The votes were counted and softball fans are ready to hand in their all-time lineup card.
After a college season that concluded without a champion on the field, we left it up to your votes to settle a different sort of competition for softball immortality. One player at every position. The best NCAA team ever assembled. ESPN’s Greatest All-Time Softball Team, presented by 7Innings Podcast. At least as determined by the largest share of voters.
So that argument is resolved forever, right? Maybe not. Mirroring a surge in fan interest in recent years, as measured by attendance and television ratings for the Women’s College World Series, voters selected a team rooted in the very recent past. The outfield and pitching circle take us back a few years, at least, but only one player who played her entire college career before 2000 made the cut (the NCAA began sponsoring softball in 1982).
Two players who aren’t even done playing, thanks to the NCAA allowing schools to extend eligibility in response to the coronavirus pandemic, finished atop their respective positions.
Why did America settle on this particular collection of all-time greats? Well, we can’t get inside the brain of every voter, but it isn’t difficult to come up with a snapshot of each player — a moment in time, a trait or even a particular statistic — that helps explain their appeal.
Catcher: Aubree Munro, Florida (2013-16)
Munro has developed into a seriously clutch hitter for Team USA, but defense made her famous with the Gators. And while statistics still struggle to do justice to that side of the game, sometimes higher-level math isn’t required to get the point across.
So here you go: Opponents stole five bases during Munro’s final season at Florida.
Not five in a game. Not in a weekend. Not in conference play. For the season. And despite opposing coaches opting for the white flag instead of the green light when it came to the running game, she still threw out more runners than succeeded against her that season. Even former major league catcher Doug Mirabelli, a volunteer coach for the Gators during her career, marveled at her ability to whip the ball around the diamond from her knees — lessons learned at the feet of former UCLA defensive standout Jen Schroeder. From her arm to agility behind the plate to managing pitching personalities, Munro turned the tools of ignorance into genius artistry.
Aubree Munro: (30.33%)
Stacey Nuveman: (27.51%)
Jessica Shults: (13.45%)
Stacie Chambers: (8.16%)
Shelley Stokes: (8.07%)
Kristen Rivera: (5.64%)
Leah Braatz: (4.07%)
Gillian Boxx: (2.78%)
First base: Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma (2011-14)
Oklahoma fielded perhaps the most dominant college softball team ever put together in 2013, a group for whom a title seemed a foregone conclusion. At least until Tennessee took a three-run lead in the 11th inning of the opening game of the championship series and woke the ghosts of the championship that slipped from Oklahoma’s grasp a year earlier. But Oklahoma extended the game, and Chamberlain put the exclamation point back on inevitability in the 12th inning.
Swinging at the first pitch, she hit the ball almost directly over the left-field foul pole to end what was then the longest championship-round game in nearly three decades. She would ultimately break the NCAA all-time home run record, but that swing deep into an Oklahoma City night summed up why Chamberlain had not only the skill but the personality to rewrite history.
Second base: Sierra Romero, Michigan (2013-16)
You can fill up a hard drive with all the numbers that prove Romero is among the sport’s all-time greats, but you still need to account for the magnetism she brought to Michigan.
It is college softball canon by now that Michigan ushered in a new age for the sport with its 2005 national championship, the first from a team east of the Mississippi River, let alone one from a cold-weather campus. But that worked both ways. With so many more programs now in the mix, the Wolverines have been back to Oklahoma City four times since winning their title. Three of those visits came while Romero split her time between second base and shortstop. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s the kind of individual impact that generally only pitchers provide. She played as if she had something to prove to everyone but herself. And she brought a team with her.
Shortstop: Sis Bates, Washington (2017-2021)
No one in the sport challenges its language quite the way Bates does. Maybe no one ever has.
Is it a pirouette when she goes to her left, fields a ball seemingly already behind her and rotates her body nearly 360 degrees to get off a throw to first base? Did she sidearm her throw to second base for the out while sprawled completely prone in the dirt at shortstop? Or maybe she shoveled or shot-putted the ball?
How about deciding whether the ball caromed or careened off the pitcher’s glove before Bates adjusted her momentum, set her feet and still got the out at first base?
No one else poses these problems.
Bates is an excellent offensive player. She also plays with an infectious joy and energy that all but begs fans and teammates to enjoy the game as much as she does. But it’s her ability to do things with her glove that quite literally defy description that mark her as an all-time great.
Third base: Kasey Cooper, Auburn (2014-17)
Holly Rowe, Jen Schroeder, Jessica Mendoza, Michele Smith and Amanda Scarborough debate who between Kasey Cooper and Jessie Warren belongs at third base on the all-time greatest softball team.
It was early in a World Series semifinal between Auburn and Florida State in 2016, the Tigers trying to finish off the Seminoles rather than incur the peril of a winner-take-all second game. With a runner on base, Florida State’s Alex Kossoff chopped a bouncer toward third base — the ball bouncing more like a racquetball than a softball off the dry Oklahoma dirt.
