By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of four conferences will win the 2013 national championship in Division I softball. The Big 12 Conference hopes that it will earn its first national title since 2000.
Oklahoma, the team that won that championship 13 years ago, is the top seed in the Women’s College World Series that starts Thursday in Oklahoma City. No. 4 seed Texas, which has reached the WCWS for the first time since 2006, seeks to bring home a trophy to match the volleyball’s NCAA title last December.
Both teams start their quest Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. In the third and fourth games of the first day of action, Texas plays Arizona State at 6 p.m. while Oklahoma takes on Michigan at 8:30 p.m. Both games will be televised by ESPN2.
The Sooners (52-4) have reached the WCWS for the third consecutive season. Last year, OU lost to Alabama in the best-of-three championship. This season Oklahoma has been dominant in its quest to capture the national title that proved elusive a year ago.
Coach Patty Gasso’s team has been breath-taking in its dominance. Senior Keilani Ricketts was named the national player of the year for the second time. She is a dominant pitcher and one of several potent hitters in a lineup that is third in the nation in hitting at .338.
“This is really, truly an all-around balanced team in every area,” said Gasso, whose squad has outscored its postseason opponents 59-8, with four of the five games ending by run-rule. “It’s going to be very difficult to beat this team.”
If the unsatisfactory ending to last season didn’t provide enough incentive, the Sooners are also hoping to help the healing process in Moore, Okla. Located between OU’s campus in Norman and Oklahoma City, Moore was devastated by an F5 tornado on May 20.
“Usually we say that we’re playing for the name on the front of our jersey,” Ricketts said. “That name has a different meaning to it now.”
Texas is one of the four teams to beat Oklahoma this season. The Longhorns defeated OU in the middle game of a three-game-series in Austin just over a month ago. Reaching the WCWS ends six years of post-season frustrations.
“There’s a sense of relief to getting that monkey off our back after being so close the last few years,” UT coach Connie Clark said. “But there is a whole lot of joy. It’s been awhile, so we are going to enjoy every moment and not take anything for granted.”
A year ago, Texas came within an extra-inning game of making the World Series. Instead, they were forced to regroup after losing to Oregon in the super regional. In their first game in OKC, the Longhorns will face another Pac-12 team. Arizona State, then ranked No. 2, defeated UT, 3-0, in the Judi Garman Classic in mid-March.
“It has been far too long since Texas has been back here,” Clark said Wednesday at a news conference in Oklahoma City. “This group is much different in their approach and absolutely had that mentality and we are just excited to be here.”
The eight teams in the WCWS are divided into two four-team pools. Those teams play each other until three teams have two losses. The survivors of each pool will start a best-of-three championship series on Monday.
If Oklahoma and Texas win their opening games, they’ll meet at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Arizona State (50-10) vs. Texas (48-8), 6 p.m., ESPN2
How they got here: The Longhorns won the Austin Regional and the Austin Super Regional, winning all five games. The Sun Devils also won all five of its NCAA games, hosting both the regional and super regional rounds.
Texas update: Senior pitcher Blaire Luna leads the nation in fewest hits allowed (3.1) and most strikeouts (11.7) per seven innings. When she struggles, it’s because of accuracy. She has walked 105 and hit 27 batters. … Senior third baseman Taylor Hoagland has been outstanding as the team’s leadoff hitter. She has 14 homers and 28 extra-base hits; her .844 slugging percentage is 12th in Division I. Hoagland is third nationally in on-base percentage (.615) and is one of four Longhorns with more than 20 stolen bases. … Junior shortstop Taylor Thom joins Hoagland in making the left side of UT’s infield potent and productive. She has made just seven errors and is the only player at the WCWS with at least 15 homers and 20 stolen bases. … Texas has reached the WCWS for the first time since 2006 and is making its fifth trip. … In going 5-0 in the NCAA tournament thus far, the Longhorns have outscored their opponents 29-4 and are hitting .331 as a team. … UT is 6-6 in the series with Arizona State, its first opponent in OKC.
Arizona State update: Senior pitcher Dallas Escobedo was the Sun Devils’ top pitcher when they won the NCAA title in 2011. She has allowed just 163 hits in 243 innings this season, but 37 of those have been home runs. … All-American outfielder Alix Johnson struggled during Pac-12 play but is hitting .467 in the NCAAs, including going 5-for-7 in the super regional against Kentucky. … Sophomore catcher Amber Freeman was the Pac-12 player of the year. She is hitting .369 with 18 home runs and 61 RBI. Shortstop Cheyenne Coyle (.367, 20 homers, 66 RBI) made a WCWS appearance with Florida when she was a freshman before transferring to Arizona State. She took over for All-American Katelyn Boyd and the Sun Devils haven’t missed a beat.
Michigan (50-11) vs. Oklahoma (51-4), 8:30 p.m., ESPN2
How they got here: Oklahoma won the Norman Regional and the Norman Super Regional, winning all five games. The Sooners won the Big 12 regular-season title. Michigan went 3-0 in the Ann Arbor Regional and defeated Louisiana Lafayette in three games to capture the Ann Arbor Super Regional.
Oklahoma update: In the past two seasons, senior pitcher Keilani Ricketts is 68-10 with 768 strikeouts and a 1.14 ERA as a pitcher and is hitting .386 with 30 home runs, 103 RBIs and 112 walks. This season, she is 31-1 in the circle and at the plate she is hitting. 375. … In her first season with the Sooners, sophomore third baseman Shelby Pendley is tied for seventh in the nation with 22 homers. … Senior outfielder Brianna Turang is not a typical No. 9 hitter. She is hitting .421 and has a .489 on-base percentage; she helps make the lineup potent because she often sets the table for leadoff hitter Lauren Chamberlain, who has hit 27 home runs and has a 1.107 slugging percentage. … OU has won 14 of its last 15, outscoring the opposition by a combined 138-13 in those 14 victories. In five NCAA tournament games, the scoring total is 59 for the Sooners, eight for the foes. … Oklahoma continues to lead the nation in scoring and ERA. No team in the super-regional era (since 2005) has ever finished a season tops in both categories.
Michigan update: Senior Ashley Lane is one of seven Michigan starters batting more than .300 in a talented lineup, and she is second on the team with 18 home runs and 60 RBIs. … Haylie Wagner was the Big Ten freshman of the year last season but she missed the first month of this season with an injury. In the super regional title game, she injured herself warming up and her availability is uncertain. He is 19-3 with a 2.50 ERA. … Senior Sara Driesenga is the Wolverines’ other top pitcher. … Michigan catcher Lauren Sweet is third on the team with 10 home runs and sixth with 34 RBIs. She’s hitting .322 since March 14. … Michigan played six teams that reached the super regionals.