Which one will win the Women’s College World Series?
The best-of-three championship series that begins Monday night at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium is somewhat unexpected. It isn’t that no one thought the Huskies or Seminoles could win a championship. They opened the season ranked Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, which is also where they were seeded by the time of the NCAA tournament.
We’ve known all season they are both very good. It was just that neither was, well, someone else.
Neither was two-time defending-champion Oklahoma.
Neither was No. 1 seed Oregon, champion of the best conference in the country this season.
Neither had national players of the year like Florida’s Kelly Barnhill or UCLA’s Rachel Garcia.
Without such shiny objects on which to fixate, it was easier to poke and prod the Seminoles and Huskies throughout the season and even the WCWS. It made it easier to look past strengths and worry about weaknesses. The question marks became part of their identity.
The answers to those questions reveal a lot about the teams that will take the field Monday night.
Could Florida State survive this season without its stars?
Last season was supposed to be Florida State’s year to make a run at the program’s long-sought first national championship (no program has played in more World Series without winning a title, and no ACC team has ever played for a title). But those Seminoles were upset in a super regional and lost some of their biggest stars to graduation and National Pro Fastpitch. No more stars, no chance? Not quite.
Florida State still has All-American senior third baseman Jessie Warren, the walking, grinning bundle of energy who hit a home run and reached base in all four plate appearances against UCLA in Sunday’s winner-take-all game. She is tied for ninth in career home runs with 82. The Seminoles also have freshman Sydney Sherrill, a high school star from Moore, Oklahoma, just down the road from the WCWS. Sherrill leads the nation in doubles and homered in weekend elimination games against Oregon and UCLA.
“She’s still growing,” Florida State coach Lonni Alameda said. “I can’t describe the limit for her. She’s so talented and she does have leadership skills. But part of that is growing up as a person too. That’s just being a student-athlete. Having the academic lifestyle and the athlete lifestyle, they help you grow so much. She’s still embracing all of that and having fun with it.”
The Seminoles have more than that, as surprise hero Elizabeth Mason showed to keep the season going with an important home run Sunday, but Warren and Sherrill are magical run producers.
Did Washington lose too much before it ever played a game?
Speaking of stars, Washington knew it had to move on this season without Ali Aguilar, one of the best to ever play for the program. It didn’t expect to also be without injured catcher Morganne Flores, a junior who was responsible for 21 home runs, 103 RBIs and a .614 slugging percentage during her first two seasons.
Washington’s offense has gone through ups and downs — prolific early, cold in conference play and a mix of both in the postseason. The Huskies didn’t have a freshman hitter like Sherrill waiting in the wings, but they answered their offensive losses by putting a second ace in front of the best defense in the land in Gabbie Plain, a freshman pitcher from Australia with a cool demeanor and wicked movement.
The Huskies were in the World Series a season ago largely as a one-pitcher team, at least when they got to Oklahoma City. That worked for a time, but Taran Alvelo ran out of steam by the semifinals. This season, Alvelo didn’t even start a World Series game until she shut out Oklahoma in the semifinals. She was able to work her way back from an injury at her own pace in the regular season because Plain handled the load with help from a defense that, led by shortstop Sis Bates and third baseman Taylor Van Zee, has committed just 31 errors in 60 games.
Didn’t Pac-12 play expose the Huskies?
If you could just remove the final 11 days of April from the calendar, Washington would have entered the final series against Florida State with a 52-2 record and a chance to match UCLA circa 1992 for the fewest losses in a championship season. Those April days count, of course, which is why a team that spent much of the season ranked No. 1 is the No. 5 seed. Then again, six consecutive losses to Oregon and UCLA may have been instrumental in getting to Monday.
“You learn more from losses sometimes than you do from wins,” senior outfielder Julia DePonte said. “And I think that we learned a lot through those six games. It was back-to-back, so it kind of stung. But sometimes losing doesn’t feel like losses, and we learned from it. We learned that this game is only one pitch at a time, one pitch away, it’s a game of inches.
“So we learned more than if we would have won those games. So I think it made us stronger.”
What does that look like? The Huskies have allowed 11 runs in 11 games since that losing streak, including seven runs in eight NCAA tournament games. For context, half of the World Series field, including Florida State, allowed at least seven runs in a single game this week. The postseason is all about small margins. Washington prepped for that the hard way in April.
Didn’t the first day of the World Series doom the Seminoles?
Not with Kylee Hanson and Meghan King around.
Only two teams ever went through the full losers bracket to win the championship. No team had even reached the championship round in that manner since 2010. After dropping its opener, Florida State has a chance to be the third to complete the comeback because it had pitching to survive four elimination games in the span of about 30 hours over the weekend — not to mention two elimination games in the super regional it hosted a week ago.
“Every team here has to have at least two superstar pitchers,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said Sunday. “If you don’t have that, you’re probably not going to last very long.”
The Seminoles didn’t need one pitcher to pull off a Taryne Mowatt — which can still be called that because no one has matched the former Arizona star’s one-pitcher marathon since she threw more than a thousand pitches in the 2007 World Series. After Hanson, an All-American at Florida Atlantic, unexpectedly fell in their laps as a fifth-year senior transfer last summer, the Seminoles had one of the best one-two punches (or one-one, as coach Lonni Alameda prefers to describe it) in the nation with her and King.
King was outstanding in two elimination games, including Sunday’s first game against UCLA. Hanson bounced back from her struggles in the opener with a gem against Oregon on Saturday night, which meant Florida State just needed its offense to carry the load for one game — and it did against a UCLA team that ran out of pitching Sunday evening.
So after four months only one question remains. Who will win?
Free Sports Press Prediction: FSU drops the first game but rallies in the final two to claim their first ever NCAA WCWS Championship.
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It’s the Sights of the Game, presented by Black Hills Regional Eye Institute.