Eight Things to Know About the 2023 WCWSTop Stories
The field is set for the Women’s College World Series. As Alabama, Florida State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Tennessee, Utah and Washington make their way to Oklahoma City, what are eight things every fan needs to know about this year’s extravaganza?
Thursday WCWS Schedule
- No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Alabama, ESPN, 12 p.m. ET
- No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Stanford, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET
- No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 6 Oklahoma State, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET
- No. 7 Washington vs. No. 15 Utah, ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET
Oklahoma is playing for history … again
Arizona didn’t make the NCAA bracket this season, but Oklahoma still squared off against Leah O’Brien, Leah Braatz, Nancy Evans and Mike Candrea’s back-to-back champions of 1996-97.
These Sooners got the best of those Wildcats with their final win of the super regional, setting a new Division I record with their 48th consecutive win and relegating Arizona to second place.
Supposed to challenge the Sooners, this season’s UCLA team exited in stunning fashion after just two games in its own regional. But as Patty Gasso’s team returns to Hall of Fame Stadium this week, the Sooners still find the Bruins standing in the way of fulfilling their destiny.
At 57-1, the Sooners are chasing the 1992 Bruins of Lisa Fernandez, Jen Brundage and Kelly Inouye-Perez (in her catching gear). That team went 54-2, establishing the Division I single-season record with a .964 winning percentage. If Oklahoma goes 5-0 or even 5-1 en route to a title this year, it will claim that record, too (last year’s team is third at .952).
Not that we can forget the Bruins of 1988-90, the only other team in the NCAA era to win three consecutive World Series. The two-time defending champion, Oklahoma wants that mark, too.
And again, only Arizona and UCLA in the previous century ever won five out of seven championships in any stretch. Guess who can match that in the 21st century?
What we’re about to watch is not a foregone conclusion. Baylor beat Oklahoma. Liberty and Clemson pushed the Sooners to extra innings. And a Sooners team not all that much less accomplished than this bunch played essentially the entire 2021 World Series on the brink of elimination, losing the opener to James Madison and the championship opener to Florida State.
Led by Ashley Rogers, Tennessee has a pitching staff on par with the Sooners and has rolled through the tournament. Much of the Florida State team has been here before and gone to the wire with the Sooners—including ace and master-of-roles Kat Sandercock. And no one here knows Oklahoma better than Oklahoma State, which beat Oklahoma in last year’s Big 12 title game.
Stranger things have happened. Somewhere. Probably. Don’t quote me on that.
The problem isn’t beating Oklahoma once, even if nobody has managed that in the last 48 games. It’s beating the Sooners twice in the span of a week. With three aces in Jordy Bahl, Alex Storako and Nicole May, and now important outs from freshman lefty Kierston Deal, they always have options in the circle. With not just Player of the Year top-10 finalists Jayda Coleman and Tiare Jennings, but run production that extends through All-America candidates Grace Lyons, Haley Lee, Kinzie Hansen, Alyssa Brito and Cydney Sanders, they can always find a run somewhere. And a handful of uncharacteristic moments in the super regional aside, they give away fewer runs on defense than anyone.
The other dynasty in Oklahoma is far from an afterthought
It turns out that 187-57 is a more significant sample size than 2-11. Who knew.
A lot of people, yours truly among them, thought Oklahoma State’s slide at the end of the regular season and brief stay in the Big 12 tournament portended poorly for another long postseason run. In that 13-game stretch in the wilderness, the offense stalled (2.3 extra-base hits per game, compared to 3.0 in all other games), the pitching staff’s walks soared (42 walks in 92.1 innings, compared to 95 walks in 308 innings the rest of the season) and the Cowgirls looked like a team that lost its way.
And yet here are the Cowgirls, after cruising to a 5-0 record in the regional and super regional rounds and outscoring opponents 37-3, heading south on Interstate 35 to a fourth consecutive World Series.
On the strength of the aforementioned 187-57 record over the past four completed seasons, what does four consecutive World Series trips mean? In the super regional era, Oklahoma State is just the sixth program to reach four in a row. It joins Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Oklahoma and UCLA on that list.
The oddity of our historical moment provides a caveat. Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski has spoken in the past about the difficulty the 2020 team was having living up to expectations before that season was cut short. Perhaps that might have interrupted the streak. We’ll never know. But the fact remains that the last four times the college softball world gathered in Oklahoma City, the team from Stillwater was on the invite list.
And if the noisy neighbor down in Norman is playing a different game than just about everyone else, Oklahoma State—with its mix of transfers, fifth-year seniors and a regional recruiting net—is in many ways the defining team for the rest of college softball during the COVID era.
