Bracket Questions: Oklahoma vulnerability, ACC-Big Ten opportunity, Louisiana potentialTop Stories
The road to the Women’s College World Series begins with a bracket. But we have questions.
With NCAA tournament regionals set to begin Friday, we have time to tackle the biggest questions about the more than 100 games that will soon reveal softball’s national champion.
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Is Oklahoma suddenly vulnerable? Or do the Sooners have the rest of the country right where they want them? A lot depends on the status of freshman pitcher Jordy Bahl, who may come to define this tournament whether she pitches a lot, a little or not at all.
Bahl didn’t pitch in either of Oklahoma’s two games in the Big 12 Tournament, with the team officially citing arm soreness as the reason for resting her. During the championship game, Patty Gasso indicated that Bahl remained in the plans for the NCAA tournament. The Sooners coach didn’t exactly reverse course on that during Sunday’s selection interview with Holly Rowe, but she sure didn’t sound like someone counting on a lot of innings from the freshman.
“We’re optimistic,” Gasso said. “We’re just going to take it day-by-day, see how we’re going along. We’re not going to press anything. First and foremost is the health of Jordy and making sure that we’re not doing anything to interrupt her career. … We’re going to wait, hear from the doctors, see how Jordy is feeling, get her working with the team. We’ll take it from there.”
Obviously, the Sooners shouldn’t rush Bahl. Teams shouldn’t rush players back from injury, period. But in Bahl’s case, in particular, there are too many special seasons left in a healthy arm to gamble on the next few weeks.
The Sooners also don’t need to rush her back. Bahl is the piece that gives this particular team the opportunity to be one of the greatest that ever took the field. Add a freshman with the poise of an Olympian and the magnetism of a cult hero to Oklahoma’s lineup and the result is historic.
But teams that aren’t among the handful of best to ever take the field win national titles regularly – almost every year, in fact. Funny how that works.
And even in a worst-case scenario, with Bahl shut down for the remainder of the season, the Sooners are still the best team in the country this season. The lineup isn’t lapping the field to quite the extent it did a season ago, but its .743 slugging percentage is more than 100 points better than any other national seed. The gap in slugging between Oklahoma and third-ranked Arizona State is greater than between the Sun Devils and 21st-ranked UCLA.
It’s the same story in on-base percentage, where the gap between the Sooners (.482) and third-ranked Arkansas (.435) is greater than between the Razorbacks and 31st-ranked Washington.
Hope Trautwein’s recent wavering control, 11 walks in 16.1 innings, is mildly worrying, but the North Texas transfer has been outstanding this season. Nicole May is no stranger to postseason innings and has a 1.11 ERA this season against slightly tougher opposition than Trautwein.
And as we learned last season, when the Sooners lost their opening game in the World Series and the championship series, this particular group of players responds well to adversity.
Few instances come to mind of an elite team losing an ace on the eve of the tournament (and again, for all we know right now, Bahl might be back in her accustomed place in the circle and render all this moot). Maybe UCLA going into the postseason without Jelly Selden in 2007? But those Bruins, who were eliminated at hone in a regional, were a far cry from these Sooners.
More vulnerable? Sure. With Bahl at less than 100 percent effectiveness or availability, the Sooners come back toward the pack. We saw that in the Big 12 final against Oklahoma State.
But the distance between Oklahoma’s offense and that chasing pack remains enormous – more than enough to keep the Sooners, with a loaded lineup and at least two quality arms, the favorites.
Will the ACC and Big Ten make the case for parity? Is there a third superpower in college softball? It felt that way for much of the season, with Clemson, Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech setting up shop in and around the top 10 for much of the campaign.
It feels that way looking at a bracket in which those four teams account for 25 percent of the national seeds and 75 percent of the first-time regional hosts (the Tigers, Blue Devils and Hokies joining UCF in that club).
But unless one or more of the new arrivals is ready to join World Series regular Florida State in making the trip to Oklahoma City, those feelings are going to fade away for another season.
The Big Ten has a tougher task ahead if it wants to make an impression. The conference matched its record with seven teams in the bracket. The problem is only Northwestern earned a seed, and even the Wildcats slipped out of the potential super-regional-hosting top eight.
With pitching ace Danielle Williams and a lineup full of situational power, Northwestern has a chance to bring the Big Ten back to Oklahoma City for the first time since Minnesota in 2019. That’s the big splash. But even that wouldn’t necessarily change impressions of the league – Northwestern and Michigan already carry reputations that set them apart from the conference.
To start hypothesizing about Big Ten growth, most of the teams below need to at least reach a regional final. And at least one of them needs to pull the upset. While Minnesota has a daunting task, it helps that four of the six are going to regionals hosted by double-digit seeds.
- Minnesota in Norman
- Nebraska in Stillwater
- Ohio State in Knoxville
- Wisconsin in Gainesville
- Illinois in Columbia
- Michigan in Orlando
Keep an eye on the Buckeyes in Knoxville, where host No. 11 Tennessee has a history of making life difficult for itself in regionals. While still at Auburn, Lexie Handley had one of her best outings a season ago against Tennessee. She also pitched extensively for the Tigers in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Is there a James Madison in the field? While we’ve talked about the ACC and Big Ten’s opportunities to make the case for depth across the nation, it’s not a conversation reserved for the Power 5.
This wasn’t a good year for teams from beyond the major conferences, as the Power 5 ate up just about every at-large NCAA bid. Programs like Boston University, BYU, Northern Iowa, UNC Greensboro, Texas State and Western Kentucky will look around at months of success and wonder just how much the deck is stacked against them in the modern NCAA.
Which is why those programs from beyond the Power 5 that do have the potential to play beyond a regional are playing for a whole lot of their peers across the country.