With no time to use her glove, Cooper plucked the ball out of the air barehanded and cocked to throw in almost the same motion. That throw beat the runner by inches. It was a play for the ages on the biggest stage by arguably the best player in softball that season. And yet it barely cracks the top five of Auburn’s memorable moments from that World Series. That is why it’s the perfect Cooper moment. She was very often the biggest reason her team won. She was very rarely the center of attention.
Utility: Rachel Garcia, UCLA (2016-21)
Few things are as boring as a legend without drama. So, yes, Garcia will return in 2021 among the most decorated college players in history — already two-time national player of the year and national champion. She truly is dominant as a two-way threat. But from waiting out a knee injury that wiped out her first year at UCLA, to falling short in two World Series before winning in 2019, to now waiting on postponed Olympics, she makes it look easy without ever having it easy.
Think back to the 2018 NCAA tournament regional. She wasn’t a college or world champion yet. She wasn’t even a player of the year yet — not officially. So much could have gone wrong after UCLA lost at home early in the regional. Instead, she just kept pushing forward, totaling 30⅓ innings pitched that weekend while driving in seven runs at the plate — capped by a three-run home run in the finale that all but ensured the Bruins escaped en route to the World Series. Far from looking fallible in the near-miss, she patiently turned it into another chapter in her legend.
Rachel Garcia: (30.30%)
Shelby Pendley: (18.67%)
Lovieanne Jung: (16.80%)
Lauren Haeger: (14.80%)
Amanda Freed: (7.25%)
Jaclyn Traina: (6.42%)
Ally Carda: (3.68%)
Tairia Mims: (2.10%)
Outfield: Jessica Mendoza, Stanford (1999-2002)
Jessica Mendoza, Jen Schroeder, Michele Smith, Holly Rowe and Amanda Scarborough debate which players to select for the greatest outfield of all time in collegiate softball.
Stanford was just six years removed from a 1-41 record in its first season of softball when Mendoza arrived on campus. By the time she was a junior, the Cardinal didn’t just reach the 2001 World Series but came within a run of playing for the national championship — thanks in no small part to Mendoza’s diving catch in an elimination game against rival Cal.
Mendoza is better known for what she did with her bat — at Stanford, as a two-time Olympian and as a standout in National Pro Fastpitch — and her voice, in the broadcast booth at the World Series and now for Major League Baseball. But that catch tells a story. A moment that might have marked the peak of a softball player’s career even a decade earlier was instead just a hint of what the future held for someone who, along with Jennie Finch, made the idea of a post-college softball career entirely plausible to the generation that followed.
A hitter like Mendoza, who was capable of that kind of catch, could do anything. And Mendoza has.
Outfield: Leah O’Brien-Amico, Arizona (1993-97)
In the 1994 #WCWS, @ArizonaSoftball‘s Leah O’Brien hit for an incredible .7️⃣5️⃣0️⃣ batting average (9 hits, 12 at bats) to set the tournament record that has since been untouched. pic.twitter.com/kczyWd5LEB
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 30, 2020
The only woman voted to this team who played the entirety of her college career before 2000, O’Brien-Amico also is the only player here who won Olympic gold while still in college. She was a part of all three U.S. teams that won gold in the Olympics and also a part of three Arizona national championships. In fact, if not for a loss in the national title game against UCLA in 1995, she would have completed her career with seven NCAA/Olympic titles in as many attempts.
O’Brien-Amico still holds the World Series record with a .750 batting average in 1994, collecting nine hits en route to a championship. But it was her lone hit — Arizona’s lone hit — in the the 1993 championship game that stands out. That first-inning single off Lisa Fernandez drove in the only run in Arizona’s 1-0 win that featured just three total hits against Fernandez and Arizona’s Susie Parra. That marked the third consecutive meeting between the schools in the title game and the second win for the Wildcats, locking in a rivalry that defines the sport.
Outfield: Caitlin Lowe, Arizona (2004-07)
A willingness to run through walls isn’t a cliche in Lowe’s case, even if she was far from unbeaten in her encounters with outfield boundaries. Sometimes she ran through them, as with temporary fences that barely slowed her while making a catch in Palm Springs one year. Sometimes she simply reached an uneasy truce with walls, as when she bounced off one after securing a catch to protect a tie against Japan while playing for Team USA.
And sometimes, well, the wall won. Such was the case when Lowe ran headlong into a wooden fence during an NCAA tournament super regional in 2007. That helps explain why Arizona’s Hillenbrand Stadium has a warning track and padded walls these days. And even then, Lowe earned all-WCWS honors the following week to help Arizona win a title. Speed helped make her an all-time great at the plate and in center field. But speed only gets you to the wall. It was something else that drove Lowe to try and go through it in pursuit of greatness.
