WCWS five burning questions
The field is set for the Women's College World Series, so what do we know about teams headed to Oklahoma City?
1. What is Kentucky doing here?
The short answer is completing a journey quite a few years in the making.
No. 14 Kentucky pulled the tournament's biggest upset by eliminating No. 3 UCLA in the Los Angeles super regional. On the brink of elimination after giving away the opener with defensive miscues, the Wildcats became just the fifth team ever to come back from a game down in a super regional and win twice in one day on the higher seed's field.
Which is not to say the only first-time participant in the Women's College World Series came out of nowhere.
Rewind to the team's most recent Christmas party and players each received a box from the coaching staff that contained one letter of the alphabet. The challenge was to figure out the message hidden in the puzzle pieces.
There was a "K" in the mix, so they tried to come up with phrases that contained the word "Kentucky," only to realize there were other components missing. With a few hints from the coaches, they finally put the pieces together.
"Oklahoma City or bust."
That was the fascinating twist in the super regional between one of the sport's legendary programs and a relative newcomer. It was UCLA that didn't have even a single player with past super regional experience in that uniform. And it was Kentucky that had a senior class that had been to super regionals in two of its first three seasons, only to fall short against California in three games at home in 2011 and Arizona State in two games on the road in 2013.
If the Wildcats wanted to keep moving forward, as they have ever since Rachel Lawson arrived in 2008 and took over a moribund program coming off seven consecutive losing seasons, there was only one way to do so.
In the circle, that meant Kelsey Nunley or bust.
A regional product from Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, who drew interest from both Kentucky and Tennessee but said she got the best scholarship package from the school in Lexington with a lesser softball pedigree, Nunley set the program's single-season record with 27 wins as a freshman a season ago. The record lasted until Sunday, when she broke it with two wins against the Bruins.
Almost without exception since the postseason began, the ball has been in her hands. Since the start of the SEC tournament on May 7, a span of 19 days, she has thrown 10 complete games, 73⅓ innings and 1,230 pitches.
So even if she had reason to feel her defenders let her down in the opener in Los Angeles, she instead iced her arm, took some Tylenol and tried not to sleep on her pitching arm. Then she went back to work.
"As a pitcher, you've just kind of got to forget about what happened in the past and move on because the next pitch is always the most important pitch," Nunley said. "I just had to flush out what had happened and come out strong."
Her teammates had her back. For the first time in more than a month, Kentucky scored at least seven runs in back-to-back games. The latter instance came at home against Wright State and Mississippi Valley State. This time it came at UCLA with everything on the line. Krystal Smith and Nikki Sagerman drove in runs in both games Sunday and six players in all drove in at least one run. All while Nunley held one of the nation's best lineups to 11 hits and four walks in 14 innings.
Bust will have to wait another year. Kentucky is going to Oklahoma City.
2. Who took the longest road to Oklahoma City?
When Whitney Canion threw her first college pitch, Keilani Ricketts was a senior in high school. As Canion prepares to throw her final pitch as a collegian at some point in the next 10 days, Ricketts is pitching professionally in Japan.
That is to say Baylor's ace has been making the Big 12 and much of the country miserable for quite some time.
It's also to say no player more deserves a chance to finish a career on this stage.
Until Kentucky knocked off UCLA, No. 13 Baylor produced the weekend's biggest upset by seeding when it swept two games from No. 4 Georgia in Athens. It's the second time in the past four seasons that Baylor went to Georgia and won a super regional, and not surprisingly, Canion was on the pitching end of that result, too. There haven't been many big days for Baylor softball that didn't feature her prominently since she arrived on campus in the fall of 2008.
Still going after arm and knee injuries cost her two seasons, she isn't going to leave the circle willingly in her final run. A week ago, she was a tough-luck loser in an 11-inning game against Tulsa, then turned around and won an elimination game against the same team later the same afternoon. In all, she threw more than 300 pitches that day.
By comparison, the 169 pitches required to beat Georgia in Saturday's clincher qualified as light work. But with her team down 3-2 in the fifth inning and the pitch count mounting, she had to deal with the possibility of pitching another winner-take-all game later that day. She needed to keep her teammates in the game long enough to let them let her off that hook.
"I've just got to keep pushing here," Canion said she told herself until teammate Linsey Hays delivered the home run she needed in the fifth inning. "I reached down further than I thought I could, just like I did last weekend. I've kind of shocked myself, and just when I think I don't have any gas left in the tank our offense does something to spark."
Six years and two lengthy injury rehabilitations makes for a lot of career. Canion has completed undergraduate and graduate degrees and is engaged. She is part player, part coach, part team mom. Already a veteran of the United States national team, she always figured she would keep playing either internationally or in National Pro Fastpitch. She may yet do that. She may not be able to fire a steady stream of rise balls like she once did, but she is a better pitcher now than she was as a freshman. She's stronger mentally and better equipped with complementary pitches like her changeup.
But the World Series makes a tempting stage on which to take a final bow, especially if it comes with a trophy. And make no mistake, Baylor has enough power and defense to give its ace a chance.
She wouldn't wake up feeling the way she does if she didn't love the game. But the love comes at a cost.
"It's taken a complete toll," Canion said. "I felt like I could hardly walk out of the stadium last weekend -- last weekend was definitely more toll on my body than this weekend was. ... Mentally, I feel like every year I've gotten tougher, but at the same time, the hitters have gotten tougher every year. I may have faced them the previous year. So I think that both mentally and physically I just keep thinking 'Can I keep going?'
"Some days I just feel like I want to play this game forever, and then I look at the toll it's taken on my body and how I feel after weekends like this. I'm thankful I've been here, but at the same time, I can definitely tell age is getting somewhere on me."
