The Women's College World Series used to seem more like the West Coast Invitational, with multiple entrants from the Pacific-12 Conference and Golden State squads such as California State-Fullerton and Fresno State frequenting the fields.
But if the bracket this year for the NCAA softball championship is any indication, the era of Pac-12 and West Coast domination of the sport might be nearing an end. For the first time since 1986, only one Pac-12 team — top-seeded Oregon — is in the field for the eight-team event that begins Thursday.
Instead of longtime softball stalwarts Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and California, teams such as Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama are becoming tournament regulars. Programs like Kentucky now are capable of traveling to third-seeded UCLA — softball's gold standard, with 11 national titles — and winning, which the Wildcats did twice Sunday to qualify for the WCWS.
Every coach with a team at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium thinks that's a good thing, including the one guiding the lone Pac-12 survivor.
"First off, I'm glad to be the one," Oregon coach Mike White quipped. "That tells you about the parity of the game right now. It's great for the game. A rising tide lifts all boats. The better everyone gets, the better this game gets. The more attention it draws, the more media, again, it's just good overall. We love that fact."
Fifth-seeded Florida (50-12) will face 13th-seeded Baylor (47-14) in the tournament opener Thursday, followed by games between Oregon (54-7-1) and eighth-seeded Florida State (55-7); sixth-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette (49-13) and 14th-seeded Kentucky (49-17); and second-seeded Alabama (50-11) and seventh-seeded Oklahoma (50-11).
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said the game between Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette will offer a microcosm of how softball has developed across the U.S. The Ragin' Cajuns' starting pitcher, Christina Hamilton, is from Leesville, Louisiana, while Kentucky's top starter, Kelsey Nunley, is from Soddy Daisy, Tennessee.
"How did that happen? It's amazing," Murphy said. "It's a credit to their coaching. Kids that grow up now ... they sit at home when they're little girls and watch the same event on ESPN every year and all the kids that watch dream of coming here. That's why the parity has spread."
It's been a slow process for schools outside the Pac-12/West Coast to break through. Texas A&M won a pair of national titles in 1983 and 1987, but a non-Pac-12/West Coast team didn't win again until Oklahoma did so in 2000. Michigan took the 2005 title before Alabama and Oklahoma have won national championships the past two seasons.
Starting in 1999, when five Pac-12 teams were in the WCWS field, the league sent at least three teams to the tournament for 12 straight years, but it's becoming harder for Pac-12 programs to maintain their domination of a sport that's drawn increased national media exposure.
"All the kids back in the day would watch and would see UCLA and Arizona, but not everybody could go there," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "So some of these pretty good athletes would start to venture out.
"I also believe that administrators stepping up for programs throughout the country and building some phenomenal facilities and really putting their money where their mouth is and supporting (softball) ... kids will come to those places. They want to play in tough conferences. They want to play with great facilities. They want to play for coaches that know how to win."
It's not that the Pac-12 teams have fallen off — Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington all spent time in the top 10 this season — but that softball in other parts of the U.S. has improved.
"You watch as coaches take over programs that may not have the tradition, but they build it day by day by day by day by day," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Michael Lotief said. "You see the same opportunities that are being afforded to females on the West Coast being afforded to athletes across the country. When you see . equity spread throughout the entire country, you're going to see the quality of softball get better."
Oregon is seeking to become the sixth Pac-12 team to win a national softball title and enters the tournament as the favorite, although not a prohibitive one. The Ducks have outscored their opponents 40-6 in five NCAA tournament games so far and have three All-Americans in pitcher Cheridan Hawkins, third baseman Courtney Ceo and outfielder Janie Takeda.
Oklahoma lost to Alabama in the 2013 WCWS championship series before rolling to the program's second national title last season. Gone from that team are (among others) All-America pitcher Keilani Ricketts, but the Sooners' current ace, Kelsey Stevens, pitched well in leading Oklahoma past Tennessee in a super regional that pitted last year's two finalists.
The Sooners also have received a boost from the return from injury of Lauren Chamberlain, who has hit 72 career home runs, including 11 this season in only 36 games.
Kentucky is the only team in the field making its first WCWS appearance, although Florida State is back for the first time since 2004. Louisiana-Lafayette, from the Sun Belt Conference, represents the programs from outside the so-called "power" conferences that long for a chance on the big stage.
"I think a seed is just a number," Kentucky senior Emily Jolly said. "We all took the same road here ... and I think of all of us as equals. We all think that we can beat anyone on a given day. There's not anyone that we think can just absolutely demolish us."