In an era in which expansion teams frequent the World Series, mid-major George Mason makes a run to the Final Four, U.S. soccer contends with international powerhouses, lacrosse spreads west and a club from Carolina heads to the Stanley Cup finals, there really isn't too much that should surprise us in sports. But I can't help but stand in awe as the great wall crumbles in college softball.
The Tennessee Lady Vols defeated tournament favorite and No. 1 seed UCLA 4-3 on Thursday night, sending the Bruins to the losers' bracket after the opening round of the Women's College World Series. This upset marked a win for all things Atlantic and threatened to send softball's national championship trophy east of the Mississippi for only the second time in history.
But just as soon as the Vols strode forward, they were pushed back by the unlikely Northwestern Wildcats from Evanston, Ill., who are undefeated in the WCWS and who blanked Tennessee 2-0, sending the ladies in orange into do-or-die play. The Vols then took on Arizona State, while the Bruins faced the Crimson Tide and SEC Pitcher of the Year Stephanie VanBrakle, who hails from Chambersburg, Penn.
Evanston? Knoxville? Chambersburg? My friends, the times they are a changin' -- and it all started last year when the University of Michigan Wolverines brought the championship hardware to its unlikely new home of Ann Arbor.
"We didn't care where we were from," said Michigan shortstop Jessica Merchant of Wayland, Mich., after her team's win for the ages.
Well, sweetheart, everyone else did.
Michigan's revolutionary win struck a blow for softball's rebel colonies. The Wolverines won their battle against softball's sumptuous royalty -- the UCLA Bruins. Michigan's win gave newfound inspiration to infielders who relentlessly practice turning two on squeaky gymnasium floors and outfielders far too familiar with an Incrediball's hop in their quest for a once impossible dream.
Before forging its way to Ann Arbor, the farthest east the trophy had ever traveled was to College Station, Texas, when the Aggies won it in 1987. The farthest north it ever ventured was to Berkeley for stints with the Cal Bears. While a nice change of pace from the usual suspects of Arizona and UCLA, A&M and Cal hardly know the sting of a foul ball on a cold day or bleak hours of indoor practice while your frozen diamond defrosts out back.
This year has seen significant victories of its own; the University of Massachusetts advanced to the super regionals and little Lehigh University of Pennsylvania knocked mighty Texas A&M out of championship contention. The biggest bitter surprise, however, is Northwestern's advancing to the final series. The girls from Evanston, Ill., whose field sits beside Lake Michigan, knocked out UCLA, whose dugouts are located on Sunset Boulevard.
As players and fans from across softball's former frontier keep their eye on this year's prize, you can feel the fast-pitch revolution brewing. Michigan's win opened a door, and opened it wide enough that no March blizzard will be able to blow it shut again.
Yes, 2005 was a landmark for the Wolverines, but it was also a giant leap for the chilly side of softball country. Hail to the victors! Hail to the squad that scheduled its first 33 games on the road because of the chilly conditions in Ann Arbor! Hail to everyone with their watches set to Eastern Standard Time!
To be sure, softball dominance still lies securely under the rays of the westward setting sun. The proof is in the Pac-10, which sent seven of its eight member teams to the NCAA Tournament this year and accounted for seven of the 18 players on the 2006 Louisville Slugger/NFCA NCAA Division I All-American First Team. Yes, SEC stars Monica Abbott, Lindsay Schutzler, Kristi Durant also earned that honor, but of course they hail from California -- Salinas, Monterey and Placentia, respectively. And ACC rep Veronica Wootson of Florida State made the cut ... but she's from Fontana, Calif. And Northwestern's junior hurler Eileen Canney -- who astonishingly eliminated the team from SoCal that has played in the WCWS final six times in the last seven years -- calls Paradise, Calif., home.
It's true that the western warm-weather stranglehold on the game has only been loosened -- not broken -- but even UCLA coach Sue Enquist admits the gap is closing.
"The game is changing, mark my words," Enquist says. "You give me 5,000 East Coasters and you move them to warm weather, and they will be equally successful. They are just as motivated and they are just as tough. The only thing that limits them is weather. Weather breeds great pitching and great pitching breeds better hitting and has given us the edge, but they are finding ways to contend. The competition is changing, recruiting is changing -- we see it now, and I'm certain there is much more to come. Mark my words."
In a press conference following the Bruins' loss to Michigan in the final series last year, Enquist expounded on what the outcome meant to the game of softball. "I know it's good for softball to see a team other than UCLA win it ... and I'm happy ... for the sport. I've been in the game a long time and I'll always have one eye on trying to make this game get bigger, with ESPN, and more funding and having teams from other areas involved. It's good for softball, it really is."
While the talented (and tanned) hands out West undoubtedly have many more championship rings in their future, Nor'easters are buzzing about the new possibilities.
As alarm clocks interrupt the frosty hibernation of girls from Lincoln, Neb., to Amherst, Mass., as ski hats and boots are pulled on over shorts and practice T's for the wintery walk to wilt under a coach's whistle, gloves can reach a little taller and hopes are held a little higher all because Oklahoma City seems a little closer.
Mary Buckheit is a former college softball player and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.