The 33rd edition of the Women’s College World Series gets underway today, with two teams from the Big 12 among the eight teams hopeful of hoisting the winning trophy at the end of the national tournament’s week-long run as the best team in NCAA Division I college softball for 2014.
Oklahoma returns to the WCWS at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City as the defending national champion, having defeated Tennessee for the national crown, the Lady Sooners’ second, a year ago.
The Lady Sooners, the Big 12 champions with an overall record of 50-11 and 16-2 in the conference, will start their 2014 tourney run against SEC champion Alabama, with the identical 50-11 season record as the Sooners. Fans of women’s college softball will recall that the Crimson Tide were national champions in 2012, their last trip to the WCWS. Alabama defeated Oklahoma that year with a win in the third and deciding game in the championship series.
Joining the Sooners in Oklahoma City is Baylor, which is making its third appearance in the Women’s College World Series and second in the last four seasons. The Lady Bears finished second to Oklahoma in the conference standings this season and showed they are a team more than worthy of being in the WCWS by knocking off the No, 4-seed, the Georgia Lady Bulldogs, at their place in a two-game sweep in the Athens Super Regional.
The Lady Bears, with an overall record of 47-14 in the 2014 season, are the No. 13 seed in the NCAA Softball Championship. Baylor’s reward for upsetting Georgia to punch its World Series ticket, is a date with another SEC powerhouse in No, 5 seed Florida. The Lady Bears and the Gators will open the WCWS in Game 1.
Also in the bracket with the Lady Bears and Florida are top-seeded Oregon and No. 8 Florida State.
Oklahoma, the No, 7 seed this year, will close out the first day of action with No, 2 Alabama. The other two teams in that side of the bracket are No., 6 Louisiana Lafayette and another SEC team, No. 14 Kentucky.
Baylor’s strength lies in the pithing arm of 31-game winner Whitney Canion and the hitting of its leadoff hitter Kaitlyn Thurmann, who enters the College World Series with a team-leading batting average of .387 with eight home runs and 16 stolen bases. She is the catalyst at the top of the order that gets things going for the Lady Bears.
Outfielder Linsey Hays and catcher Clare Hosack have provided power numbers for the Baylor offense this season. Hays has a .333 average, 13 hone runs and 48 RBI. Hossack has left the yard 11 times and driven in 42 runs.
Florida is making its sixth WCWS appearance in the last seven seasons. The Lady Gators seem to be peaking at just the right time. Since the beginning of April, they’ve lost just five times, and all five losses were against ranked opponents.
“It’s a great lineup, capable of putting up a lot of runs,” said Baylor coach Glenn Moore in a press conference on Wednesday about the Florida offense. “We’ve done our best to put together the strongest schedule possible to get our kids ready for this time of the year, and I think they’ve prepared for what to expect.”
Oklahoma’s power-laden lineup had some difficulty against good pitching in the Super Regionals, and that is exactly what the Lady Sooners are going to be up against when they face Alabama’s Jacklyn Traina, who is 23-3 this year with 182 strikeouts. The defending-champion Sooners will counter with Kelsey Stevens, who is 37-8 with 266 strikeouts and has held opponents to a batting average of .204.
Speaking of offensive threats at the top of the lineup, Alabama has a weapon of its own in Haylie McCleney, who owns a sizzling .451 batting average, along with nine home runs and 34 stolen bases. On the power side, Jadyn Spencer has an average of .342 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI, and Kaila Hunt bats .323 and has 11 home runs to go with 40 runs driven in.
The Lady Sooners get their power from Shelby Pendley (.429 average, 17 home runs and 74 RBI), Lauren Chamberlain (.371 average and 12 home runs) and Brittany Williams (.361 average, 14 home runs and 53 RBI). The All-American Chamberlain is not at 100 percent, recovering from a partially torn PCL at the end of the regular season, but she was healthy enough to slug three home runs in the Sooners’ Super Regional championship over Tennessee.
Oklahoma is averaging over seven runs a game this season, second best in the nation. OU has an added defensive weapon in catcher Whitney Ellis, who has thrown out 15 of the 25 runners who have attempted to steal, for a caught-stealing rate of .600, tops in the country.
The Lady Sooners lost eight games in the first six weeks of the season, but since then, they have lost just three times, and one of those was to Tennessee last weekend.
“”We knew (early in the season) that we had work to do,” Sooners’ head coach Patty Gasso said earlier this week. “We set our minds to it that we weren’t going to fall out of the top 25, and that we were going to make a stand at the end of the season. and I think you’re seeing that right now.”
One thing that is plainly noticeable about this year’s WCWS bracket is that only one school from the West Coast in the eight-team field. That one school, Oregon State, does happen to be the top seed in the tournament, but in previous years there have been multiple teams from the west side of the country competing in the Women’s College World Series for the national championship in softball. The geographic breakdown of the 2014 teams definitely has shifted eastward.
Defending champion Oklahoma is seeking its third Women’s College World Series crown. In addition to last season, the Lady Sooners also won it all in 2000 and were runners-up to Alabama in 2012. OU is the only team from the Big 12 to win a national championship in softball.