Defending champ UCLA back in OKC
And then there were eight. Defending champ UCLA made it. So did fellow Pac-10 members California, Stanford and Washington. Oklahoma should feel right at home. Florida State, LSU and Michigan also made the party. Seven of the tournament's top eight seeds advanced to the Women's College World Series. Oklahoma, which upset No. 1 Arizona, is the only remaining unseeded team. The surviving eight NCAA softball teams take to the circle Thursday at the WCWS in Oklahoma City. Here's a look at the squads still chasing national championship dreams.
No. 2 UCLA Bruins
2004 Record: 43-9
WCWS appearances (last): 21 (2003)
Coach: Sue Enquist
WCWS opener: vs. Stanford, Thu. at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Road to Oklahoma City: Despite missing their dynamic senior class from last year, the Bruins are back to defend their 2003 NCAA championship. One big reason is still have Keira Goerl (rhymes with Carol). Goerl, who threw no-hitter in last years final, UCLA's all-time leader in career wins, strikeouts and innings pitched. She threw every pitch at the WCWS for UCLA last year and followed that up by throwing every inning last weekend at the regional. Sophomore 2B Caitlin Benyi (Bay-knee) is having a breakout season and was the best hitter in the nation in Regional play. A class of eight freshman have to produce.
Power surge: The Bruins have plenty of power at the plate. In fact, UCLA seems to score all its runs via the long ball. That was the case at the Regional as the Bruins blasted six home runs in four games.
Two of a kind: No team has repeated at the WCWS since Arizona in '96, '97. Goerl will try to join only two other pitchers with two or more wins in the championship game, Debbie Doom (3) and Susie Parra (2).
No. 3 LSU Tigers
2004 Record: 54-10
WCWS appearances (last): 2 (2001)
Coach: Yvette Girouard
WCWS opener: vs. Michigan, Thu. at noon ET (ESPN)
Road to Oklahoma City: LSU won the rapidly improving SEC with terrific balance. The Tigers team batting average is .319 and they've set a new single season HR record at LSU with 59. In the circle, cagey veteran Kristin Schmidt is a 35-game winner. Though not overpowering, Schmidt has recorded 318 strikeouts in 2004.
Secret of their success: The Tigers have fared very well against ranked opponents this year, going 18-9 vs. the Top 25 and 9-4 against the Top 10. Coach Yvette Girouard gives some credit to football coach Nick Saban. She's used some of his coaching techniques to change the way she manages her team.
Welcome back: Sophomore 1B Stephanie Hill is a former walk-on. Cut two years ago, Hill came back last year, walked into the coaches office and told the staff that they were making a mistake not putting her on the team. She landed a spot as pinch runner and by Christmas this year the staff realized they had a star in the making. Hill enters the WCWS batting .342 with 13 homers and 54 RBI.
No. 4 Florida State Seminoles
2004 Record: 61-10
WCWS appearances (last): 7 (2002)
Coach: JoAnne Graf
WCWS opener: vs. California, Thu. at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Road to Oklahoma City: Senior Jessica van der Linden may be most versatile player in the game. She's a 20-game winner in the circle, flawless in center field, and has the best bat (.389) on the team. Van der Linden (28-7) carried the Noles thru the regional, pitching two games on Sunday. Casey Hunter (33-3) has emerged in the circle with over 30 wins and still may be the most underrated pitcher in the country. The two combine for the best ERA (0.56) in the nation.
Players to watch: Veronica Wootson has bashed seven homers, while Beth Wade has jacked eight HRs to help the 'Noles establish a new home run record this season. 3B Leslie Palmer is playing, even though she has a torn ACL. LF Natasha Jacob, who hit around .200 last year, is batting .335 this year.
Diamond notes: Van der Linden is getting married to NFL linebacker Michael Boulware after the season and claims she'll retire from softball after she graduates.
West Coast bias: Will this be the year an East Coast team wins the title? FSU and LSU are as strong a representation as the East has ever had at the WCWS and the 'Noles could become the first team east of Mississippi River to win the championship.
No. 5 California Golden Bears
2004 Record: 50-11
WCWS appearances (last): 9 (2003)
Coach: Diane Ninemire
WCWS opener: vs. Florida State, Thu. at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Road to Oklahoma City: The Bears, who won the title two years ago and played in the final last year, have plenty of experience. Veterans like Kaleo Eldredge, Jessica Pamanian and Chelsea Spencer know what it takes to win. Catcher Haley Woods provides the power. The Bears love to play aggressive on the bases -- four players have double figure steals. In the circle, Cal does not rely on just one arm. Kelly Anderson (23-8) and Kristina Thorson (27-3) are both 20-game winners.