James Madison didn’t come out of nowhere when it made its run a season ago. The Dukes had hosted regionals in the past, even a super regional, and produced All-Americans like Megan Good and Jailyn Ford even before Odicci Alexander took control of the proceedings.
Following that model, two contenders stand out in this bracket. The first, obviously, is No. 16 UCF. It’s no fluke that the Knights are the first team from beyond the Power 5 to earn a seed since 2016. From opening night and a dramatic walk-off home run against Georgia through the remainder of a difficult non-conference schedule and challenging conference games against Wichita State’s power and USF’s pitching, UCF accumulated a resume of tangible proof of quality.
Ace Gianna Mancha and slugger Jada Cody look readymade for May star turns, and they are far from a two-woman team. The only hesitation is the route. UCF will be thrilled to play a regional at home and further convert a growing and passionate fan base. Kudos, too, to the selection committee for the seed that makes that possible. The Knights will take their chances and believe they can win anywhere. But realistically, going through Norman to get to OKC would be the stuff of legend (just ask Hawaii, the only No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in a super regional when it dispatched Alabama in 2010).
Louisiana is another program that knows its way around the postseason, even if that is more institutional knowledge than lived experience for the current Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Ragin’ Cajuns stumbled badly in their early prove-it games, run-ruled twice by Alabama and dismissed with relative ease by LSU. Maybe that discounts their subsequent success, compiled mostly against the Sun Belt (although a win against Texas and at Illinois stand out).
But this remains a team with three quality arms in Sam Landry, Kandra Lamb and Meghan Schorman. And with a freshman (Alexa Langeliers), redshirt freshman (Stormy Kotzelnick) and sophomore (Jourdyn Campbell) as its three leaders in total bases, it’s a team with a lineup that produced 78 home runs (No. 23 nationally in home runs per game) and 133 stolen bases (No. 5 in stolen bases per game).
There are no easy routes for unseeded teams, but Louisiana might see reason for optimism going to Clemson, a first-time host that might feel some pressure, and then potentially a super regional at Oklahoma State still unsure of what role Miranda Elish can play.
(Note: On May 18, the NCAA announced it released an incorrect bracket with its original WCWS schedule. The original bracket released by the NCAA eliminated the crossover portion of the WCWS bracket, creating essentially two four-team pods like the Men’s College World Series. The corrected WCWS bracket retains the crossover. The following section has been adjusted accordingly.)
Will the format changes play a role? Imagine this scenario. Virginia Tech reaches the World Series but drops its opener against Alabama. In the past, the Hokies would have needed to win twice on Saturday and twice more Sunday to make it to the championship series – and then faced at least two more games Monday and Tuesday to win a title.
How many of those innings could Keely Rochard have thrown? How many would have been effective innings?
In that same scenario this year, Virginia Tech would play single elimination games on Friday and Sunday and need to force and sweep a doubleheader on Monday.
The Hokies would then get a day off before beginning the championship series on Wednesday. How many more effective innings could Rochard throw in that scenario?
We know, Hokies fans, we know. You don’t need to ride Rochard’s arm. Not with sensational freshman Emma Lemley around. it’s just a thought experiment. Although for all the evolution in pitching, teams do still tend to start concentrating innings in Oklahoma City.
And for one more hypothetical, what if an elimination game involving the Hokies turns on a close play at first base in the fourth inning? Will Pete D’Amour have a challenge left? Will the umpires get the video review right? Will we fall asleep waiting through the delay?
It’s possible the change in schedule and format for the World Series won’t have any discernible effect on the experience, other than giving diehard softball fans slightly more time to sleep. But going through something for the first time is always an opportunity to learn – and innovate, for the best coaches.
Would you rather have Arkansas and Virginia Tech or Florida State and UCLA? Let’s say you’re in a pool and you get to pick either a combo of the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds or the Nos. 2 and 5 seeds. Which gives you the better chance of ending up with a champion – or at least a finalist opposite Oklahoma?
The last team to win a World Series in its first appearance in the NCAA version of the event was Oklahoma in 2000.
The only teams since 2000 to even reach the championship series in their first or second WCWS appearances were Florida in 2009 and Auburn in 2016. In each case, the previous WCWS appearance was the previous season with most of the same players.
No. 4 Arkansas is looking for its first trip to the World Series.
No. 3 Virginia Tech is looking for its second trip to the World Series and first since Angela Tincher more than a decade ago.
As for No. 2 Florida State and No. 5 UCLA, you know all about their history.
This isn’t to cast doubt on the Razorbacks and Hokies. It’s just interesting how intertwined experience and success have been over the past quarter of a century in Oklahoma City.
On one hand, it doesn’t seem as if it should really matter. Florida State had a rich WCWS history even before it won the title in 2018. But while some of the players on that title-winning team were also part of the Seminoles team that reached Oklahoma City in 2016, it’s not as if those individual athletes were somehow grizzled WCWS veterans with vast advantages over their peers.
And while it’s easy to understand the influence UCLA’s 2019 title might have on the handful of players who remain, what do the legends of Stacey Nuveman and Debbie Doom really do for someone when they’re trying to field a hard-hit ground ball in the seventh inning in 2022?
History and experience, especially when we’re talking about within programs as much as individual players, can seem like a convenient narrative tool. It’s just something to say.
And yet year after year, the teams that reach the final days are those with history and experience.
I’ll be honest, I’d take Arkansas and Virginia Tech in the original question. It’s hard to resist the dynamic lineup Courtney Deifel has assembled with the addition of KB Sides. It’s impossible not to respect sweeping the SEC regular season and tournament titles. It’s equally hard to resist Virginia Tech’s pitching and a lineup that looks nothing like the bunt-and-run days of Tincher’s teams.
The Razorbacks and Hokies feel due. It’s their time. Right?
Maybe. But history suggests otherwise.