How WCWS memorable moments changed softball

Each is among softball’s indelible images. Oklahoma’s hometown heroes standing over Goliath. Jennie Finch’s perfect season. Keira Goerl’s flawless final game. A Michigan home run unlike any that came before Samantha Findlay launched it into the night.

Four timeless moments from the Women’s College World Series. Four performances that live forever outside history, like Don Larsen’s perfect game or Nadia Comaneci’s perfect score.

Collectively, they also connect dots. If they didn’t change history, they at least tell its story.

From Oklahoma winning its first national championship on familiar turf in 2000 to Findlay’s extra-inning home run that sealed Michigan’s title in 2005, the first five years of a new century saw the Women’s College World Series and softball itself grow from a regional specialty into a national staple. What’s more, from Arizona’s Finch completing a perfect pitching season in 2001 to UCLA’s Goerl throwing the first and only championship no-hitter in 2003, two great dynasties that challenged the sport to reach that moment of transformation refused to fade quietly from the scene.

The sport’s past ran headlong into its future. That collision created some of the most memorable moments in Women’s College World Series history and a sequence that reshaped the sport.

Oklahoma brings in a new era

Consider how different the sport looked just two decades ago. As much as their basketball rivalry drew more attention, UConn and Tennessee had nothing on Arizona and UCLA softball.

“Back then, I used to say we had a No. 1 team in the country, and we had a No. 2 team,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins recalled, “and then the next team starts at about No. 12.”

Between 1988 and 1999, Arizona and UCLA won 12 of 13 national championships. One of those titles was later erased from the books, with UCLA’s 1995 win vacated as a result of violations involving pitcher Tanya Harding’s eligibility. But even then, Arizona came in second that year. In fact, the Bruins and Wildcats played each other for the title five times in that span.

UCLA was Athens, winning the first Women’s College World Series under the NCAA umbrella in 1982 and three of the first four. Once Mike Candrea built Arizona into Rome, making the first of 16 consecutive World Series trips in 1988, the region’s stranglehold on power was secure.

“It kind of reminds me of what people would say about UConn women’s basketball,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “They would say, ‘You’re so good. It’s not good for the sport because you’re just dominating everyone. So who wants to continue to watch that?’ Which is kind of ridiculous, but I think that’s sometimes how people might feel, like they’re tired of watching it.”

Tired of watching it or not inspired to start watching. As much as the Women’s College World Series was a softball wonderland for players and coaches from almost the moment it arrived at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City in 1990, it showed few immediate signs of resonating in the wider world.

Until 2000, the championship game aired on tape delay on ESPN. Also until 2000, no championship game drew a crowd of 5,000 people.

That changed with Oklahoma’s first trip to the NCAA Women’s College World Series.

OU’s campus in Norman is a short drive down the highway from the site of the World Series, but the Sooners were softball outsiders — enough of outsiders that they played Arizona six times in Gasso’s debut season in 1996, a scheduling gift left over from the previous regime. The Sooners lost all six games and gave up 70 runs in the process.

They lost to Arizona again in the 2000 regular season, but it was one of only eight losses all season. After narrow wins against Cal and Southern Miss in its first two games in the World Series, Oklahoma beat Arizona 1-0 behind pitcher Jennifer Stewart’s semifinal shutout.

Playing for a championship one day later, Stewart held the Bruins to a run in a 3-1 win.

Stewart wasn’t a strikeout pitcher, but she pitched to her strengths. Largely shut out by the most sought West Coast recruits, Gasso always looked to surround her pitchers with defense.

“If you don’t have a pretty dominant, mentally tough pitcher, you’re going to struggle,” Gasso said. “We had exactly that with Jennifer Stewart.”

It remains the only time that a team beat the Bruins and Wildcats in the final two rounds. If it’s a stretch to say the world watched, then the upsets unfolded in front of more eyes than ever before. The live broadcast drew the event’s best rating, and 8,049 fans showed up for the final, easily breaking a record and helping cement the World Series as an Oklahoma City institution.

“I think when we ended up winning that championship, it changed our world, obviously. It changed my world, changed our players’ worlds, changed the program’s world,” Gasso said. “But I have to say, I thought it changed the world of softball a little bit. We were just a Midwest school with not a big name in softball up to that point. And it gave hope to others.”

Jennie Finch’s perfect response

If Oklahoma gave the rest of college softball hope in 2000, Finch did all she could to extinguish it a year later while setting herself on a course to inspire a generation.

