More than two weeks ago, 64 teams punched their tickets to the 2022 NCAA softball tournament. The field has been trimmed to the country’s top eight programs and the stage is set for the 40th Women’s College World Series. As each team hopes to storm the mound in celebration and hoist the WCWS championship trophy at USA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, this year’s final eight teams are an intriguing group.
Five are seeded in the top 16, including three teams that earned top-eight seeds ahead of the tournament. However, beyond college softball’s bluebloods that have become staples this time of year, the remaining field also includes three dangerous unseeded teams aiming to continue their journey until the final out is called.
The WCWS action begins Thursday as reigning champion No. 1 Oklahoma will face a record-smashing No. 9 Northwestern team that returns to the sport’s biggest stage for the first time since 2007. College softball powerhouse No. 5 UCLA will go to battle with Texas, one of the three unseeded teams looking to keep its Cinderella season alive after defeating some of the top teams in the country.
Two-time national champion No. 14 Florida, which last finished as a WCWS runner-up in 2017 and made its last appearance in Oklahoma City in ’19, will square off against an Oregon State squad that finds itself back in the WCWS for the first time since ’06 when it finished fifth in the Pac-12 regular-season standings. No. 7 Oklahoma State, a program making its third consecutive WCWS appearance, will seek to get over the hump when it faces an unseeded Arizona team that has overperformed its way to its 25th WCWS appearance dating back to 1988. But before the games begin, here are a few things to know about this year’s WCWS.
Oklahoma, UCLA and Florida’s dominance
Oklahoma, UCLA and Florida have combined for seven of the last 10 championships, which provides an accurate depiction of the three conferences—the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the SEC—that have dominated the sport through the years. While the Bruins sit as the sole leader for the most WCWS titles (13), the Sooners have flexed their muscles, winning four titles within the last 10 years and three since 2016.
Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso has positioned the No. 1 Sooners to potentially bring the program’s sixth WCWS championship trophy back to Norman, backed by an explosive offense and stellar pitching. Oklahoma boasts the back-to-back college player of the year in Jocelyn Alo, who has recorded more home runs (117) than any other player in Division I history and sits second in the country in batting average (.497). But, the outfielder’s production is not the be-all end-all to the Sooners’ offensive arsenal. The team, itself, currently sits atop the nation in batting average (.369) and also has players like Tiare Jennings and Grace Lyons who have combined for 45 homers this season. Then, consider the Sooners’ three pitchers: Hope Trautwein, who went 18–1 while sitting atop the country with a 0.40 ERA; Jordy Bahl, the nation’s freshman of the year, who posted a 0.95 ERA and went 21–1 as a starter; and Nicole May, who went 15–0 and recorded a 0.99 ERA. While anything can happen, Oklahoma looks primed to compete through the final game of the WCWS.
UCLA, which held a 25-game winning streak earlier this season, is three years removed from its last WCWS title in 2019 under coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. The Bruins’ path to success included overcoming injuries to key players like Maya Brady, the niece of Tom Brady, as well as infielder Delanie Wisz making big plays when it mattered the most. Brady has recorded hits in 10 of the Bruins’ last 11 games that includes a three-for-three, two RBI outing against Duke in the Super Regional victory. Wisz, who currently has a .500 batting average in the postseason, posted three hits and four RBIs in the Super Regionals. Performances from Wisz, Brady and this year’s Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, Megan Faraimo, will play a big part in determining whether the Bruins secure their 14th championship in program history.
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Gators coach Tim Walton leads Florida into the WCWS after the program last won back-to-back championships in 2014 and ’15 and finished as runner-up in ’17. In a crowded SEC field that featured five teams receiving a top-16 seed, No. 14 Florida is the only team from the league left in the tournament. Keep a close eye on infielder Skylar Wallace, who is the engine behind the Gators’ offense. In Florida’s 12–0 win against No. 3 Virginia Tech in the Super Regionals, Wallace totaled four RBIs. She leads Florida in batting average (.406), home runs (eight), RBIs (53), total bases (117) and slugging percentage (.669). Throughout the tournament, Florida has outscored its opponents, 47–10.
