There is only one month remaining in the college softball regular season before the 2023 NCAA tournament begins.
Two-time defending Women’s College World Series champion Oklahoma is riding a 29-game winning streak and has been the unanimous No. 1 team in the country since February. The Sooners lead the country in batting average (.373), fielding percentage (.988) and ERA (0.88).
As much balance as the Sooners have — they have eight players (including catcher Kinzie Hansen) with an OPS above 1.050 — players from other top teams have stood out and made Player of the Year cases.
Two-way Clemson star Valerie Cagle ranks in the top five in batting average (.491), home runs (14) and ERA (0.54). Kiki Milloy has powered Tennessee to the top of the SEC thanks to her 15 home runs. Montana Fouts has anchored Alabama’s pitching staff with a league-leading 223 strikeouts.
Oklahoma State is one of 10 teams to average at least 7.00 runs per game and has also shut out opponents 17 times this season, tied for fourth most in the country. UCLA, in its penultimate season before joining the Big Ten, leads the Pac-12 thanks to Maya Brady’s bat, Megan Faraimo’s arm and a strong group of freshmen.
Our softball analysts break down the teams that have the most at stake over the next month, the games they’re looking forward to watching and if someone can dethrone Oklahoma.
What has surprised you the most about how the 2023 season has played out so far?
Michele Smith: The freshman class in general. This group of underclass athletes has had an impressive impact on their teams’ successes, like UCLA (Jordan Woolery and Megan Grant) Tennessee (Karlyn Pickens), Oklahoma State (Tallen Edwards), Texas (Leighann Goode and Viviana Martinez), Oklahoma (Jocelyn Erickson) and numerous others.
Jenny Dalton-Hill: I am not used to seeing so many pitching staffs working together to combine throughout the weekend. Rarely anymore are we seeing dominant pitchers carrying the heavy load. Of course, there are still those that do it like Cagle at Clemson, Kathryn Sandercock at Florida State, Faraimo at UCLA and Emma Lemley at Virginia Tech. I expect that outside of the Power 5, but the trend of large pitching staffs that are all contributing is growing.
Madison Shipman: I’ve been impressed with Virginia Tech’s ability to hit the long ball this season. They currently lead the country in that category and they have four different players in their lineup with double digit home runs.
Kayla Braud: I’ve been most surprised by the high number of players that combine high batting average with big time power numbers (Autumn Owens, Sydney McKinney, Jayda Coleman, Cagle, Kiki Milloy). We’re seeing a surge in players that are extremely dynamic, strong and fast. The days of the one-dimensional power hitters are gone.
Amanda Scarborough: The parity within the SEC. Everyone is beating everyone and there have been so many walks-offs and last-inning comeback wins. Plus, there have been tons of extra-inning games. Each game and series has been so unpredictable, and we aren’t used to seeing Florida and Alabama toward the middle/bottom half of the SEC standings.
Which team is the biggest threat to Oklahoma’s three-peat bid?
Smith: I’m not sure there’s a team that can beat them two of three games unless OU’s bats go cold. I think they’re most vulnerable by dropping a single game to one team and a second game to another.
Dalton-Hill: When Oklahoma loses a game, the Sooners come back stronger. I think the only way they do not make it to another national championship is if they run into two teams prior to the championship series that knock them out back to back. It’s going to be hard to find anyone that can take down the Sooners twice in a row.
Shipman: The biggest threat to Oklahoma’s three-peat bid is if someone can beat them before they get to the championship series. Oklahoma makes quick adjustments after losses, so beating them in a three-game series seems to be an extremely tall task. As of now, I would say Oklahoma State has the best shot to beat them, but since they play in the same conference, OU gets that many more looks at their pitching staff during the regular season.
Braud: Outside of Oklahoma State, I’ll take the Tennessee Lady Vols or the Florida State Seminoles. Both have deep pitching staffs and two veterans in the circle (Sandercock and Ashley Rogers), and despite the fact that OU has already beaten FSU once this year, the Noles always seem to perform the best when they’re an underdog and doubted.
Scarborough: Florida State. Head coach Lonni Alameda has used seven different pitchers this year for a reason: to get them ready for the postseason to win. A key against Oklahoma is to keep its offense off balance by showing its batters different looks, and Alameda has prepared her staff to do that this year. She is one of the best pitch callers and minds in the game, and when FSU played OU earlier this season, their hitters had a good approach against their pitching staff. FSU is always prepared.
