Some familiar names will be missing when the Women's College World Series convenes without Arizona and UCLA for only the second time and without recent mainstays Florida and Missouri, but new teams mean new questions for the week of softball that begins Thursday on ESPN2 and ESPN3.
1. Will the Pac-12 reign continue?
With an eye toward the NBA games taking place in Oklahoma City at the same time as the Women's College World Series, it's worth pointing out that the last time a team from outside the Pac-12 won the national championship in softball, the Sonics still resided in Seattle and Kevin Durant was 16 years old. It's increasingly a stretch to call Michigan's 2005 title recent history.
If it's June and it's Hall of Fame Stadium, it's still the Pac-12's world.
Softball dominance is no longer strictly the purview of Arizona and UCLA, as evidenced by their combined absence from Oklahoma City for the second year in a row. The presence of three teams representing the SEC reinforces the idea that the sport has a second power region. Even South Florida's WCWS debut speaks to the game's growth, particularly coming by virtue of a super regional win against a team from New York (Hofstra) that eliminated UCLA in a regional in Los Angeles.
But all of that has been true to varying degrees for years now, and still the Pac-12 has claimed the past six championships, the riches spread among Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington. Now California, with a loaded lineup, an ace in Jolene Henderson and arguably the season's best player in Valerie Arioto, enters as the No. 1 seed and favorite to win its second national title, a decade after it became the first school other than Arizona or UCLA to win the title out of what was then the Pac-10. Defending champion Arizona State, perhaps the most successful program in the sport since coach Clint Myers took over prior to the 2006 season, reloaded after last season's win and returns with every opportunity to become the first back-to-back winner since Arizona in 2006 and 2007.
Even Oregon's inclusion means every Pac-12 softball program, save new arrival Utah, has reached the WCWS at least once since 2004.
Whatever the reason -- a deeper talent pool to draw from because of the sport's roots and infrastructure in that region, the competition Pac-12 teams face during the season, good fortune for one week in Oklahoma City or some combination of those and other factors -- one conference keeps winning.
We'll get to Thursday in a minute, but all of this makes Friday as potentially compelling a day of softball as you could ever hope to see. If the seeds hold on the first day of play, No. 1 California would play No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 3 Arizona State would play No. 2 Alabama, with the winners able to rest Saturday and advance to the title series with just one additional win Sunday. Those four teams separated themselves from the pack as April turned to May, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see any one of them win it all. It just so happens the geography involved raises the stakes.
The championship won't be decided until next week. An answer to how likely it is to remain in Pac-12 hands could take shape as early as Friday night.
2. What is the game you absolutely, positively can't miss Thursday?
Both evening games on the first day of play in Oklahoma City are compelling rematches of conference series that ended in draws (Arizona State and Oregon were scheduled to play a three-game series, only to see the rubber match rained out before the first inning was completed). But Alabama and Tennessee already provided one of the season's best games when the Crimson Tide outlasted the Lady Vols 3-2 in 11 innings on March 21, a game that went a long way toward establishing each team's championship credentials.
If Tennessee's pitching rotation in its super regional against Georgia is any indication, Ivy Renfroe will get the start ahead of younger sister Ellen Renfroe against Alabama ace Jackie Traina. That was also the matchup when the teams met earlier this season, but for different reasons. At the time, Ivy's ERA was 3.41 and she had been hit hard in her first two conference starts. By using her in the first game of a doubleheader in Tuscaloosa, the Lady Vols appeared to be playing the percentages in hopes of gaining a split, saving Ellen for the second game. In the end, that's exactly what happened, but Ivy's performance in throwing 10 2/3 innings and striking out 14 batters in defeat turned her season around. She's 20-2 since that game and her season ERA is down to 1.73.
In fact, Ivy pitched so well that night in March that she also helped solidify the legend of Traina in the other dugout. It was Traina who finally ended the marathon with a home run to center against Ivy, and the Alabama sophomore also pitched all 11 innings against the Lady Vols, striking out 15 while throwing 197 pitches. Traina is the talisman-like figure for the Crimson Tide, which is why they need to stay in the winner's bracket in Oklahoma City to avoid her pitching twice in one day. That makes it imperative that they beat a Lady Vols team that was so difficult to play against in March.
3. Which unseeded team has the best chance to succeed?
When the obstacles directly in the path of success are California and Oklahoma, "best chance" is a relative term. But LSU and South Florida had to surprise people to get here, so it's not impossible.
