1. The 2021 Women’s College World Series is here — finally! It’s been almost two years since UCLA’s Kinsley Washington hit a championship-winning single to give the Bruins their 12th national championship in program history (above). The Bruins are one of eight teams back in Oklahoma City fighting to win the 2021 title. So is Oklahoma, this year’s top seed and the team that UCLA defeated to win that 2019 title. A potential rematch is one of many stories that will unfold on the diamond before we know our national champion. What are the 3 storylines that most intrigue you, and why?
Rhiannon Potkey: There are about 15 storylines that intrigue me, but I’ll restrain myself and keep it to just three. One is JMU making the first appearance in program history. It’s always exciting to have new programs reach OKC, and JMU’s journey is a huge boost for mid-majors and emblematic of the increasing parity in today’s game. Plus, the Dukes have great personalities like Odicci Alexander and Lynsey Meeks that will attract even more fans to jump on the bandwagon.
Another is having the three college Olympians — UCLA’s Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles and Arizona’s Dejah Mulipola — all make it to OKC and finish their tremendous careers on the big stage. They are among a big group of seniors that have made a huge impact on the sport in the last five years.
An obvious storyline is whether any pitcher can contain the explosive Oklahoma offense. OU isn’t undefeated, but it’s required for another offense to outscore the Sooners. There will be some quality pitchers in OKC and it will be interesting to see if any of them can make it through that lineup multiple times without suffering some damage to their ERAs.
Graham Hays: Piggybacking off Rhi’s last choice, does an Oklahoma pitcher emerge as the workhorse in Oklahoma City? We didn’t see Giselle Juarez at all in the super regional, while freshman Nicole May pitched superbly in the clincher. So will those two and Shannon Saile just keep sharing the innings? Will any opponent stay close enough for it to even matter who pitches?
Can Alabama stay out of a hole? I think a lot of us are eyeing a potential Friday game between Alabama and UCLA for a place in the semifinals, but the Crimson Tide have some truly ghastly luck in opening games. They haven’t won their opener since 2014 and Thursday has tripped up some very good Tide teams. Arizona relished the opportunity to take an SEC team down a peg last week, and here the Wildcats get another chance.
Who makes the best defensive play? This isn’t so much a storyline as me wanting to see the highlights. The tournament lost some special defenders like Washington’s Sis Bates, LSU’s Aliyah Andrews on the road to Oklahoma City, but we’ve still got Florida State’s Sydney Sherrill, Oklahoma State’s Kiley Naomi, Oklahoma’s Grace Lyons, UCLA’s Briana Perez and so many more. I am looking forward to maximum Twitter highlights.
Tara Henry: All of the above and I’ll add two more. The only two teams to beat Oklahoma this season, Georgia and Oklahoma State, face off in the opening round. Will there be a potential rematch in round two? Mary Wilson Avant shut out Florida in the super regionals and Oklahoma State blasted six home runs last weekend against Texas.
Does Bubba Nickles start for UCLA? The redshirt senior and U.S. Women’s National Team member injured her wrist the first week of April and just returned to the field last weekend against Virginia Tech. Nickles had one at-bat against Keely Rochard, drawing a walk and played defense for the Bruins.
Michella Chester: Rhi, Graham and Tara hit all the bases here. The potential of an Oklahoma, UCLA re-match is monumental, three Olympians competing on college softball’s biggest stage and the huge storyline of Oklahoma’s insanely powerful offense. Possibly the best offense to ever exist in college softball. No pitcher has been able to contain them. This year has the huge added value of so many super seniors and absolute stars on their last go-around. It makes this WCWS so special. I will add two more storylines though on top of those.
The first is Georgia facing off against Oklahoma State. Former Bulldogs Allyson Febrey and Jordan Doggett will be suited up in orange this go-around. Febrey and Dogget transferred to Oklahoma State and will be facing their former teams for the first time. On top of that, Georgia is one of the two teams to advance to the WCWS un-seeded. They went on the road and shut down No. 4 Florida, a team with very strong pitching. The Bulldogs have young players stepping up big-time offensively and Mary Avant Wilson in the circle, dominating. Now they will face Carrie Eberle and two of their former players.
The second I will add is Jessie Harper and the potential of breaking the NCAA all-time career home-run record. Can you imagine reaching that pinnacle in OKC? In front of a full-capacity crowd? Harper now has 91 home runs, just four away from tying Lauren Chamberlin’s record and five away from breaking it.
Live from OKC: Scores, updates from the 2021 Women’s College World series
2. USA softball announced the WCWS will be played at full capacity after the NCAA cleared the way for local authorities to make capacity decisions. First, how excited are you to take in one of the first NCAA championships in front of a full house? Second, does this help anyone in particular in the final eight aside from the obvious choices (looking at you Oklahoma and Oklahoma St.)?