The numbers say Kiki Milloy is the best player in OKC
We won’t know the identity of the USA Softball Player of the Year until later this week. But we know that for the first time since 2011, she won’t be in the World Series. In fact, with finalists Maya Brady (UCLA), Valerie Cagle (Clemson) and Skylar Wallace (Florida) all missing from the field in OKC, this will be the first time in the awards 20-plus seasons that none of three finalists participate in the World Series.
That doesn’t mean the proceedings will be short on star power. Or even missing the best player in softball. Oklahoma fans, with no small degree of justification, will suggest Jayda Coleman should have been among the three finalists to begin with. She ranks 10th in the nation in on-base percentage, 15th in slugging percentage, plays a spectacular centerfield, and as the fiery leadoff hitter, literally and figuratively lights the spark for a team with a record-breaking winning streak.
But at least according to advanced metrics, Tennessee’s Milloy is the headliner.
Milloy, who has 25 home runs and 39 steals, is second in the nation in weighted on-base average, which as the name suggests blends the aims of OBP and SLG.
She’s third in weighted runs created, which translates wOBA into the runs a player is worth to a team.
She’s second in wRC+, 150 percent more valuable than the average Division I player, and in weighted runs above average, worth 46 more runs than the average Division I player.
Florida’s Wallace and Indiana’s Taryn Kern were the only players ahead of her in any category.
Of course, you don’t need new stats to make the case for Tennessee’s All-American.
There are 10 Division I players with more stolen bases this season than Milloy. Those 10 players have a combined 18 home runs, seven fewer than Milloy alone. No one has more home runs than Milloy, but the five other players with at least 20 home runs have a combined 24 steals, 15 fewer than her.
And in one more crucial way, Milloy leads the field in Oklahoma City. Not only does she lead all WCWS players in wRC, she has a greater share of her team’s run production than any other player. Milloy is 19 wRC ahead of any other Lady Vol. Take a look at how that compares to other leaders from each roster.
|Team||Player||wRC||Next on team||wRC||Difference|
|Tennessee||Kiki Milloy||78||McKenna Gibson||59||+19|
|Oklahoma||Jayda Coleman||67||Tiare Jennings||60||+7|
|Oklahoma State||Rachel Becker||65||Kiley Naomi||57||+8|
|Washington||Baylee Klingler||58||Sami Reynolds||44||+14|
|Alabama||Ashley Prange||53||Kenleigh Cahalan||42||+11|
|Utah||Ellessa Bonstrom||51||Aliya Belarde||45||+6|
|Florida State||Kalei Harding||49||Kaley Mudge||46||+3|
|Stanford||Taylor Gindlesperger||37||River Mahler||37||0|
When it comes to pitching, Florida State is innovative … but it isn’t stupid
As recently detailed on D1Softball, Florida State is at the vanguard of a movement to reimagine how teams utilizing pitchers and pitching staffs in modern college softball. Complete games and monster pitch counts are on the way out. Pitching changes, stoppers and analytics are in.
Lonni Alameda hasn’t abandoned that approach in the postseason. But she’s also not going to try to outsmart the game when it comes to one of the best pitchers of this generation.
She has Kat Sandercock for a few more games. And she’s going to use her. When you have someone who can throw a perfect game in a regional final, you roll with her.
Through super regionals, Sandercock had pitched nearly 55 percent of Florida State’s postseason innings. That’s a far cry from the days of old (or even the days of Northwestern’s Danielle Williams a year ago). But it’s also a dramatic increase from the regular season, when Sandercock only pitched a little more than a third of the team’s innings.
We still saw impressive freshman Makenna Reid and offspeed aritst Ali DuBois called on for matchups out of the bullpen. We still saw two somewhat against-the-grain starts for Mack Leonard, the veteran two-way threat who pitched sparingly in the second half. But starting, finishing and everything in between, we saw a lot of Sandercock.
That’s not true everywhere. We’re going to see a lot of sensational Washington freshman Ruby Meylan this week—and for the next three years. But Lindsay Lopez’s strong pitching since the end of April, including an active streak of 11 consecutive scoreless innings through the regional and super regional rounds, has allowed Heather Tarr to spread the work around.
Take a look at how much, or how little, each ace’s workload has increased in the postseason.
|Team||Ace||% of IP (Reg. Season)||% of IP (Postseason)||Increase|
|Florida State||Kat Sandercock||36.6||54.7||+18.1|
|Oklahoma State||Kelly Maxwell||33.3||48.0||+14.7|
Montana Fouts and softball’s “super seniors” rewrote WCWS invite list
Washington should not be in Oklahoma City. Oh, sure, the Huskies are more than talented enough. They certainly accomplished enough over the course of the regular season to suggest they were World Series ready. But the Huskies shouldn’t be here because they were down 6-0 in the seventh inning of a regional elimination game against McNeese State. Teams don’t come back from that.