Finch wasn’t yet a household name in 2001 — unless it was a softball household. The mainstream stardom that awaited her with Olympic medals and an expanding endorsement portfolio was still in the future. In 2001, Finch was putting together one of the most impressive individual seasons in college softball history. She hit .313 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs as a fixture in the middle of the batting order, but offense wasn’t the headline.

She finished that season with a 32-0 record and 0.54 ERA as a pitcher, still the most wins in a season by an undefeated pitcher in Division I history.

For someone such as UCLA All-American Natasha Watley, Finch’s aura at the time was the same as it was throughout youth softball careers that often intersected: less that of a rock star and more simply someone who was a pain to hit against.

“The respect was there because she was a competitor,” Watley said. “She was good, and that was it. The aura around her was you had to bring your A-game if you were going to face Jennie. It had nothing to do with everything that came after — and what a great ambassador she’s become for our game. But that wasn’t the aura then.

“It was that you’re facing a great pitcher, and you better not take the day off.”

Finch beat Cal and Oklahoma in Arizona’s first two games in the World Series, pulling off the feat of beating aces who won championships the year before (Oklahoma’s Stewart) and the year after (Cal’s Jocelyn Forest). She saved her lone shutout for the biggest stage, holding UCLA without a run in a 1-0 championship win and completing a perfect season.

That was the launchpad for the biggest star the sport has ever known.

“She was a phenomenal competitor, phenomenal pitcher, first and foremost,” Gasso said. “But what you also got to see was humility and a physically beautiful, attractive, young woman who is made like a pitcher. You couldn’t make a pitcher any better unless maybe you made her left-handed. She had a presence about her, and she just had a glow about her.”

Finch wasn’t softball’s first star. Even putting aside names such as Joan Joyce from the pre-NCAA era, more contemporary college standouts such as Lisa Fernandez gained newfound reach through post-college feats in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. But arriving at a time when college softball’s ascent accelerated and the internet revolutionized communications, Finch foretold what was possible in a new era, even as she retained the championship for one of the old guard.

“What Jennie Finch did alone was open the door for young, female softball players to make a living off of their sport, whether it’s through endorsements, professionally, whatever,” Gasso said. “I look at Lauren Chamberlain, Keilani Ricketts, some of these people who are making a living off of the sport, and I don’t know if that would have happened without Jennie Finch taking the reins.”

Keira Goerl restores UCLA’s empire

Cal gained a measure of revenge by beating Finch in the 2002 national championship game, keeping the balance of power squarely on the West Coast but nonetheless extending the march toward parity by becoming the first Pac-10 team other than Arizona or UCLA to win.

That left UCLA’s seniors in a distinctly uncomfortable position as the 2003 season began.

Through more than two decades of the World Series, no senior class had left UCLA without a championship. That streak ultimately survived for another year — but only after one of the wildest World Series weeks ever, an odyssey through the losers bracket and to the brink of elimination. It was a run that demonstrated how hard it might be for UCLA to still be UCLA.

It was also a run that required the first no-hitter in championship game history to complete.

“I would have hated to end my career with only one class not getting a championship ring — and it was the class that had the best people,” said then-UCLA coach Sue Enquist. “It would have been a terrible irony. I’m just so proud that they managed that pressure. It was a story unto itself. I don’t think anybody will ever know what they took on during that time.”

UCLA was hardly an underdog in a season in which it went 54-7, but there were just enough hiccups — such as being swept in the season series against Arizona — to lend credence to the idea that there was something missing. Then the Bruins lost to Cal in their World Series opener. Only five consecutive wins in elimination games saved them.

“The years prior, it was like, ‘We are UCLA. Tradition is we’re supposed to be here,'” Watley said. “That’s the expectation. That’s the standard. It’s almost like a sense of entitlement in a bad way. That senior year, we knew the outcome could potentially not be a national championship game. So losing that first game, it was like, ‘OK, another wakeup call. But we still have life. We still have another chance.’ We had seen the previous three years and didn’t want that to repeat itself.

“It wasn’t a sense of entitlement of feeling like we should win just because.”

That resilience helped shape a World Series moment that arguably overshadows even the championship no-hitter. After winning two elimination games Saturday, UCLA had to beat Texas twice on Sunday to reach the championship game. Texas ace Cat Osterman, well on her way to Olympic gold the following year, had lost just four times all season.

