By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
During a teleconference between Big 12 Conference softball coaches last month, Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle told her fellow coaches that the Big 12 was so strong that it would have four teams reach the Women's College World Series and a Big 12 team would win the national championship.
One prediction down, one to go.
For the first time in its history, the Big 12 makes up half of the eight-team field that will compete at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City starting Thursday. Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State won their Super Regionals over the weekend to punch their WCWS tickets.
Revelle's prophecy rang true with her fellow coaches. While the Southeastern and Pacific-10 conferences get most of the attention and respect, Big 12 coaches believed that the Conference's top-to-bottom talent and competition this season was second to none.
"It frustrated me and motivated me," Baylor coach Glenn Moore said of the lack of national respect the Big 12 receives. "As this season went on, it became apparent the Big 12 is the toughest it's been in my seven years at Baylor. I'm not surprised we've got four teams in Oklahoma City."
Ten Big 12 schools compete in softball and eight were selected to compete in the 64-team NCAA tournament. Five advanced to the Super Regionals. The only Big 12 team not to advance from its Super Regional was Texas A&M. The Aggies had a 2-1 lead with two outs in the bottom of the seventh against top-seeded Arizona State before a controversial non-call on a game-winning single gave the Sun Devils a Game One victory.
"I don't think the experts have paid much attention to the Big 12," said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, whose program won the national championship in 2000 and returned to the WCWS the next four seasons. "We just quietly went along, played good nonconference schedules and then beat each other up and made each other better in conference play.
"I am not surprised whatsoever that we have four teams at the WCWS. It's a testament to this conference being one of the best."
Three of the Big 12 teams in the WCWS have overcome different types of adversity.
During the postseason, Oklahoma has been without leading home run hitter Jessica Shults who is sidelined with an undisclosed illness. Gasso said Monday that Shults might join the team in OKC but that the doctors have not cleared her for competition.
Oklahoma State entered NCAA play having lost six consecutive games.
Baylor faced a Georgia team that had pummeled its opponents all season. The Bulldogs, playing on their home field, won Game Two 14-2 but the Lady Bears responded with a dominating 9-2 victory in Game Three.
The WCWS is divided into two four-team pools with double elimination used to determine a survivor in each. The two pool winners meet in a two-out-of-three championship series that starts Monday.
There are two Big 12 teams in each pool. Missouri faces Florida and Oklahoma faces No. 1 seed Arizona State in one pool while Baylor faces Oklahoma State in the opening game of the other pool. That Lady Bears-Cowgirls matchup means the Big 12 is guaranteed to have a winner and a loser on Day One.
"As long as we've got Keilani Ricketts we've got a chance to win," Gasso said of her dominant pitcher. "Baylor thinks the same thing with Whitney Canion, same with Missouri and Chelsea Thomas. I like Oklahoma State's committee of pitchers and their overall leadership.
"A lot of it is timing and getting hot at the right time."
It's not all about the pitching. In the eight Super Regional victories, Big 12 teams outscored their opponents 44-14. Gasso and Moore said that the high quality pitching faced in the Big 12 prepares hitters for NCAA play.
"It's a huge advantage," Gasso said. "The pitchers we face make our coaching staff better because of how we have to prepare. I think there are some other conferences who might be hurt because they don't have the depth of pitching we've got in the Big 12.
"There are a lot of complete teams, not just teams with a pitcher in the circle. In the Big 12 you can't go out and play a mediocre game and expect to win. Every team we played in the Big 12 made us better."
The Big 12 softball coaches voted to do away with a postseason conference tournament and the last one was held after the 2010 season. Both Gasso and Moore believe having more rest and a few less pressurized games has been beneficial in 2011 NCAA play.
"You don't have to travel, you don't have to play three intense games, playing in hot weather, you've got finals that week," Gasso said. "There are a lot of emotions going on. For us, having that time to regroup and rejuvenate has helped us tremendously."
But considering four Big 12 teams are in the WCWS ... "I guess it's kinda like we decided to have a mini-Big 12 tournament anyway," Moore said.