The SEC softball Death Star is almost here, and it's ready to dominate

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OKLAHOMA CITY — In 1982, Dot Richardson powered UCLA to college softball’s first national championship. Those Bruins launched the Pac-10’s domination of the sport. UCLA or Arizona won every national title from 1988 to 1997 until another West Coast power, Fresno State, finally snapped the streak. Cal, Arizona State and Washington later added national championships to the Pac-10’s trophy case.

“There was a dominance in the Pac-10 that ignited the growth of softball,” Richardson, a shortstop for the Bruins named NCAA Player of the Decade for the 1980s, said. “It was the example for other conferences to compete against.”

This Women’s College World Series officially ended that era and ushered in another — the arrival of the SEC Death Star, primed to lord over softball and the WCWS for years to come.

“The [Pac-]12 started softball, really,” Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso, who has coached the Sooners to seven national titles this millennium, said. “It was always UCLA and Arizona. They’re the stepping stones that led to other teams. … The idea of them dissipating the Pac-12 is really hard for me to fathom because of the history of softball. … I don’t know, I’m sentimental over that.”

Because of football-driven conference realignment, the Pac-12 played its final softball game Monday, as Texas eliminated Stanford.

Texas, the No. 1 overall seed, will face Oklahoma for the national championship beginning Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) in a best-of-three series. The second-seeded Sooners will be going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship.

Next season, Oklahoma and Texas will play in the SEC, which, for the fourth time since 2017, had all 13 programs that compete in softball qualify for the NCAA postseason. SEC programs also had eight of the top 16 seeds, not including the Sooners and Longhorns.

The latest round of conference realignment destroyed the Pac-12 and positioned the SEC to reign supreme over softball, potentially unlike any conference over a single sport.

“It’s gut-wrenching, to be honest,” Arizona interim athletic director Mike Candrea, who won eight national titles and 1,674 games with the Wildcats to become the sport’s winningest coach, said. “We’re living in a world now that’s completely different.”

Both Richardson and Candrea saw the change coming long before Texas and Oklahoma bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. Over the years, blue-chip recruits have gradually migrated from California to ascending programs like Oklahoma. The Sooners have eight players from California on their roster, including All-American senior shortstop Tiare Jennings (San Pedro, California), who is third in NCAA history with 97 career home runs.

Off its three straight national titles, Oklahoma also unveiled Love’s Field this spring. The $48 million stadium seats 4,200 and boasts a 10,000-square-foot indoor training center. Many of the other premier softball facilities now reside in the SEC.

UCLA, meanwhile, despite its 12 national championships, plays in a stadium that hasn’t been renovated since 2005 and seats only 1,300.

“A Pac-12 coaching staff told me it’s not as easy anymore, because [recruits] look at facilities, and what do I get? You look at NIL, and what do I get?” Richardson, now the head coach at Liberty, said. She added that the SEC began to seriously invest in softball after Michigan became the first program east of the Mississippi River to win the national title in 2005. “You started to see the SEC starting to raise its development and facilities. So a lot of California and Arizona and West Coast athletes started to come east. And they came east because of the commitment to the sport of softball, by facilities as well as staff salaries, coaching staffs and commitment that was being made.”

Recruiting for the former Pac-12 schools won’t get any easier. UCLA, Oregon and Washington will have to sell players on playing in the Big Ten cold, with road trips collectively totaling thousands of miles. Pac-12 players, such as Paige Sinicki, the first Gold Glove Award winner in Oregon history, have already balked at this predicament.

“To see it come to this point now,” Candrea said, “is really kind of sad.”

Cat Osterman, a former three-time national player of the year, still sees hope for non-SEC programs. But the former Texas great who still holds school records in career victories (136), ERA (0.51), shutouts (85), and no-hitters (20), agreed the SEC is going to be a softball juggernaut.

“It’s still possible for other programs to be able to build and compete,” Osterman said, singling out Oklahoma State, which has made the WCWS five straight years out of the Big 12. “But obviously, the SEC is going to be even stronger with Texas and OU.”

Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, whose Crimson Tide captured the SEC’s first softball national championship in 2012, said he doesn’t “even want to think about” how difficult the SEC schedule will be going forward. Texas coach Mike White, who’s from New Zealand and began his career at Oregon, said the new SEC is going to be “really, really tough,” adding that he can “see having 15 losses in that conference and still doing pretty well.”

A loaded conference won’t just be a challenge for teams but also for the NCAA selection committee.

“We try to throw the conference stuff out of it when we start seeding teams and looking at that full year of work,” Kurt McGuffin, the selection chair who is the athletic director at Tennessee-Martin, said. “But definitely, the SEC provides great teams.”

McGuffin admitted the SEC’s impending dominance in softball can only be rivaled by the Big Ten’s current prowess in women’s volleyball, though Texas has won the past two national titles in that sport. McGuffin said he envisions programs from other conferences lining up to play SEC opponents to bolster their résumés for the committee.

“You go back to some of our criteria, top 25 wins, top 50 wins — the SEC’s going to get a lot of those in their conference,” he said. “But we still look at nonconference strength of schedule. We still want to see you play people at the beginning of the season that stack up. If you’re not in the SEC, I think playing quality teams in the nonconference schedule, playing SEC teams, maybe not Oklahoma, Texas or Tennessee, but maybe even in the middle-of-the-pack SEC teams, can help your nonconference strength of schedule.”

UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, who won three national championships playing for the Bruins and coached them to two more in 2010 and 2019, recalled when the Pac-12 was viewed that way not all that long ago.

“When you think about the greatest that have played in history, the championships, it’s the Pac-12,” she said. “That’s a big reason why so many people wanted to compete in the Pac.”

With the dissipation of the Pac-12 and the investment in softball in the SEC, it has become the new standard for the sport.

Florida coach Tim Walton, whose Gators won back-to-back national championships in 2013 and 2014 and came an inning away from upsetting Oklahoma and playing for another title this week, noted that the SEC was already the top RPI (rating percentage index) conference without the Sooners and Longhorns.

“The SEC is different. … The travel, the fans, the passion, the number of fans. It’s just different,” Walton said. “I’m excited that [Oklahoma and Texas] are coming to the SEC. I think they’re going to expand recruiting bases for their programs and our programs, the television coverage and the popularity. … Now we’re going to be the No. 1 plus/star RPI conference. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re in for a challenge. They’re in for a challenge.”

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but softball just means more, too. And Richardson, who faces many of the conference’s schools every year from Liberty, sees it up close.

“I think the SEC,” she said, “is trying to dominate in all sports.”

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