A surprisingly comfortable (at least by the standards of Osterman) 3-0 win in the first game set up a winner-take-all game against the Longhorns. Down a run and down to the final out, Watley singled to bring home Monique Mejia with the tying run. Then, with one of the more famous slides in softball history, Watley raced toward home on a Caitlin Benyi hit, launched herself headfirst around the catcher and grazed the corner of the plate with her left hand.

UCLA advanced. Goerl didn’t allow an earned run while pitching every inning of both games.

It’s little wonder that the Bruins had faith that she would find a way to get the win against Cal in the final. She allowed no hits and four walks — three of them intentional walks to Cal slugger Veronica Nelson, who hit a home run off Goerl in the UCLA loss that began the odyssey days earlier.

“With Keira, everyone was like, ‘We’re getting on your cape because you’re a monster,'” Enquist said. “And she was. In all my years of coaching, coaching with the national team, playing on a world championship team, I had never witnessed somebody that has that swagger — but it’s real swagger.”

Seniors Watley and Tairia Mims went on to win gold with Team USA the following year. But Goerl went right back to restoring some order in college softball, leading the Bruins to a second consecutive national title in 2004 and compiling a 71-14 record in her final two seasons.

Michigan comes in out of the cold

There was a World Series before the NCAA got involved. Carol Hutchins appreciates that more than most, as she won a title as a player when the event was sanctioned by the AIAW.

Even so, the Michigan coach was almost giddy when she walked into Hall of Fame Stadium for the first time as a participant in 1995, mesmerized by the scale of the venue that replaced the parks and intramural fields that sometimes settled championships in her playing days.

“Way back when, I remember being awestruck,” Hutchins said. “So if I was awestruck, I’m certain my team was.”

Indeed, despite emerging as the best cold weather program in the country under Hutchins, Michigan was 2-14 in the World Series entering the 2005 season. After a particularly painful exit in 2004, including a 13-inning loss, Hutchins groused that she wasn’t sure she wanted to come back. She was certain that a new postseason format introduced in 2005, adding a super-regional round and expanding the championship series to a best-of-three, would bring that much more misery for everyone looking up at the ruling dynasties.

“Any team can beat anybody on a given day, but now I’m thinking the team that gets to play the powerhouse is going to have to beat them two out of three,” Hutchins said. “I was opposed to it — not literally, but I thought, ‘This is going to make it harder than ever to knock off the Arizona and UCLA types.'”

Findlay made her coach look a little foolish just a few months later, when the freshman’s 10th-inning home run in the third game of the final series against UCLA sealed Michigan’s first title.

She was perfect for the role. While Michigan had its share of California talent — a necessity for any contender — ace Jennie Ritter and star shortstop Jessica Merchant came from Michigan. Findlay arrived that season from just outside of Chicago, the final piece of evidence that a non-West Coast team — not just a team of transplants — could win it all.

Findlay had 20 home runs on the season when the final game of the first best-of-three championship series began. She already had a double and an RBI in that game when she came to the plate with two runners on and two outs in the 10th inning. Her earlier RBI was the only run Michigan had scored in a 1-1 stalemate through nine innings.

“Honestly, I thought there is no way they’re going to pitch directly to her,” Hutchins said. “But it is hard to pitch somebody to third base. And a walk puts the go-ahead run on third. I think they were trying to pitch around her and just missed.”

With the drama of an extended championship series drawing the biggest television audience in college softball history to date, Findlay drove a ball deep into the night.

“We had our plans. We just didn’t execute,” Enquist said. “And they capitalized. But Sam Findlay was no secret.”

It wasn’t a walk-off, though it is often remembered as such. But when Ritter got the three outs needed in the bottom of the inning, Michigan had the win that redrew the map of college softball.

“It was probably one of the greatest things for our sport, was to have somebody east of the Mississippi River win a national championship,” said Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, who watched on television along with so many others that night. “Especially a cold weather school, they had everything going against them, for sure. For them to do it, it paved the way for a lot — obviously, for us. There are so many moments in our sport that you look back and you go, ‘Man, that was a difference-maker,’ and I think that was one of the biggest ones.”

Arizona and UCLA weren’t finished, with the Wildcats winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 and the Bruins coming out on top when the two old rivals met again in the final round in 2010. They still aren’t finished, as Kinsley Washington’s walk-off hit pushed UCLA past Oklahoma last spring.

Nonetheless, the sport is forever changed and is now a truly national playing field with a championship that captures a remarkable share of the nation’s attention for at least one week every spring.

Softball these days isn’t what it is because of what happened in the World Series from 2000 to 2005. But the sport is absolutely a reflection of what those years showed us was coming.