Next stop Athens: Coach Diane Ninemire will be assistant with Greek national team at the Olympics in August.
Join the club: Cal is the latest team to emerge and make a run at the UCLA/Arizona stranglehold on the championship. Only UCLA, Arizona and Texas A&M have more than one title. Only UCLA, Arizona and Fresno State have played in three consecutive finals.
No. 6 Michigan Wolverines
2004 Record: 52-10
WCWS appearances (last): 7 (2002)
Coach: Carol Hutchins
WCWS opener: vs. LSU, Thu. at noon ET (ESPN)
Road to Oklahoma City: The Wolverines controlled the Big Ten all season thanks to a stellar pitching staff and good fielding. How good? The Wolverines are ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 0.94 ERA, while a 0.974 fielding percentage puts them at No. 10. Michigan closed out regular season with impressive two-game sweep of Florida State (2-1, 1-0) in Ann Arbor.
Singing in the rain: Hosted regional and survived a showdown with Mother Nature and then with Oregon State. Weather delays forced the Final to be played Monday afternoon.
Players to watch: Junior Nicole Motycka (22-4) and sophomore Jennie Ritter (24-7) are both 20-game winnerson a staff that set a school record 27 shutouts. Junior SS Jessica Merchant is a .342 hitter with power. Merchant has 15 HRs and 48 RBI
Lucky number seven: The Wolverines want to improve on previous excursions to the WCWS. In six trips since 1995, Michigan is just 2-12 in OKC, often beating themselves with costly errors.
No. 7 Stanford Cardinal
2004 Record: 47-17
WCWS appearances (last): 2 (2001)
Coach: John Rittman
WCWS opener: vs. UCLA, Thu. at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Road to Oklahoma City: Stanford had its hands full with a scrappy Hofstra team in the regional, before prevailing at home. The Cardinal have proven they can compete with the best in the country with wins at UCLA, at Arizona and at Washington.
Players to watch: Senior Dana Sorenson is one of the country's best in the circle and sophomore SS Lauren Lappin is an alternate on the U.S. Olympic Team.
Next stop Athens: Coach John Rittman is an assistant on the Olympic Team and was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year this season.
Howdy, neighbor: Stanford open with UCLA -- and that's not good news for the Cardinal. Earlier this month the Bruins went into Palo Alto and rocked Stanford twice (6-2, 7-1).
No. 8 Washington Huskies
2004 Record: 40-17
WCWS appearances (last): 7 (2003)
Co-Coaches: Scott Centala and Steve Dailey
WCWS opener: vs. Oklahoma, Thu. at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Road to Oklahoma City: Washington went to Georgia for the regional and beat the Dawgs twice over the weekend. UW has relied on the arms of pitching tandem Tia Bollinger and Ashley Boek. Bollinger has pitched more innings (839.1) and made more starts (124) than any other Husky in school history, but Boek emerged as the ace as the season progressed. Boek is 26-11 with a 1.73 ERA.
Tough out: The Huskies boast perhaps the best power hitter in the college game in catcher Kristin Rivera. She's flirting with the .400 mark and ranks among the top 15 in homers (17) and top 30 in RBI (47).
Fresh start: The Huskies are trying to put an off-season scandal behind them. Coach Teresa Wilson was reassigned in December for lacking institutional control.
Be like Phil: The Huskies have been here six times before, even reaching the final twice. They are the Phil Mickelson of the WCWS -- the best program not to win a title. Can Washington break through like Phil did at the Masters?
2004 Record: 43-20-1
WCWS appearances (last): 5 (2003)
Co-Coaches: Patty Gasso
WCWS opener: vs. Washington, Thu. at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Road to Oklahoma City: The Sooners are a pleasant surprise at the WCWS, especially since Coach Patty Gasso's club finished in the middle of the pack in the reportedly down Big 12 . OU shocked top-seeded Arizona in the Tucson Regional, then lost in first regional final to Louisiana Lafayette. In the rematch, the Sooners pounded the Rajun Cajuns 12-0 to advance.
Home cooking: Oklahoma City loves the Sooners. The top five crowds in WCWS history all involve Oklahoma games.
Players to watch: The Sooners' junior class is outstanding with pitcher Kami Keiter (21-13), catcher Heather Scaglione and 1B Christina Enea. This is the group of West Coast kids that committed to OU after the Sooners won the 2000 national championship.
Beth Mowins is an announcer for ESPN during coverage of the 2004 Women's College World Series.