Graham: Taking Oklahoma and Oklahoma State out of the mix defangs the question a bit, as local fans are likely to fill all those extra seats available for the first time in the new upper deck. Going to full capacity shouldn’t be much of a factor for anyone else. Arizona and UCLA didn’t get to play in front of large crowds for much of the regular season because of restrictions, but institutional memory alone prepares players in those two programs for big stages (and the Wildcats played in front of packed stands at home in a regional and on the road in a super regional).
Tara: Hall of Fame Stadium is going to be rockin! I cannot wait to see a packed house and hear the roar of a 100 percent capacity crowd. There is no better place in the softball world. This year will be quite a different experience for me as I will be in the press box (editor’s note: Tara played in the WCWS while at UCLA). Does the crowd help anyone? Both JMU and Georgia went on the road and managed to tune out the noise. I agree with Graham in that UCLA and Arizona are prepared for the big stage but we can’t forget about Florida State. There are still members of the 2018 championship team who weren’t deemed the Cardiac Kids for no reason.
Michella: I am ecstatic that these teams get to play in front of a full-capacity stadium. After the season getting cancelled in 2020 with no WCWS, a lot of the seniors making the decision to come back and compete in 2021, and then all of them playing through so many hardships and difficulties this year, they have sacrificed so much to get to this point. Now they will get to play in front of a full stadium, hear the roar of the crowd and feel the magnitude of what they are accomplishing. The walk-offs, the grand slams, the web gems, the shutouts — they now will all come with the electric feeling we once knew! These players deserve to get the full effect and now they will. Due to the fact that most of these teams and players have been here before, I agree with Rhi, Tara and Graham that they will be prepared for these moments and the big stage. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will of course have a big advantage, but I do think that after no WCWS last year, fans are going to be even more excited to get to Hall of Fame Stadium.
Rhiannon: I am extremely excited to see the stadium packed and rocking. After not having the WCWS last year, I expect the environment to be even more electric. Organizers have waited a year to finally debut the stadium’s new upgrades and renovations, including expanded upper deck seating. Everyone is grateful to have softball back and fans will be celebrating getting to witness the event in person. Given people couldn’t plan very far in advance because of the uncertainty of the attendance restrictions, the teams with fans within driving distance should benefit more. But several of these programs have loyal fan bases familiar with how to book their trips and expectations to attend each year. I think JMU will be the fan favorite for anyone not following a particular team. Everyone loves the “little guy” crashing the party for the first time, even if the Dukes are a perennial mid-major power.
3. Let’s talk about college softball itself. ABC televised the Oklahoma/Washington game Saturday, the first-ever NCAA college softball game on the network. The 2019 College World Series reportedly averaged more than 1 million viewers per game on ESPN. These are great numbers, of course, but what’s your take on the state of the game of college softball?
Graham: It’s obviously easier to be optimistic about the state of the game than it was a year ago. The pandemic’s ramifications will take years to play out, but even if a lot of athletic departments aren’t entirely out of the woods, it appears we will avoid a sweeping elimination of programs at the Division I level.
On the field, the game has found a better balance after the home run explosion of a decade ago. There is still room for throwback pitchers like Gabbie Plain and Keely Rochard (although seeing their respective teams fall short in super regionals underscores the increasing value of deep pitching staffs). There is still room for balls in play, triples, stolen bases and small ball — the sort of exciting plays that baseball, at least at the professional level, is grappling with trying to replace. And it remains a sport that embraces personality, both in the traditional dugout-chant sense and the more modern individual swag sense.
Rhi: College softball has never been in a better place. Aside from the increased viewership and more games available on streaming, there is more parity across the national landscape with talented players choosing schools outside the traditional powers. Clemson and Duke are two schools that recently invested in starting softball programs and have experienced immediate success to show how it can be done right. The sport is back in the Olympics this year (fingers crossed it takes place) and that always generates enthusiasm that benefits college. The new pro league, Athletes Unlimited, gives more college players an option to keep playing once they graduate. The entire softball ecosystem keeps progressing and the level of play is at an all-time high.
Michella: The sport of softball feels electric right now. The fanbase and dedication seems to be larger than ever, the increased viewership is super encouraging and there are so many admirable stars in the sport right now. I completely agree with Rhi that having softball back in the Olympics and three Olympians playing in the WCWS is huge. Rachel Garcia, Bubba Nickles and Dejah Mulipola returning this year and making it to the world series is so awesome, and I can just picture all of the young athletes and softball players looking up to these players achieving their lifelong dreams. Of course, there is always work to be done, like Graham said. But I am so excited with how big the sport feels right now.