Voting results (top three):
Jessica Mendoza: (28.38%)
Leah O’Brien: (20.22%)
Caitlin Lowe: (14.39%)
Laura Berg: (12.78%)
Haylie McCleney: (9.80%)
Kelly Kretschman: (5.43%)
Alison McCutcheon: (5.26%)
Kaitlin Cochran: (3.74%)
Left-handed pitcher: Cat Osterman, Texas (2002-06)
We’ve tried to look at some of the moments and traits that defined the players on this team, that made them not just excellent but revered among the fans who cast their votes. Osterman has her share, from the bittersweet-but-epic semifinal loss against UCLA in 2003 to NCAA records and awards in amounts not seen before or since (not to mention Olympic gold).
But there are times when numbers paint the picture just as well.
It takes 21 outs to get through a softball game. Osterman is the only pitcher in Division I history to average more than 14 outs per game by strikeout and the only pitcher to average more than two strikeouts every inning. Only the oft-overlooked Angela Tincher is remotely close. No one — not Sheryl Swoopes or Jackie Stiles in basketball, not Christine Sinclair in soccer — was so single-handedly responsible for the basic building blocks of winning in a team sport.
Right-handed pitcher: Jennie Finch, Arizona (1999-2002)
It’s difficult to separate the college years from what came after for many players on this team — those continuing exploits probably help explain why their names still resonate with voters. That’s true most of all for Finch, whose Olympic medals and star power propelled her into the mainstream sports consciousness during the first decade of the new century (and still now).
So while Finch’s perfect season in 2001 has become part of her legend, some of the reality that makes it only more interesting has been lost. Finch had the second-best ERA in the country in 2001, but also the second-best ERA entering the title game. UCLA’s Amanda Freed was the leader. Finch was unbeaten but not perfect. She struggled to close out Cal in the World Series opener. She gave up four runs and trailed Oklahoma in the next game before the Wildcats rallied for an extra-inning win. It was Becky Lemke, not Finch, who pitched in a semifinal against Stanford. Nothing was easy. And yet come the final, in the biggest of moments, Finch threw the shutout. History remembers perfection. Reality is more interesting. And in many ways more impressive.
So who was left out?
Jessica Mendoza, Jen Schroeder, Michele Smith, Holly Rowe and Amanda Scarborough debate how to set up the batting lineup on the greatest team of all-time.
If given the opportunity to start another team with the five players below, I’d like my chances to at least make it an entertaining series against the team selected by more democratic means.
Monica Abbott, LHP, Tennessee: Abbott made better use of her post-college years than any player. Perfecting her craft year by year, she has been the best pitcher in the world for quite some time. All of which is remarkable, considering she already was one of the most dominant pitchers in college softball history by the time she finished at Tennessee. It’s worth remembering that entering the final game of the championship series in 2007, Abbott had struck out a then-record 68 batters and allowed one run in 38 innings during that World Series. Only Taryne Mowatt’s feat of endurance kept that performance from entering softball lore.
Lisa Fernandez, RHP, UCLA: It would be nice to build this team around arguably the greatest all-around player in the sport’s history. And picking Fernandez provides a bonus of an Olympic-caliber hitter and third baseman when Abbott is in the circle for this imaginary lineup. Fernandez finished second to Finch in the voting among right-handed pitchers. But it is telling that despite going head-to-head with arguably the sport’s most popular player, she still managed a greater percentage of the vote than any other second-place finisher. She belongs on college softball’s metaphorical Mount Rushmore, so she deserves more than passing mention here.
Kelly Kretschman, OF, Alabama: She emerged from Florida before that state was the pipeline for elite college talent it is now. She played at Alabama before the SEC was a juggernaut and when the Tide still played in a public municipal park. She was always a little ahead of her time, which is one of her strongest credentials as an all-time great but also what sometimes keeps her from getting her due. It’s only in her astounding longevity, going strong in the pro game past her 40th birthday, that her real legacy has slowly gained appreciation. But she was all of that in college, an uncommon blend of power and speed.
Stacey Nuveman, C, UCLA: Stealing analysis from Natasha Watley, one of her teammates in college and with Team USA, Nuveman wasn’t so much a great home run hitter as a great hitter who happened to deposit a lot of balls over the fence. Nuveman’s 31 home runs in 1999 still looks like a lot despite the fact that Division I teams hit more than twice as many home runs per game these days as back then. She played before the NCAA tracked on-base percentage as an official statistic, but she reached base roughly 60% of the time.
Natasha Watley, SS, UCLA: From many years playing in Japan and her connection with softball in that country to more than a decade of her foundation’s work bringing softball to underserved communities domestically, Watley is among the best ambassadors the sport has known. That is her most significant legacy. But she could have retired to a deserted island the day after playing her final game for UCLA and still been the best all-around shortstop in NCAA history. Speed, power, range, leadership — not to mention one of the most famous slides of all time to beat Osterman and Texas in the 2003 World Series — she had no weaknesses.
The rest of the lineup:
First base: Tairia Mims-Flowers, UCLA
Second base: Jenny Dalton-Hill, Arizona
Third base: Jessie Warren, Florida State
Outfield: Haylie McCleney, Alabama
Outfield: Kaitlin Cochran, Arizona State
Utility: Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma