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Doss Softball Column 1

Doss: Tradition-Rich Softball Takes Mound

Despite significant losses, the Pac-12 figures to be formidable again in 2020

The Bruins celebrate a softball a victory during last year's championship season. | Jazmine Sosa/UCLA Athletics


By Kim Doss, SportsPac12


W
omen’s college basketball is in full swing. College gymnastics hit the mat a month ago. Now, comes softball. The diamond, just like the basketball court, the balance beam, and just about every other playing surface in college sports, is dominated by the Women of the Pac-12.

Once upon a time, the Conference's softball dominance was represented entirely by Arizona and the defending champions at UCLA. The Wildcats hold eight national titles and the Bruins picked up number 12 last June. 

Over the years, Arizona State, Washington and California have also added trophies to their cases, giving the Conference 24 of the 38 available crowns. In a league that only has nine members who play the sport, more than half of the teams have claimed national titles. 
  

The Turmoil of 2019


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Last year was one of turmoil for the conference. A coaching change at Oregon did not go well, to put it kindly, and the roster was decimated as one top player after another jumped ship. The bleeding didn’t stop until the week before the season started, with some of the players following their former coach to Texas

Arizona State also suffered multiple defections that left them at less-than-usual strength. 

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Despite the transfers around the league—many of them so late that coaches had no way of compensating for them—five teams made it to the postseason. ASU and Stanford were eliminated in the regionals, but UCLA, Arizona and Washington advanced to the eight-team Women’s College World Series. All three won at least one game and UCLA swept Oklahoma in the championship series.


The Olympics Come Calling

The transfer turmoil has settled down. No one is left scrambling for players this year. Still, some heavy hitters will be gone for the season.


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With the 2020 Olympics featuring softball and baseball again, several players will be preparing to play for the national teams this summer. For college players selected to USA Softball, that means taking a redshirt this season and a semester away from school. UCLA and Arizona were both hit by significant losses as a result.

Garcia
UCLA is by far the biggest loser to Team USA. Even if they had only lost Rachel Garcia, it would be a significant blow. Last year, she won just about every award in the softball world. She's dominant both in the circle and in the batter’s box. She went 29-1 as a pitcher last season with a 1.14 ERA, both tops in the Pac-12.

She’s not all the Bruins lose to Team USA, though. Bubba Nickles is also slated to go to Tokyo. The senior hit .390 and had a .714 slugging percentage last year. Over her career, she has a .426 on-base percentage.

Dejah
Meanwhile in Tucson, the Wildcats will be missing catcher Dejah Mulipola for the season. Considered the top defensive catcher in the college game last season, she is also a power on offense. Mulipola won both the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year and the NFCA Catcher of the Year awards in 2019, helping Arizona return to their first WCWS in nine years. 

There is one other school who has an Olympic-caliber pitcher who doesn’t have to forego her services this season. Washington junior Gabbie Plain will be pitching for her college team this season before representing her home country of Australia in Tokyo.


What do the Polls Project?

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Despite the talent missing from the top teams, the Pac-12 still dominates the preseason rankings and awards. The league’s coaches project Washington Huskies will win the league, followed by UCLA and Arizona. All three of those teams received at least one first-place vote from the pool of nine coaches.

Behind the top three, there’s a fairly large gap before No. 4 Arizona State, then another considerable drop down to No. 5 Oregon, No. 6 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon State. Utah and California bring up the rear with the two teams tied at No. 8.

The coaches’ top four teams all appear in the national rankings and Oregon also grabs a spot in some of the polls. The top three teams in the Pac-12 make up three of the top five in both the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll with Washington at No. 1, UCLA at No. 4 and Arizona at No. 5. ASU comes in at No. 25 while Oregon and Stanford both received votes.

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In the ESPN.com/USA Softball Preseason Poll, it’s No. 2 Washington followed by No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Arizona. The Sun Devils check in at No. 22 and Oregon grabs a spot at No. 24.


It's Preseason Tournament Time

Things get going on the field on Thursday, Feb. 6. Cal will travel to the Felsberg Invitational in Miami, Fla. to face Florida International, among others, and Stanford will go to Phoenix to play in Grand Canyon University’s tournament. 

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Oregon, Washington and Oregon State also head to tournaments while UCLA hosts one. The Ducks will kick things off against Utah Valley at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge. The Bruins will get started on their Garcia-free season by hosting Cal State Bakersfield to start the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament.

As usual, several members of the conference will be in Tempe playing in ASU’s Kajikawa Classic. The Sun Devils welcome Arizona and Utah from the Pac-12 as well as Northwestern, Kansas, Western Michigan, Portland State, Seattle and Tennessee. The three conference members do not play against each other in this early tournament.


MLB and USA Softball

The non-conference portion of the season is largely focused on tournaments, both big and small. Several members of the Pac-12 will also be hosting Team USA this season in the Stand By Her Tour that’s being sponsored by Major League Baseball

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Team USA will come to Tucson to face Arizona in February before heading off to the Mary Nutter Classic. In March, they will make a stop in Seattle to face Washington before making two quick stops in the state of Oregon to face the Ducks and the Beavers.

Arizona will also host Team Mexico which features two former Arizona pitchers, Taylor McQuillin and Danielle O’Toole Trejo.

The tour stops are a great opportunity for fans to watch some of the best players in the world face their local college teams, but the involvement of MLB in promoting softball might be the bigger story. The investment is welcomed by those in the sport. 

College softball is already a big draw as far as attendance and growing TV audiences, but the marketing power and money of MLB could help increase the audience, especially on the professional level. It might not hurt MLB’s own branding, either.

Candrea
“I've been a firm believer that the only way that we're going to get the professional league to go is if we can get some backing from Major League Baseball,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “And I think Major League Baseball right now is seeing it as an opportunity to help grow the sport and maybe help them with their branding to broaden a little bit. And so I think it's a win-win. And I'm excited about that, because anytime you can get MLB behind something, then there’s a better chance that it's going to be successful.”


Kim Doss (@KimDoss71) covers Pac-12 Women's Basketball and Softball for SportsPac12.com. 

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