Tara: If you see it, you can be it. The ability for young players to watch their favorite players on TV every week is truly remarkable. The growth of the ACC is another example of the parity across the country and conferences Rhi noted. Florida State dominated the conference in the past. With the emergence of two young programs like Duke and Clemson, the growth of Virginia Tech under Pete D’Amour and the formation of the ACC Network all signs point to growth.
4. The field in OKC is loaded with talented, fun players with lots of personality. Pitchers have won 20 of 26 most outstanding player awards since 1995. Rachel Garcia (above) is the most recent, and she’s back this year for UCLA. Give us your top two picks for who wins the MOP this year.
Rhi: UCLA’s Rachel Garcia and Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo.
Graham: Rhi snagged the top two choices on just about any draft board. Only two freshmen have won Most Outstanding Player (which wasn’t awarded until 1995), so it will be interesting to see if Tiare Jennings adds that to her ever-expanding collection of accolades.
Tara: Well, since Rhi and Graham have listed three great choices, I’ll add Montana Fouts. She has been lights out in the circle and if the Tide can capture their second title, it won’t be without her.
Michella: I wish I could pick someone else, but I really cannot choose anyone other than Rachel Garcia and Jocelyn Alo. I agree with Graham that Tiare Jennings is good enough to be in the mix, but I think she will win Freshman of the Year and possibly win multiple Most Outstanding Player awards in the future.
5. Georgia and James Madison are the first unseeded teams to make the final eight since 2012. Are these the teams no one wants to play right now or is there another relatively unheralded one we should keep our eyes on?
Graham: You may come across an unheralded team in a regional, but everyone knows everyone else by the time teams get to Oklahoma City. I don’t think any of the top seeds will be eager to play Arizona in a one-off scenario. There’s too much power and experience in that lineup. And on the intangible side, the softball gods may just be smiling on Mike Candrea as he gets back to the World Series on the 30th anniversary of his first title with the Wildcats.
Tara: Honestly, I’m going with the Cowgirls. There’s just something about the way they play the game. Oklahoma State proved they could beat the top team in the country and they’ve got Carrie Eberle. If she keeps the ball down in the zone and the defense shows up they will be tough to beat. Alysen Febrey and Hayley Busby straight up bash. So does Kiley Naomi. I just hope they travel the corral so the left field bleachers have more life.
Michella: I am loving the Bulldogs right now. I already listed this as one of my biggest storylines in an earlier question, but I think this Georgia-Oklahoma State matchup is a super intriguing one. I mean the Dawgs lost seven in a row before the tournament and then knocked off No. 4 Florida? That is something to get fired up about. I favor the Cowgirls team and they have shown they can beat anyone in the country. But the beauty of sports is that anything can happen. I love the underdogs, so JMU being in the tournament this year and the Odicci Alexander story is very exciting as well.
Rhi: JMU is the most “unheralded” based on the program’s postseason history compared to all other teams in the field and its mid-major status. Softball diehards know JMU has a great tradition of success, but the Dukes have never been on the WCWS stage before. They have a strong core of veteran leaders and nothing to lose once they get to OKC. JMU went on the road to take out two SEC-seeded hosts in the regional and super regional, and won’t be afraid of facing bigger programs.
6. OK, prediction time. Who wins the 2021 Women’s College World Series and why?
Rhi: Oklahoma. I just find it hard to see any team being able to score enough runs to keep up with the Sooners or find a way to solve that lineup 1-9. They’ve shown they can be beaten, but they have so much talent up and down the roster.
Graham: Oklahoma. It’s difficult to envision a team with this run production losing twice in quick succession, either in the preliminary rounds or the championship series. Sure, Montana Fouts, Rachel Garcia or someone else could keep them in check once — Mary Wilson Avant and Carrie Eberle already did that. But good luck doing it twice.
Tara: Oklahoma. I agree with Graham it will be difficult for a team to beat them twice with the types of bats in the Sooner lineup. The only issue OU will have is in the circle. Will Nicole May shine in the spotlight? I’d say yes, due to her gritty performances in the regular season. Shannon Saile and G Juarez are still in the mix and all three hurlers will give up runs. The saving grace for OU? The Sooner offense provides a cornucopia of ways to score runs including the long ball.
Michella: I agree and I am going with Oklahoma as well. This offense is absolutely insane. This entire tournament, the big question was what will happen when this team faces really strong pitching staffs and really strong defense. Well, I think we got our answer. The defense can’t do too much when they are hitting it out of the park. This team is going to score a ton of runs with immense talent in their lineup, and I am not sure any other team will be able to score enough runs to match them.