But this one did, fifth-year players Madison Huskey and SilentRain Espinoza part of starting a seemingly hopeless comeback bid in the final inning, classmates Baylee Klingler and Sami Reynolds able to bring the team level and Huskey—batting for the second time in the inning—completing the “Miracle on Lake Washington” by driving in Reynolds with an RBI double.
Oklahoma State shouldn’t be here. Not after that 2-11 finish. That should have shaken a team’s faith in themselves. It should have left the Cowgirls ripe to be upset by teams like Wichita State or Oregon. It didn’t. With Maxwell back in a groove, Rachel Becker always on base and Kiley Naomi hitting balls out of Cowgirl Stadium for fun, fifth-year players led the team back to the World Series.
And then there is the story of Montana Fouts and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Where would the Tide be without Fouts this season became more than a hypothetical thought exercise after her knee injury during the SEC tournament. But the Tide are in Oklahoma City, with Fouts at what Tide coach Patrick Murphy perhaps generously estimated at 70 percent of full strength, because their ace pitched them to the No. 5 seed and home-field advantage when she was healthy this season. And because fifth-year teammates Ashley Prange and Ally Shipman kept coming up with big hits in one-run nail-biters against both Middle Tennessee State in a regional and Northwestern in a super regional.
The NCAA decision in 2020 to expand eligibility for all athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of softball for the years in question. For the better for players who experienced the disruption and turmoil of 2020—and probably for the better for fans who have been able to watch more mature players continue to realize their potential. But changed, to be sure.
There is one more season in this era, the players who were freshmen in 2020 able to decide this summer whether they want to return to play a fifth and final year. But one look around the rosters in this World Series, and the paths those teams followed to Oklahoma City, tells you plenty about what that fifth year means.
|Team||5th Years||% of Total Bases||% of Innings|
The Pac-12 completed its WCWS bingo card
And not a moment too soon. For so long the standard setter in the sport, even as the SEC rose to challenge that supremacy, the Pac-12 is not going quietly into that good night.
The league has sent at least as many teams to Oklahoma City as any other conference in every World Series since 2016. This year, they have honors all to themselves with three of the eight teams, beating out the SEC and Big 12 with two each and the ACC with one. And for the first time in that stretch, neither UCLA nor Arizona are among the Pac’s World Series participants.
With Stanford returning for the first time since 2004 and Utah for the first time as a Pac-12 school (the Utes last appeared in 1994), the Pac-12 is now the first conference to send every softball-playing member to the World Series at least once during the super regional era.
Utah’s growth is particularly telling, especially as UCLA prepares to decamp to the Big Ten ahead of the 2025 season. There may not be a coach in the history of college sports who faced a bigger competitive challenge than Amy Hogue when she and the Utes were dropped in the deep end of college softball in 2012. Utah had a rich softball history, but the success of the 1980s and 1990s wasn’t going to help hit Ally Carda or Cheridan Hawkins.
The Utah that packed the house in Salt Lake City over the weekend wasn’t the product of one good postseason run or UCLA’s regional misfortune (facing San Diego State’s array of pitchers is hardly anyone’s idea of a prize). In just four seasons, the Utes went from two conference wins to 12 and a winning conference record. And when form dipped after Hannah Flippen and Anissa Urtez moved on, they rebuilt on a stronger foundation around now fifth-year Utes like Ellessa Bonstrom and Haley Denning and developed Mariah Lopez and Aliya Belarde into stars.
A competitive environment like the Pac-12 can break a program, trapping it in a cycle of mediocrity. But it can also challenge it to reach new heights.
Even as UCLA nears its exit, what’s happening at the likes of Utah, Stanford and super regional entrant Oregon is proof that Pac-12 culture lives on.
Tennessee played the portal perfectly
The Oklahoma schools get a lot of attention for utilizing the transfer portal, with good reason.
The Sooners bring in unmatched star power. How do you replace Jocelyn Alo? By adding Haley Lee and Cydney Sanders, on top of Alyssa Brito emerging as an All-American after arriving as one of last season’s portal headliners. And no one operates in bulk quite like Oklahoma State, which revitalized its lineup with Rachel Becker and replaced Miranda Elish with Lexi Kilfoyl.
But on a scale of runs created or prevented per transfer, it would be difficult to do better than Tennessee coach Karen Weekly has in shaping the roster that got the Lady Vols back to the World Series for the first time since 2015.