Northwestern: The Big Ten’s best
The Wildcats return to the WCWS for the first time in 15 years and are one of four teams seeking its first NCAA softball championship. Northwestern finished the regular season atop the Big Ten standings and was the only team in the league to earn a top-16 seed in this year’s tournament, despite not winning the conference tournament. Katie Drohan, the Wildcats’ coach, aims to guide the program past its furthest mark in the tournament as a WCWS runner-up in 2006. With a tough matchup against the Sooners, it’s one that the program feels it is prepared for due to the production of Big Ten Player of the Year Rachel Lewis and Big Ten pitcher of the Year Danielle Williams delivering in key moments this season. If Northwestern hopes to pull off the upset against Oklahoma, its chances lie in the play of both Lewis and Williams, who has pitched 91% of the Wildcats’ innings throughout the tournament, outpacing the other teams in the field by a double-digit margin.
Oklahoma State: The Cowgirls’ pitching
The Cowgirls did not like the way their season ended a year ago in the WCWS, suffering losses from James Madison and Florida State. Cowgirls coach Kenny Gajewski hopes for a different outcome this time around. OSU will aim to do so with Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Kelly Maxwell, who has been a game-changer, averaging 11.6 strikeouts per seven innings (leading the Big 12 and ranking second in the country). Behind Maxwell, Miranda Elish, a two-way star, was hitting and pitching for OSU. However, Elish—the 2020 Softball America’s National Player of the Year—has not pitched for the program since injuring her biceps tendon on April 24 but has still been hitting. Elish will watch her younger sister, Madi, play for Arizona when the two teams battle on the diamond. With Miranda out of the pitching rotation, Morgan Day will likely fill in for her. Day came in as a relief pitcher when the Cowgirls defeated the Sooners in the Big 12 title game, becoming the second team to beat Oklahoma this season. Between Maxwell (279), Miranda (128) and Day (104), the three have tallied a triple-digit single-season strikeout total for the first time in program history. But beyond pitching, the Cowgirls will also rely on hitters Sydney Pennington, Julia Cottrill and Chyenne Factor in leading OSU to a victory against Arizona.
The dangerous unseeded teams
Texas and Oregon State join Northwestern as three teams attempting to conquer a blueblood caliber program on its way to winning its first NCAA softball championship. Arizona, while unseeded in this year’s tournament, is no stranger to postseason play nor winning championships as the Wildcats have won eight in program history, the second most behind Pac-12 powerhouse UCLA.
The Longhorns have spent the entire postseason on the road, knocking off No. 13 Washington and defeating the SEC’s top-seeded team, No. 4 Arkansas, in the Super Regional. For Texas to continue its Cinderella season, the Longhorns are tasked with slowing down the Bruins’ production offensively, limiting errors as well as getting timely hits to drive in runs. Texas pitcher Hailey Dolcini and infielder Janae Johnson, who leads the program in batting average (.431) and slugging percentage (.649), and sits second in stolen bases (16) and third in RBIs (33).
Meanwhile, the Beavers won 39 games this season, the most under Oregon State coach Laura Berg. With hopes of defeating Florida, the Beavers will lean on All-Pac-12 pitcher Mariah Mazon to slow down the Gators offensively. Going into the WCWS, Mazon has held opponents to a batting average of .192. The other key piece to an Oregon State win comes at the play of slugger Frankie Hammoude, who leads the team in home runs (15), batting average (.386) and on-base percentage (.508).
Arizona barely made this year’s tournament in Caitlin Lowe’s first year as head coach following the retirement of legendary Mike Candrea after the 2021 season. The Wildcats are a classic case of a program that began playing their best at the right time. Arizona earned two shutouts against Missouri and two wins against Mississippi State to become the only unseeded team to go unblemished on the road heading into the WCWS. To knock off Oklahoma State and keep its season alive, Arizona will rely on ace pitcher Hannah Bowen and infielder Allie Skaggs, an All-Pac-12 member who recorded 24 home runs, a .371 batting average and a .460 on-base percentage. While it is Lowe’s first year as coach, she spent four seasons as the program’s associate head coach under Candrea and played on the last Wildcats teams to win championships in ’06 and ’07. Could Arizona be on the brink of the program’s ninth title? That remains to be seen as the WCWS unfolds.