latter grumbled about the attention given to the former despite its lack of titles, while fans of the former chafed at the disdain heaped on them by the latter despite the fans, facilities and wins accumulating in the South.
But at least for one year, it appears the middle ground may prevail.
Not rhetorically, given that it's too much fun to argue, but at least geographically.
A year after it scrapped the conference tournament formerly held annually at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, the Big 12 is returning in numbers for the Women's College World Series. A day after No. 9 Oklahoma and unseeded Oklahoma State guaranteed there will be bedlam at the World Series, No. 5 Missouri and No. 11 Baylor made sure the conference will have as many representatives in the field of eight as the Pac-10 and SEC put together.
The Big 12 and its earlier incarnation owns three of the five national championships not claimed by the Pac-10 and more than 300 NCAA tournament wins. But it had never sent four teams to the World Series. It will this season.
Even without mainstays Arizona and UCLA, No. 1 Arizona State and No. 7 California still have outstanding opportunities to give the Pac-10 its sixth championship in a row (from its fifth team during that span, should the Bears add a title to the one they won in 2002). As for the SEC's pursuit of a first title, No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Florida enter with about as much momentum (and as much pitching and hitting, respectively) as either ever has.
But after Big 12 teams eliminated Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee and Washington on the road to Oklahoma City, conference supremacy is not an either/or proposition.
Let's take a quick look at how the World Series field took shape.
Athens: No. 11 Baylor defeats No. 6 Georgia (2-1)
Pitchers bouncing back from adversity became a theme on the final day of super regionals. Exhibit A is Baylor's Whitney Canion, who was chased early in Game 2 against Georgia but used the few innings of extra rest and came back to shut down the Bulldogs in the decisive third game of the series. Equally impressive was Baylor scoring 14 runs in two wins, having scored a total of 12 in the past six games it played before super regionals (albeit all wins). Canion did her part with a pair of home runs in the wins in Athens.
Columbia: No. 5 Missouri defeats No. 12 Washington (2-0)
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine was ejected, ace Chelsea Thomas looked ever so briefly mortal and yet the Tigers are headed back to the World Series for the third year in a row after a two-game sweep. Thomas struck out 22 batters in 14 innings and suffered only a brief hiccup late in Game 2 with a six-run lead, but she had support all weekend from Nicole Hudson. The third baseman, from the tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., area, put aside those matters for a few hours and totaled a home run, double and two RBIs in the wins.
Gainesville: No. 4 Florida defeats No. 13 Oregon (2-0)
Florida became the first SEC team to qualify for four consecutive Women's College World Series, and eliminated two Pac-10 teams along the way for the first time in program history (the Gators faced a Pac-10 team in a home super regional all four seasons). Sophomore Brittany Schutte was the star of the show in easy wins against Oregon, hitting three home runs, driving in seven runs, scoring five runs and walking three times. Schutte has seven home runs in seven career games in the super regionals and World Series.
Lexington: No. 7 California defeats Kentucky (2-1)
California eared its first trip to the World Series since 2005 by beating host Kentucky in a series that featured three shutouts and back-to-back blowouts on Sunday. Roughed up in the middle game of the three, Cal ace Jolene Henderson was almost untouchable in her other starts. She allowed just four hits and two walks in 14 innings in Games 1 and 3 and now has 39 wins on the season, four more than any other pitcher in the country.
Stillwater: Oklahoma State defeats Houston (2-1)
Most expected some shade of orange to come out of this part of the bracket; few figured it would be the Cowgirls. In a meeting of upstarts who eliminated No 14 Tennessee and No. 3 Texas, respectively, in regionals, Oklahoma State beat Houston to earn its first World Series berth since 1998. Juniors led the way as Oklahoma State overcame a Game 2 loss. Julie Ward hit .500 (4-of-8) with two RBIs and pitcher Kat Espinosa was able to scatter 15 hits in 15.2 innings in part because she didn't walk a batter all weekend.
Tempe: No. 1 Arizona State defeats No. 16 Texas A&M (2-0)
Texas A&M gave the tournament's top seed all it could handle for 14 innings, but Arizona State is headed for the World Series for the fifth time in the past six seasons under coach Clint Myers. Freshman Dallas Escobedo became the third ace to get the Sun Devils to Oklahoma City during that run (joining Katie Burkhart from 2006-08 and Hillary Bach in 2009). Escobedo's battery mate, Kaylyn Castillo, was the star at the plate with four RBIs, including a walk-off single in Game 1 and a home run in Game 2.
Tucson: No 9 Oklahoma defeats No. 8 Arizona (2-0)
Oklahoma hadn't advanced to the World Series since the advent of super regionals in 2005. Arizona hadn't missed the event during that time. Both streaks came to an end, thanks in no small part to Keilani Ricketts. The Sooners' sophomore ace got the best of her counterpart, Kenzie Fowler, hitting a part of home runs off Arizona's ace and holding Fowler's teammates to two earned runs in 14 innings in the circle. Arizona's Stacie Chambers finished her career three home runs shy of UCLA star Stacey Nuveman's NCAA record.
Tuscaloosa: No. 2 Alabama defeats No. 15 Stanford (2-1)
The drama at Rhoads Stadium culminated in freshman Jackie Traina's mad dash home and folkloric relief stint, but one performance that was easy to lose in the shuffle came from Crimson Tide outfielder Jen Fenton in Game 2. In a game the Tide had to win just to get a chance at playing a finale, the outfielder had four hits in four at-bats, including a grand slam, drove in six runs and stole two bases.