LSU already faced Cal once this season, and the Bears' 14-3 win in five innings at a tournament in Las Vegas wasn't pretty for the SEC team. South Florida, on the other hand, hasn't played Oklahoma, but coach Ken Eriksen is very familiar with Sooners ace Keilani Ricketts after coaching her with Team USA last summer (the two will reunite shortly after the WCWS as the national team begins preparations for this summer's world championship). With an ace of their own in Sara Nevins, who joined Ricketts among 11 initial finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, and an offense that puts pressure on defenses with the short game, the Bulls would appear to be upset material. But the answer is still LSU.
That ugly loss against Cal might not be the harbinger of doom it seemed for LSU. The Tigers didn't use Rachele Fico in that game, which means they have a new look to throw at the daunting Cal lineup. Fico beat Texas A&M twice in a regional and Missouri twice in a super regional. And while LSU was in a 6-0 hole before the first inning was over in the game in Las Vegas, it did manage six hits and four walks against Cal ace Jolene Henderson, a prolific day by the team's modest offensive standards. Both LSU and South Florida face mile-long odds Thursday, but give LSU a slight edge.
4. Who are the five most compelling WCWS characters?
Valerie Arioto, California: The affable All-American wears a smile just about all of the time. It's the moments when she doesn't that you have to worry about. No player has a better eye than Arioto, whose .632 on-base percentage is the result of her refusal to swing at bad pitches and opposing teams' refusing to throw her good ones lest she improve a .962 slugging percentage. Last season should have been Arioto's farewell, but a foot injury forced her to miss the entire season. As a result, she got a chance to play this year with a group of players who became veterans in her absence.
Katelyn Boyd, Arizona State: The Sphinx has nothing on Boyd, the unanswerable riddle for opposing coaches. Arizona State's leadoff hitter is too dangerous on the bases to pitch around completely, but she's too selective at the plate to get herself out by swinging at pitches she can't hit. And she does damage with the ones she likes, to the tune of a .448 batting average and .901 slugging percentage. As if that's not enough, she's also a rock-solid shortstop with good range and a strong arm. Back-to-back national championships would help her case for being one of the best of all time.
Jessica Mouse, South Florida: Mouse doesn't have the All-America credentials of the other players included here, although she's arguably the best defensive third baseman in college softball, but she's the playing face of one of the more compelling subplots of the tournament. Shortly after last year's WCWS, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy accepted the same job at LSU, only to reconsider days later and return to Alabama. Beth Torina instead took the job in Baton Rouge, knowing she was at best the second choice. Amid that backdrop, Mouse transferred from LSU to South Florida for her final season of eligibility after missing last season with an injury (USF offered a master's degree unavailable at LSU). All three are now in Oklahoma City, proving that sometimes things work out for everyone.
Keilani Ricketts, Oklahoma: There have been taller pitchers than the 6-foot-2 Ricketts, but few players are as imposing as she is in the circle or at the plate. Near the end of her third college season, and with international experience under her belt, she seems entirely comfortable standing out from the crowd, something that perhaps wasn't always true. The WCWS as an event and a spectacle has grown by leaps and bounds since Oklahoma won it all in 2000, and a second championship for the almost-hometown Sooners would give Ricketts a special place in the sports landscape.
Jackie Traina, Alabama: The SEC has yet to win its first national championship and the schools that have come closest often have had Californians in the circle (Monica Abbott for Tennessee, Stacey Nelson for Florida) or in prominent roles elsewhere. A Floridian, Traina is the face of an Alabama roster that has as many starters from north of New York City (one) as from west of the Rockies, and is almost entirely Southern in composition. She's also an unflappable workhorse in the circle who gets better in big moments for a team that more often than not has left the World Series vexed in the past.
5. What about Oregon?
All this time and barely a mention of No. 11 Oregon. That's probably how the Ducks feel about the season after they almost quietly joined Cal and Arizona State as the only teams with winning records in Pac-12 play. Overshadowed by the names attached to Arizona and UCLA, by Washington's early run to the top five in the polls and even by Stanford star Ashley Hansen, the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year, Oregon just went about its business, right down to two wins in one day against No. 6 Texas to win the Austin super regional.
Oregon's anonymity comes partly because it doesn't have one name to hype, although perhaps it's time to consider pitcher Jessica Moore or outfielder Samantha Pappas for such roles. But it also comes partly because it's still difficult to think of Oregon as a softball power. As recently as 2009, the Ducks finished last in the Pac-10 with just three conference wins and an overall record of 16-34. The program's only previous trip to the Word Series came in 1989, and until Mike White took over as coach prior to the 2010 season, Oregon had the fewest NCAA tournament wins of any Pac-10 team.
But the Ducks of the present are a team with an offense that can hold its own in a field full of dominant pitching, and a pitcher in Moore who makes up in substance what she lacks in flash.
If you're looking for a sleeper to make it to Sunday, Oregon is used to the role.