Sunday, June 6, 2010
Spotlight reserved for special two
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Women's College World Series is really two tournaments in one. The first careers along at breakneck speed, with eight teams playing as many as 14 games in four days and six teams going from elation to disappointment in the matter of two or three hotel wake-up calls. The second moves at a more deliberate pace, as two teams are left with the national spotlight all to themselves for as many as three nights.
Arizona beat Tennessee twice on Sunday to advance to the WCWS final.
And so even as the attention shifts to old rivals UCLA and Arizona -- meeting for the seventh time with a championship on the line -- there's also an opportunity to put the past four days in perspective.
Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri, Tennessee and Washington revealed much about how the college season got here and where the sport will go long after this week.
With a four-week trek across the continental United States worthy of Steinbeck or de Tocqueville and late-inning fireworks against Alabama and Missouri along the way, Hawaii won over a lot of fans as the tournament's underdog. But the 16th-seeded Rainbow Wahine weren't Cinderella. They flew more miles to get to Oklahoma City than any other team out there; they also put more miles on softballs over the course of the year.
Hawaii's 158 home runs shattered the previous NCAA single-season record of 134, established just a season ago by Arizona. And despite moving the fences back 10 feet down the lines and raising those same fences (bringing the field at Hall of Fame Stadium in line with the typical college dimensions), teams combined to hit 24 home runs through Sunday, tying the World Series record set, again, last year.
"The game has progressed so much over the years," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said on the eve of the tournament. "I remember 25 years ago when the composite bat wasn't around, and I really believe that the composite bat has changed our game."
Whether or not all the extra power is a good thing (and whether or not, as Candrea suggested, a shift back to less potent aluminum bats might be coming down the pike), the reality is that it's a game of power like never before. And as with any evolution, those that position themselves best -- as Hawaii did this season -- can rise quickly from the middle class into the elite.
A season marked by incredible freshman success also found a fitting final stop in Oklahoma City, right down to UCLA's B.B. Bates hitting a home run Sunday against Georgia and Arizona's Kenzie Fowler pitching the Wildcats into the title series with help from a game-winning hit from classmate Brigette Del Ponte.
Even as Fowler persevered through four starts in two days, no freshman did more to establish herself as a star while representing one of the best incoming classes in recent memory than Florida's Brittany Schutte. The Gators' cleanup hitter came to plate nine times and went home with six hits, three home runs and four RBIs.
"That wasn't a freshman running around the bases out there," Florida coach Tim Walton said in an echo of so many coaches nationwide. "It was just a really good player, somebody who we knew how good she was going to be in the recruiting process. And we're thankful she chose us over some other great schools. She's just a ferocious hitter -- I think that's a pretty good word you could use for her."
But from new stars emerging and familiar faces such as Washington's Danielle Lawrie, Florida's Francesca Enea and Tennessee's Tiffany Huff saying goodbye, and from umpiring controversies to scoring flurries, the tournament within the tournament at the Women's College World Series was what it always is.
"It's been really kind of, I guess you could say life-changing," Hawaii's Alexandra Aguirre said after her team was eliminated by a loss to Arizona. "When you have a team that is as close as we are, it really shows on the field. The chemistry that we have with each other, it really brought out the best in all of us as players and as just people in general. It's just been a wild ride, and we're all sorry to see it end this way. But we know we went out with a bang, and we put our best foot forward."
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.