Most programs would be more than satisfied with a pitching staff led by Ashley Rogers and gifted freshman Karlyn Pickens. Star and understudy, a formula as old as time. But given the need to manage Rogers’ workload and Pickens’ youth, Bowling Green transfer Payton Gottshall has been invaluable, right down to her two-hit shutout against Texas in a super regional.
In Gottshall, Weekly successfully assessed the ability to jump from the mid-major ranks to the SEC. But in filling out the lineup with Zaida Puni (last year, from Oklahoma), Mackenzie Donihoo (Oklahoma) and Giulia Koutsoyanopulos (Arizona), she successfully projected what Power 5 transfers might do in a new environment and with more regular playing time.
The portal is about as much of a lightning rod as the game has at the moment (although calling slappers for stepping out of the box is giving it a run for its money). But it’s here to stay. The NCAA doesn’t have nearly enough power anymore to pull it back, and schools aren’t going to surrender a tool that has the potential to help them win and passes the buck to supporters to pass the athletes some bucks. Indeed, in our reality, the remarkable story is Stanford making it here without a transfer.
Here are the offensive and pitching contributions by transfers for each WCWS team.
|Team||D1 Transfers||% of Total Bases||% of Innings|
Stanford is the most homegrown team in the World Series
Stanford is more of a national school than its public counterparts in California, but when it comes to softball, there’s still no place like the Golden State to find talent. While the total pales in comparison to UCLA or Cal, Stanford has 10 in-state players on its roster.
Paradoxically, while Stanford leads the way in in-state players, it doesn’t actually have the most Californians among World Series teams. That distinction belongs to Utah with 16.
|Team||In-State Players||% of Roster|
But what if we broaden the net a little? After all, Tallahassee is a heck of a lot closer to many Georgia high schools than it is to Miami. What if we look at players drawn from not just the state in which a school resides but contiguous states—the regional recruiting footprint?
Stanford still fares well, but it cedes the top spot to Oklahoma State. Kenny Gajewski pulls a surprising number of in-state players, considerably more than rival Oklahoma, but the Cowgirls also do well in the recruiting hotbed of neighboring Texas.
|Team||In-Region Players||% of Roster|
Baylee Klingler is batting .388 with an 1.168 OPS (Photo courtesy UW Athletics).
Bonus: Can we take a minute to marvel at Baylee Klinger?
We don’t do that enough. Not just with Klingler, mind you, but all the small stories and individual brilliance that can come and go in the blink of an eye. And when you watch Washington’s fifth-year slugger, you’re watching someone who excels in hitting a softball in a way few ever have.
Let’s start with some context. One of the most ruthless things about Oklahoma is the way almost every hitter in the lineup refuses to give the pitcher the satisfaction of a strikeout. Often enough, that takes the form of two-strike home runs and backbreaking doubles. But even when it’s just a constant drizzle of foul balls and extended at-bats, it’s endlessly agitating. They just won’t give you an out. And over the course of seven innings, that matters.
Nor is that just confirmation bias. They really are better at it. Four Oklahoma hitters rank in the top 100 nationally in lowest strikeout rate. The rest of the World Series field only has five hitters in the top 100. But against that baseline, no one—not any of the Sooners, not anyone else—is harder to strike out than Klingler. And she’s a power hitter!
Washington’s star has five strikeouts in 215 plate appearances. She hasn’t walked back to the dugout empty handed since May 5. Even as she’s battled a downturn in the postseason, she’s put the ball in play. Which means that some of those balls will soon enough start to fall (or sail over the fence). In four years at Washington, after transferring from Texas A&M, Klingler has 57 home runs and just 24 strikeouts in more than 700 plate appearances.
There are more than 700 Division I players who have struck out more times this season than Klinger has in four seasons at Washington. Few of them have 62 career home runs, eighth among active players.
Four seasons in which she was honored as the 2022 Pac-12 Player of the Year and a national player of the year finalist and will soon complete a clean sweep of All-America honors.
Even by Washington standards, which are not exactly lenient, she is one of the best to ever put on the uniform. And now she gets a chance to close out that career by playing her final game—whenever it arrives—in her first World Series.
Why is this the best week on the sports calendar for softball fans? It has something to do with the trophy they hand out at the end, but it has a lot to do with taking a moment to marvel at athletes like Klingler. Except that there aren’t any quite like her.
Which, in the end, is sort of the point. Play ball.
|Active Leader||School||Career HR||Career K|
|Mya Stevenson||Ole Miss||71||130|
|Addison Barnard||Wichita State||69||86|