Five burning Q's for the WCWS
1. What will the World Series tell us about the state of college softball?
For the love of Dot Richardson, a Floridian who starred at UCLA, can we agree here and now that it won't solve the ongoing feud pitting the Pac-10 against the SEC, with the Big 12 waiting to take a swing at whichever combatant staggers away first?
Three Pac-10 teams and three SEC teams are in Oklahoma City. And when the six square off in three different battles Thursday, the results will tell us precisely nothing.
Some Pac-10 partisans feel the SEC gets far too much attention and does far too much talking for a league that has yet to win even one NCAA title. Some SEC partisans feel the Pac-10 is a bunch of cranky old-timers whose arrogance about their supposed sporting birthright would make the most insular English soccer supporters blush.
The majority of fans, hopefully, just roll their eyes when the crazy uncles start ruining Thanksgiving with their bickering. Good softball is good softball.
It's not a debate that will be settled to either group's satisfaction by one season's results or one team's championship. And frankly, the topic has worn out its fun factor.
Of more practical importance is what happens on the field. After a season in which freshmen played starring roles across the maps, rookies won't be difficult to find in Oklahoma City, including Arizona's Kenzie Fowler and Tennessee's Ivy Renfroe among those in the circle. With home run totals soaring around the country, the Hawaii team that set an NCAA single-season record (not to mention most of Arizona's big bats from the team that held the record for only a season) will aim for the far reaches of Hall of Fame Stadium. And seven teams will hand the ball to pitchers much of the nation doesn't know in hopes of unseating the one pitcher in the nation everyone knows.
What will be on display has more to do with an evolving sport than regional supremacy.
2. Are the defending champions destined to repeat or fatally flawed?
Washington is hitting .184 in the NCAA tournament, yet the Huskies remain the team to beat. Part of that is due to the shock of seeing both No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Michigan eliminated in super regional play.
Most of that is due to Danielle Lawrie.
As long as Washington has Lawrie, it is going to have an asset that no other team in the nation -- this one or Lawrie's native Canada -- can match. As curious as it was to see one of the sport's all-time competitors look flat in a loss to Oklahoma in the opening game of the Seattle Super Regional, it was that much more impressive to see her right the ship and author a memorable -- and maniacal -- comeback in winning twice in one day to advance.
The offense has plenty of potential to score all the runs Lawrie needs, but it could use a boost from some of the hitters who tailed off in conference play. Lawrie is one of those, and it may be asking a lot of her to carry the load both ways with temperatures potentially climbing toward 100 degrees in Oklahoma City. But Jenn Salling and Niki Williams, both of whom played well here last year, could be pivotal if they get hot.
3. Which non-Canadian pitchers could alter the balance of power?
One of these things is not like the other. At first glance, putting Lawrie in this field seems like putting LeBron James in the Atlantic 10 for a season.
She's an Olympian, a national champion and a two-time USA Softball Player of the Year. Depending on how much time UCLA's Megan Langenfeld, who has hit almost exclusively this postseason, spends in the circle, it's possible that no other pitcher in Oklahoma City will have even started a Women's College World Series game.
But two of the non-Canadians have at least experienced Oklahoma City before in limited capacities, and while that's not the sole reason to single out Florida's Stephanie Brombacher and Missouri's Kristin Nottelmann as difference-makers, it doesn't hurt.
Stacey Nelson's understudy the past two seasons, Brombacher pitched a total of four innings across two relief appearances in last season's World Series, including two innings in the championship series. She more than held up her end of the bargain in taking over the No. 1 role this season. She's not Nelson -- who was otherworldly in limiting extra-base hits, among other things -- but she does everything you would expect out of a championship-caliber pitcher. Her numbers slipped across the board in conference play, and she's battled illegal-pitch demons at times, but a strong run through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament suggests she's on her game.
Nottelmann's ascent to the No. 1 role for Missouri was far less scripted. She had gone more than five innings just once this season before ace Chelsea Thomas was sidelined in late March, but she thrived when thrust into more frequent usage. She's been nothing short of spectacular in the NCAA tournament. In 31 innings, including four consecutive complete games, she's allowed just three earned runs. She's not enough of a power pitcher to get away with handing out free bases, but she has a good defense behind her and has walked only eight batters in those 31 postseason innings.
4. Which position players could alter the balance of power?
Megan Wiggins, Georgia Outfielder Taylor Schlopy and third baseman Alisa Goler are the stars for Georgia, and two of the best handful of players in the nation, but Wiggins isn't far behind and serves as a vital link in the top half of the Bulldogs' lineup. She can't match her two more-heralded teammates when it comes to on-base percentage, but you aren't going to find many players who slug better than .700 and have single-digit strikeout totals (Wiggins is at .740 and nine, respectively). In fact, you won't find any others in Oklahoma City.
Megan Langenfeld, UCLA Langenfeld could decide the World Series without ever throwing a pitch. Put aside the games she missed -- her 1.501 OPS in Pac-10 play (1.668 OPS in all games) lapped the field to almost as much of an extent as Lawrie's pitching stats lapped the field. And she can do it against all comers: She's hitting .353 with three doubles, a home run and five RBIs against teams in the World Series (Tennessee, Georgia, Washington, Arizona).
Kelly Majam, Hawaii Majam's teammates delivered the most memorable hits in a stunning upset against Alabama in the Tuscaloosa Super Regional -- Jessica Iwata's grand slam in Game 2 and Jenna Rodriguez's walk-off home run in Game 3 -- but it's no coincidence that Majam was on base both times. Hawaii coach Bob Coolen likes to call the redshirt freshman with 30 home runs the "table-setter" in his offense. To steal a line from the Tuscaloosa News' Tommy Deas, she's a table-settler like Rickey Henderson was a table-setter. She's the kind of hitter who leaves an opponent with knots in the stomach throughout every at-bat.
Raven Chavanne, Tennessee The superstar freshman's numbers tailed off a little in SEC play (not that most anyone in the league wouldn't happily take a .374 batting average), but she's shown no sign of struggling with postseason pressure. She has at least one hit in every tournament game, joining Arizona's K'Lee Arredondo and Lauren Schutzler as the only players in the Arizona-Tennessee game who can make that claim.
K'Lee Arredondo, Arizona Speaking of Arizona's senior shortstop, she's been on the kind of offensive run during the second half of the season that could set her up for a World Series performance capable of upstaging, or at least complementing, higher-profile slugging teammates like Brittany Lastrapes, Stacie Chambers and freshman Brigette Del Ponte. Arredondo hit .395 with a .592 slugging percentage in Pac-10 play -- both numbers better than even Lastrapes'. And she's hitting .450 in the NCAA tournament with just one error in the field.
5. How important is Thursday?
Let's just say the World Series has been double-elimination in name only in recent years. Since the final stage of the World Series expanded to a best-of-three championship series in 2005, no team that played for the title lost its opening game.
A case could be made for all eight teams as championship material, but particularly for the losers of Florida-UCLA and Washington-Georgia, a golden opportunity to win a national title could be all but over long before elimination Saturday.
It's not much better for teams that lose their second game. The exception to a couple of rules of thumb is Taryne Mowatt, who memorably took Arizona to the title in 2007 after Arizona won its first game but lost its second game (Mowatt is also the only ace in the past decade to win a title after entering the World Series with 100 or more walks, something of particular note for current Arizona ace Kenzie Fowler and her 119 walks).
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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