The NCAA Softball Tournament begins Friday with 63 teams desperately hoping for a national title and one absolute juggernaut hoping to squash the competition once more.
After all, 2-time defending national champion Oklahoma is so far ahead of the competition, the Sooners might as well book hotels in Oklahoma City already. At 51-1 and leading college softball in several statistical categories, the only question is who can possibly stand in their way?
But the tourney is a fickle beast, as last year proved, when 3 unseeded teams advanced to the Women’s College World Series. Could it happen again? Probably not. But the talent is pretty well-dispersed this season. Aside from Oklahoma, of course.
Here are the top 10 storylines as the field begins its march toward Oklahoma City …
Can anyone stop Oklahoma from running it back?
It’s not looking good.
The Sooners were Georgia football-level good this year, going 51-1 and boasting a 43-game winning streak, the 2nd-longest in Division-I history, despite playing 21 games against ranked opponents. They opened up the year with a 4-0 shutout of an impressive Duke squad that enters the tourney as a strong WCWS candidate, and they have not looked back.
The gap between Oklahoma and UCLA, arguably the 2nd-best team in the land? When the two title contenders met in late-February, Oklahoma delivered a 14-0, 5-inning knockout blow.
It’s rare for a team to enter the tournament leading the country in batting average, ERA and fielding percentage, but the impeccably well-rounded Sooners do just that. And not just lead, by the way. Oklahoma paces the field in team batting average by a 30-point margin (.368 to No. 2 UCLA’s .338) and ERA by an absurd margin of 0.86 to Clemson’s 1.33, though their .988 fielding percentage just beats second-place Arizona’s .985.
Even without their devastating 1-2 punch from a year ago in Jocelyn Alo and ace Hope Trautwine, the Sooners still field the best roster in the game, with 7 All-Big-12 first team members. While 5 Sooners have more than 10 home runs and 40 RBIs, Jayda Coleman and Tiare Jennings are the biggest bats, hitting .434 and .429, respectively.
They’ll be a huge favorite to win their 3rd straight WCWS title.
Who is this year’s James Madison?
Forget about the Big Bad Wolves, and what about Cinderella?
Though, it was not quite fair to call James Madison a Cinderella squad in 2021, seeing as the Dukes had gone to two Super Regionals from 2016-2019. But their WCWS run took college softball by storm. The unseeded Dukes even beat Oklahoma along the way.
Last year the underdogs were even better, with unseeded Arizona, Oregon State and Texas making it to the WCWS and the Longhorns finishing as national runners-up.
Who could wear this year’s glass slipper?
Look out for Central Arkansas, Boston University and McNeese State to make some noise.
Stanford’s NiJaree Canady leads a crop of fabulous freshmen
While the Stanford baseball team is among the top programs in the country, the Cardinal softball squad is rebuilding its legacy after falling on tough times following a run of 7 Super Regional appearances — including a pair of WCWS runs — between 2001-2011. Back in the tournament for the 4th straight time after a 5-year drought, the Cardinal are seeking a return trip to the Super Regionals.
But can Stanford take it a step further? Maybe, if their youngsters have any say. With a sparkling 0.49 ERA, 14-1 record and 168 strikeouts in just 99 innings pitched, Canady is a finalist for National Freshman of the Year. Fellow freshman River Mahler, meanwhile, leads the Cardinal in batting with a .389 average.
The Cardinal aren’t the only team with some special kiddos.
UCLA’s Jordan Woolery and Megan Grant have been sensational and appear to be the Bruins’ next crop of All-Americans. Woolery ranks 2nd on the squad with a .399 batting average. She also has 10 home runs, 12 doubles and 46 RBIs, while Grant has a .327 batting average, 13 homers and 55 RBIs. Texas freshmen Leighann Goode and Viviana Martinez started all 56 games for the Longhorns, batting .347 and .345, respectively. Goode led the team with 112 total bases and 16 doubles and Martinez led with 48 RBIs. Duke pitcher Cassidy Curd has been nearly unhittable, boasting a 0.89 WHIP to go along with her 1.57 ERA and 16-1 record.
This could be Tennessee’s year — if it can get through a heavy-hitting regional
Tennessee has 7 WCWS berths, but none since 2015. But after a 44-8 record, including a sensational 19-5 mark in the SEC and the first dual regular-season and SEC Tournament championships in program history, the Volunteers are swinging for the fences.
Only problem? So are their Knoxville Regional foes. In fact, fans might want to bring an umbrella — or a spare helmet.
In addition to Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy, who leads the country with 23 homers, Indiana’s Taryn Kern and Louisville’s Taylor Roby are tied for 2nd in the country with 22. Granted, each of the three has more home runs than the 4th Knoxville squad and Tennessee’s opening game opponent, Northern Kentucky, which has 17 as a team.
But that kind of power should put the Volunteers’ prodigious pitching to the test. Tennessee ranked 4th nationally with a 1.52 ERA, with a 3-pitcher rotation that boasts some of the best depth in the game. Ace Ashley Rogers (16-1, 0.70 ERA, 160 strikeouts in 119.1 innings) leads a staff that also includes Payton Gottshall (13-1, 1.70 ERA) and Karlyn Pickens (9-6, 2.66 ERA) and three relievers — Charli Orsini, Nicola Simpson and Ryleigh White — who have each pitched more than 14 innings and have ERAs under 1.5.