Which team has the most to prove over the next month?
Smith: I feel Clemson has a lot to prove moving forward. The Tigers are a super talented team for sure, but will need to take their upcoming games and learn from them. FSU swept them at home, but it was clear they grew from the first game (7-0) to the third (3-2). That growth needs to continue and callous them up to make a deep postseason run.
Dalton-Hill: Making it to the WCWS is a difficult task. Making it there repeatedly is what I am looking for. Arizona made it last year under first-year head coach Caitlin Lowe, but so far, Year 2 has been rough. Oregon State, which also made the WCWS last year, is at the bottom of the Pac-12. With both of those teams playing in OKC last season, both squads have a lot of weight to pull if they plan on any kind of postseason.
Shipman: Alabama is the team that has the most to prove over the next month. There’s no doubt that Fouts is still one of the top pitchers in the country. Can the Tide win enough games through the regular season to stay in the top 16 and host a regional?
Montana Fouts throws a no-hitter for Alabama
Montana Fouts strikes out 10 over seven innings as Alabama blanks South Carolina 4-0.
Braud: Georgia is getting closer and closer to looking like a complete team. The Bulldogs’ hitting has always been there, but the pitching has been the big question mark this year. The last few weeks, they have shown improvement in the circle (a 1.37 ERA in their last 10 games). If they can continue to prove they have the pitching, they’ll be a lock for a top-eight seed.
Scarborough: The team that has the most to prove is the team that will earn the coveted 16 seed in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday, which by the looks of it will be an absolute dog fight. Each team ranked 13-20 in RPI is fighting to stay in the mix to host a regional. In a year filled with parity throughout the nation, home-field advantage matters so much. Georgia, Arkansas, Central Arkansas, Florida, Baylor and Kentucky are all on the bubble as it stands right now. Winning the next month matters.
Which player can make a big POY run over the next month?
Smith: I think Jayda Coleman can continue to improve her numbers even more through the Big 12 conference schedule. On a roster that also features Tiare Jennings and Haley Lee, Coleman leads the team in batting average and stolen bases, and is tied for the team lead with 11 home runs.
Dalton-Hill: I am on Team Valerie Cagle for this one. Three losses to Florida State over the weekend exposed Clemson, but with those lessons learned, I would like to see Cagle lead her team from within and lead the charge to make it to the WCWS for the first time.
Shipman: Cagle is still my frontrunner for player of the year. After a tough weekend against the Seminoles, I think she can bounce back and make a run through the rest of the regular season.
Braud: After the FSU sweep, Cagle needs to win some big games, including facing Virginia Tech on the road, and have an impactful performance in the ACC tournament.
Scarborough: I’m in total agreement about Cagle with the rest of the analysts above and Coleman is amazing, but I can’t stop looking at Kiki Milloy’s stats and think she has to be a frontrunner with a chance to make a big push over the next 4-5 weeks. She has a high average (.429) and is one of the best home run hitters (15) and one of the best base stealers (27-27). She is the complete offensive package with the ability to change the game offensively in a way no one else can in the country.
Which game (or series) are you most looking forward to watching?
Smith: I’m looking forward to the Oklahoma State-Texas series. Especially given how Texas ended Oklahoma State’s 2022 season, it’s going to be spicy. Also, who can forget about Bedlam? The top three teams in the Big 12 battling it out right before the postseason begins will be a precursor for the real thing.
Dalton-Hill: I am curious to see the Oklahoma-Baylor series. Baylor is the only team to beat the Sooners this season. Can they do it again at home in Waco? They will have three games to find out.
Shipman: I’m looking forward to watching Oklahoma at Oklahoma State in the last weekend of the regular season. A top-five matchup between two teams, in the same conference, in the same state … what more could you want?!
Braud: Ditto to the rest of the group. I’ll throw in a couple more standouts in the weeks to come: UCLA at Arizona (always a classic), LSU at Alabama and Tennessee at Arkansas.
Scarborough: Tennessee at Arkansas from April 29-May 1. The defending SEC champs vs. the team at the top of the SEC standings. Will the SEC regular season title come down to this weekend? Can Tennessee win an SEC championship for the first time since 2007?