Monday, June 7, 2010
Pac-10 reigns supreme at WCWS final
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It says something about how little college softball has changed that Arizona and UCLA will meet for the national championship in a best-of-three series beginning Monday night.
It says something about how much college softball has changed, too.
Arizona made it difficult on itself, but the Wildcats still found their way into the WCWS final.
Between them, Arizona and UCLA have won 19 of the 28 NCAA championships in the sport. The Bruins lead all schools with 11 titles (a 1995 title was vacated); the Wildcats are second with eight. Six times they've played each other for the championship, with the Wildcats winning four of those games.
As college softball goes, the two Pac-10 powers are the sport's unquestioned royalty. And with those crowns comes the belief that one or both should always be on the field when the last game of the season is played at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
"For us, it's an expectation," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said of playing for a championship. "With our history and tradition, if we're not here then we're doing something wrong. That's the expectation that we hope never leaves UCLA softball."
Never mind that those expectations become harder and harder to meet with each passing year. UCLA breezed through the bracket here, capping a perfect three-game run with Sunday's 5-2 win against Georgia and outscoring its opponents 26-7 along the way. But not one player on the current roster has played for a title until now, the seniors twice falling short of the WCWS altogether and bowing out after scoring just one run in three games the year they did reach Oklahoma City.
The heart and soul of her team at the plate and in the pitching circle, Bruins senior Megan Langenfeld summed it up after beating the Bulldogs on Sunday.
"It's a great feeling; it feels like it's been a little too long," Langenfeld said.
"We have a bunch of alumni that are here; they keep telling us, 'Don't worry, you guys have it.' Whatever 'it' is, I don't know, but I guess we have it. They said, 'You guys look like the teams that have gotten there.' So whatever it is, we're just going to keep doing it and play our game and hopefully do what we're supposed to do."
Arizona doesn't have to delve too far into the mists of history for its last title, having won the second of back-to-back championships in 2007, but it hardly followed a route of entitlement this time around. Relegated to the loser's bracket after an opening defeat against Tennessee, the Wildcats became the first such team since 1992 to advance all the way to the championship, winning four games in two days, and at No. 10, the lowest seed to make it since seedings were adopted in 2005.
"I think we've been in about every position that you can be in in this tournament over the 22 years," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. "And obviously I know how tough it is when you lose the first game to fight back. So this has to go right up there as one of the great moments in Arizona history, just to do what they did to give us an opportunity to play for a championship."
Put about 48 other state names on the jersey and that's a miracle march for the ages. From the program of Susie Parra and Jennie Finch, it's all but expected.
It's not easy for Arizona and UCLA to be Arizona and UCLA these days. And they have only themselves to blame.
When the two teams first played for the national championship in 1991, the total attendance for all 15 games at Hall of Fame Stadium was 16,857 people. The total attendance for Saturday alone this season was 16,222, a figure that covered just four games played with a heat index of more than 100 degrees in Oklahoma City.
That 1991 championship game was the first of three in a row between the Bruins and Wildcats. The total attendance for all three of those games was 7,520, fewer people than showed up to watch Arizona stave off elimination in either session of Saturday's action.
UCLA swept its three games at the WCWS to earn a place in the championship series against Arizona.
"Oh gosh, [it's changed] tremendously," Candrea said. "I think the '96 Olympic Games was kind of the first boost our sport got. And when we got television involved, it has really helped grow this event. You look at it right now, this is a very, very exciting event because I think people are starting to identify Oklahoma City with the College World Series.
"I think the game has changed tremendously. Back then, I'm trying to think, it was a white ball and white seams and aluminum bats. Now we have a composite bat that has kind of changed the complexity of the game. But overall, it still comes down at this stage [to] getting great pitching performances, playing great defense and doing the little things that it takes to win."
And in that respect, particularly when it comes to pitching, the Wildcats are starting to look familiar. Freshman Kenzie Fowler pitched all five games for Arizona to get to this point, overcoming early controversy involving a litany of illegal pitch calls to throw 459 pitches and anchor four wins in little more than 30 hours over the weekend. She was unflappable, despite being a bit of a question mark entering the WCWS because of arm injuries both recent and old in her pitching arm (she pitched just four innings when the teams played three games in the regular season).
A prep phenomenon from Tucson, Fowler is also proof that Candrea still farms the most fertile recruiting territory in the sport. Softball is growing ever more competitive nationwide -- UCLA's loss to Michigan in 2005 gave a school east of the Mississippi River a title for the first time, and Arizona came within one loss of being the victim of the SEC's first title when it faced Tennessee in the 2007 championship series. But as Candrea not-so-subtly pointed out more than once after Sunday's win, the Pac-10 remains the conference through which all championship aspirations must go.
"I think everything either gets better or it gets worse," Candrea said. "So yeah, we've all had to fight and change to stay up with the Joneses. I think that's one thing I can say -- you look at the Pac-10 and those programs have done a very nice job of that. We still recruit very good athletes; we still play a very competitive schedule.
"The Pac-10 is still, to me, the premier conference, and I think we proved that."
And so as much as college softball changes, here we are with something that looks very familiar.
"I think any pure fan that has followed softball is going to love a UCLA-Arizona matchup," Candrea said. "God, if you've known the game since the '90s, that was a pretty regular thing."
It's good for the sport that it's no longer a foregone conclusion. It may be even better for the sport that it will be the conclusion to this season.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.