Can Aaliyah Jordan lift UCLA back to the promised land?
Jordan is one of the most fascinating stories in college softball. After tearing her ACL on the verge of her freshman season and tearing her UCL at the end of a sensational redshirt freshman campaign 2018, Jordan tore her other ACL last year, her 6th in college softball. On a lark, UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez told her she could petition for a medical exemption for what would be her 7th year, and Jordan was head over heels.
Her return midway through this year has been an emotional spark for the surging Bruins, the last team to win a national title before Oklahoma’s recent run of dominance. Jordan was a key member of that 2019 title squad and could have been relegated to a mascot role in her return this year, but she’s batted .311 with 5 home runs and 16 RBIs in 23 games since returning, with 22 starts. Along with Player of the Year candidate Maya Brady (Tom’s niece), Jordan helps lead one of the best offenses in the country.
Much will fall on UCLA’s sensational pitching staff, though. UCLA has high hopes for Megan Faraimo (29-2, 1.33 ERA), Brooke Yanez (16-2, 2.02 ERA) and Taylor Tinsley (6-1, 1.47 ERA).
Northwestern is the Big Ten’s best chance for a trip to WCWS
As the consensus Freshman of the Year in 2019, Danielle Williams helped lead the Wildcats back to the nation’s elite, guiding Northwestern to its first Super Regional appearance since 2008.
Last year in her 3rd full season, she was a first-team All-American and led the Cats one step further, to first WCWS appearance since 2007. Williams, along with Lauren Boyd (8-4, 2.99 ERA) and Cami Henry (10-2, 3.45 ERA), form one of the top pitching trios in the tourney.
The class of the B1G, Northwestern is 1 of just 4 teams from the conference — along with Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska — while the Pac-12 has 6 and the SEC 12.
Can Oklahoma State right the ship in time?
There are two certainties in life, death and taxes, and they’ve come together for the Cowboys this year. After 2 straight WCWS appearances, they appeared to be well on their way to another dream season until Tax Day. From April 16 until now, OSU is 2-11, after starting the season 39-3, with early season wins over Oregon, Florida State and Missouri, as well as a sweep of Baylor, the only team to beat the Sooners this year. The Cowboys collapsed late against Texas and Oklahoma, suffering sweeps at the hands of both rivals.
Despite the sloppy finish, OSU still earned a 6-seed and a hosting opportunity and will open tournament play against Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday. Get past the Retrievers, and we could be headed for one incredible head-to-head matchup.
Wichita State, the Cowboys’ potential Game 2 opponent, is led by sweet-swinging senior Sydney McKinney, who is leading the country in batting average (.519) and hits (97). OSU would counter with Rachel Becker, who is batting .457, 7th in the country.
Even worse, the Shockers beat the Cowboys twice this year.
Will Montana Fouts play for Alabama, and if not, what does that mean for the wide-open Tuscaloosa Regional?
Alabama’s postseason hopes were dealt a big blow with one awkward step by star pitcher Montana Fouts. Fouts, who leads the Crimson Tide with a 23-9 record, 1.44 ERA and 311 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings, suffered a hyperextended left leg late in Alabama’s SEC Tournament win over Arkansas on May 11.
“You could see when she landed, it locked down a little bit,” head coach Patrick Murphy said on Wednesday. “It surprised her obviously. You could tell when she tried again, it hurt. It’s not, we really haven’t had something like that, but the doctors have all seen it in every other sport. So that kind of reassured me this isn’t like a one-in-a-million thing. It’s happened in other sports.”
Fouts, who is considered day-to-day, is absolutely critical for a Tide squad that does not have offensive firepower to compete with the nation’s elite. Just 3 Alabama players are batting better than .300, including star Ashley Prange, who leads the team with a .314 batting average, 16 home runs and 45 RBIs.
If she can’t go, that opens the door for Central Arkansas or Middle Tennessee to take advantage.
Uh, good luck, Clemson
Every year, some team draws the short straw, and this year it is certainly No. 16-seeded Clemson.
The young Tigers, who only established their program in 2017, won’t have an easy path to their first WCWS appearance. Even a second straight Super Regional is no fait accompli. Clemson seemed to be punished for a late-season swoon, as the Tigers dropped 5 of their final 11 games.
Will an offense led by Player of the Year finalist Valerie Cagle be enough to help lift the Tigers past 40-17 Auburn, which had a strong case to be seeded as well? And if so, what about UNC Greensboro and Cal State Fullerton, who are no slouches?
Even worse for Clemson — should the Tigers advance to the Super Regionals, they’ll likely be pitted against Oklahoma.
Who are top individual talents in the Tournament?
Between Tennessee’s Milloy, Clemson’s Cagle and UCLA’s Brady, this tournament field is chock full of tremendous talent and future Team USA contenders.
But Florida’s Skylar Wallace might be in a league of her own. Wallace ranks 5th nationally with a .460 batting average, 2nd with a .601 on-base percentage and 4th in walks and is tied for 7th with 19 home runs — 1 more than Brady and Cagle — and tied for 16th with 55 RBIs.
She is the total offensive package.