SEC takes another shot at Pac-10
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Arizona State and Florida are going to give college softball the fight it's looking for.
For the third time in five years, Pac-10 will meet SEC in the best-of-three championship series that brings to a close the Women's College World Series at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. The league so long synonymous with softball and its cultural stronghold in the cities and towns of Arizona and California will once again attempt to fend off a challenge from an upstart yearning for the validation a first national championship would bring.
Pac-10 supporters will tell you the SEC thrives only by poaching talent from the fertile recruiting ground that used to feed almost exclusively into the Pac-10. Worse yet, they contend, the conference that began playing the sport only 15 seasons ago and has no titles to its name is stealing the credit due the Pac-10 and the national attention that should come with 23 NCAA titles, including the last five in a row.
SEC fans, usually in slightly more of a leisurely drawl, will suggest the Pac-10 needs to lighten up, and that the impressive new facilities spread across the South and rising attendance figures (SEC programs claimed six of the top 20 average attendances in 2010, two more than the Pac-10) are evidence enough for a seat at the table. There hasn't been a title, they'll admit, perhaps sheepishly, but Tennessee and Florida have come close.
Far be it from anyone to suggest there might be room enough for both conferences at the top (or even more, considering the Big 12 sent four teams to the World Series this season). This is a battle for the soul of softball.
You think it's rash to speak in generalizations and ascribe beliefs to large groups of people based on nothing more than geography?
You're in the wrong place this week.
"I think right now, we're representing all of the SEC," Florida senior Kelsey Bruder said. "There's been a lot of talk about the Pac-10 and how it dominates. And we just want to show that we play the brand of ball they do. We want to represent for not only the University of Florida the right way, but the SEC."
"I don't know if it's because the Pac-10 usually is dominating in the [World] Series, but I feel like everybody is rooting for the SEC," Arizona State senior Lesley Rogers said before an opponent was determined between Alabama and Florida. "I just kind of want to put that to rest. I want to show everyone we're No. 1 for a reason. I think we deserve to be No. 1, and I think that we're going to win it all. Alabama and Florida, they have their strengths, Florida's got the bats, they hit lots of home runs. ... I think we can match up with either team very well, and we can take either one of them."
Lost in all this, of course, is that through a narrower lens, this championship series is as intriguing as anything since softball adopted the best-of-three final in 2005. As open as the tournament seemed as it headed to Oklahoma City, there was absolutely no doubt over the course of the first four days that these two teams, which met in a classic Friday night won 6-5 by the top-seeded Sun Devils, deserved to square off with a trophy at stake.
Even if that's a little like suggesting the Miracle on Ice had some compelling forechecking battles.
Inside the matchup
Pitching: Freshman aces traditionally don't win the World Series, but depending on how far you want to stretch the label with regard to Florida's pitching situation, one is going to win this season. The Gators have continued to use both senior Stephanie Brombacher and freshman Hannah Rogers, and Brombacher posted some of her best numbers in recent weeks in Sunday's run-rule win against Alabama. Nevertheless, Rogers threw almost twice as many innings as her senior counterpart during the first five games and bounced back well from the adversity of an eight-walk struggle against the Sun Devils.
The interplay of Rogers and Brombacher is a key story in the series, but beyond conference bragging rights, Arizona State freshman Dallas Escobedo is the biggest story at this point. Labeled "effectively wild" this week, she has 26 strikeouts and nine walks in 21 innings. And aside from one big inning from the Gators, she's been almost impossible to score against, despite yielding more hits per inning than some of her counterparts.
"Gosh, I hadn't seen a pitcher like Dallas in a long, long time," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "She's just so dominant. Her stride is so long; her ball is on you in a heartbeat. I did notice she changed up her repertoire a little bit today with pitches against Baylor, so we're going to have to be on top of our game to get some runs against her tomorrow."
Offense: Florida scored 41 runs in five games to reach the championship series. The rest of the field, seven teams in all, also scored 41 runs through the first four days of the tournament. Ponder that for a second.
Leadoff hitter Michelle Moultrie, a contact hitter and base stealer with few equals, has three home runs in five games here and is hitting .611 with a tournament-best 11 hits overall. And that's the leadoff hitter. Cleanup hitter Brittany Schutte has two home runs, giving the sophomore five in eight career WCWS games. This is the scariest lineup in softball, something SEC player of the year Kelsey Bruder alluded to in answering a question about whether she felt her eight walks are evidence of teams pitching around her.
"If they want to do that, that's completely fine because I have so many phenomenal hitters behind me," Bruder said. "Brittany Schutte -- you want to pitch to her? You want to pitch to Megan [Bush], that has 21 home runs? I mean, that's fine. I think that is where the strength of our offense lies. We don't rely on one person. You can't take any pitches off. One through nine, it's going to be a battle."
All that said, one team did outscore the Gators over the course of seven innings in Oklahoma City, and as that suggests, the Sun Devils can hit, too. No team is better at controlling, prolonging and using at-bats. Arizona State struck out just 13 times in three games, despite facing a pair of Big 12 strikeout machines in Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Baylor's Whitney Canion, as well as Florida's duo. USA Softball player of the year finalist Katelyn Boyd is the star, but the depth of power provided by Mandy Urfer, Annie Lockwood, Krista Donnenwirth and others isn't far behind Florida.
Defense: After some defensive hiccups in Saturday's elimination game against California, Florida was stellar against Alabama in both games Sunday. Third baseman Kasey Fagan, part of an all-freshman left side, was particularly solid. But even at their best, the Gators aren't the defensive equal of the Sun Devils, if only because no team is. That starts with the left side, anchored by Donnenwirth at third base, as she was for the 2008 championship team, and Boyd at shortstop.