3. What about the rest of the pitching in OKC?
The trump card: Lacey Waldrop, Florida State
One of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, Waldrop is the most statistically dominant player in the field with a 38-5 record and 1.01 ERA. She baffles with an array of pitches and speed, most notably her drop and changeup. She was tested by a super regional loss but answered with two complete-game wins the next day.
The rising star: Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon
Those who follow softball closely have seen a lot of Hawkins in the past year. After a stellar freshman season at Oregon as Jessica Moore's understudy, she pitched for both the United States junior and senior national teams last summer. Far from tired, she is 33-4 with a 1.55 ERA and World Series-best 313 strikeouts.
The experienced arm: Jaclyn Traina, Alabama
The ace of the 2012 national championship team, Traina could become the first pitcher in a decade to hold that role for multiple championship runs. She may be the hardest thrower in the field, capable of hitting the low 70s, but she is often at her best when she pitches a few miles per hour slower and lets the spin kick in.
The pitching staff: Florida
No active pitcher in college softball has more career wins than Florida ace Hannah Rogers, but she's also the one whom it would be most surprising to see throw every pitch for her team. After a midseason lull, Florida got its full pitching staff going in the postseason, with junior Lauren Haegar and freshman Delanie Gourley both viable options.
The comeback kid: Christina Hamilton, Louisiana-Lafayette
She'll be easy to spot in Oklahoma City, thanks to her stylish black glasses (sans lenses), but that look isn't all that sets her apart. Hamilton is the only World Series ace who didn't have that label when the season began. Overcoming past injuries, she stepped to the fore when preseason All-American Jordan Wallace developed control issues.
The secret weapon: Kelsey Stevens, Oklahoma
If pressure was going to bother Stevens, the task of replacing not just a legend, Keilani Ricketts, but also another pitcher who was a player of the year finalist, Michelle Gascoigne, would have eaten her alive long ago. Her delivery is distinctive, the ball held away from the glove, but it doesn't make it any easier to hit pitches with a lot of movement.
The workhorse: Kelsey Nunley, Kentucky
Maybe that isn't the most apt reference for the Bluegrass State, but it is the highest of compliments for Nunley. As her previously mentioned workload attests, she can pitch all day. Although her walk rate improved over her freshman season, control issues -- be it walks or hit batters -- remains something of an Achilles' heel.
4. Why is Oregon still the team to beat?
We're all the way to the fourth question and the tournament's top seed hasn't drawn a mention yet outside of its ace?
Not to worry, Oregon may just quietly keep winning games until there isn't any other team to talk about.
Unlike a season ago, when it surprisingly bowed out at home against a Big Ten team with two good pitchers in a super regional, Oregon didn't let things get overly interesting this time around. After a run-rule win against Minnesota in the opening game, the Ducks cruised with relative comfort to a 6-2 win in the second game to reach their second World Series in the past three seasons and third overall. Through five tournament games, they have outscored opponents 40-6, the best statistical performance among all remaining teams (Florida has a similar margin but lost a game).
In addition to Hawkins in the circle, the top seed's strength is in its numbers -- the Ducks entered the final day of super regional play without a starter who didn't have at least a .400 on-base percentage. That begins at the top of the order. Courtney Ceo, Alyssa Gillespie and Janie Takeda went 5-for-10 with a walk, six runs scored and three stolen bases in the clincher against Minnesota and scored 10 of the team's 16 runs in the two-game series.
This isn't a season in which a prohibitive favorite was likely to emerge, and Oregon isn't one. Upsets aside, there isn't a team headed to Oklahoma City that can't realistically map out a path to a title. But the lone Pac-12 team standing is the most balanced team in the remaining field of eight. It began the tournament as the team to beat. Nobody has.
A pair of SEC teams, Alabama and Florida, enter as the most likely challengers.
5. Has the balance of power shifted in softball?
As always, fair or not, the World Series will serve as a referendum on conference supremacy in college softball.
When Alabama won the SEC's first national championship in 2012, it seemed to signal an arms race between that conference and the tradition-rich Pac-12 as the sport's two superpowers. The Pac-12 had all the history, but the SEC had the stadiums, crowds and recent World Series appearances to argue for its own place at the table.
Then Oklahoma interrupted the debate with one of the most dominant performances in the sport's history a season ago.
And as the softball world gathers in Oklahoma City, the SEC and Pac-12 account for just four of eight teams for the second season in a row (they had accounted for either five or six teams in each of the five preceding seasons).
After winning a super regional on the road against Georgia for the second time in four seasons, Baylor coach Glenn Moore made his feelings on the topic clear when he took aim at the presumed challenger.
"It's time for people to get off the SEC kick," Moore said. "There are other conferences out there. The Big 12 deserves respect and we earned it today."
He's not wrong. The problem is defining what we're talking about. Even after the exits of Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M removed three softball stalwarts, the top of the Big 12 is as good as the top of any conference. Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas are every bit as much a part of the softball upper crust as their peers elsewhere. The problem is that because Kansas State, TCU and West Virginia don't play softball, there is a hollow middle in the Big 12.
Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas don't want the Big 12 to become a rich man's Sun Belt, in which Louisiana-Lafayette is nationally relevant on an annual basis but the rest of the conference is mid-major. They don't want the Big 12 to be the ACC, in which Florida State has long been a power but the process of improving the rest of the league remains an arduous one. And it's understandable that Moore and others might be a little defensive about the subject when the league keeps sending teams to Oklahoma City.
For reasons out of the control of its best teams, the Big 12 can't be what the Pac-12 and SEC are.
But Baylor and Oklahoma show yet again that it remains home to some of the nation's best softball teams.