While the Pac-12 may be the conference that put softball on the map, Oklahoma and the Big 12 have dominated the sport for several years. The Big 12 will welcome Arizona and its eight national titles for the 2025 season, but Oklahoma will take Texas and join the ESPN-approved SEC. What will the rest of the conference look like without the Sooners and the Longhorns?
For one, it will gain 10 NCAA titles with the addition of Arizona’s eight championships and Arizona State’s two. It will gain competitors from the last four Women’s College World Series (Arizona in 2019, 2021, and 2022; Utah in 2023). Over the next two years, it will gain four teams that have earned a top 16 seed and hosted regionals at least once since 2017 (UA, ASU, UCF, Utah).
They won’t join a league bereft of “old guard” achievers, either. When the Big 12 is solidified in 2024, it won’t be like the old Pac-12. It will be a league that will battle to be in the top two or three in the country, though.
From a sheer Softball standpoint,The @Big12Conference will not only be clearly a Top 2 conference but also along with Men Hoops the strongest sport top to bottom.— Eric Lopez (@EricLopezELO) August 5, 2023
Oklahoma State #UCF
All have hosted/Won Regionals as Top 16 seed since 2017.
In addition to the strong competition, Arizona will join a league that has held its postseason conference tournament at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City every year that it has been played. The current contract runs through the 2025 season.
The question is whether the SEC will make a push to take over the venue for its conference tournament after Oklahoma is added to the league. If the current arrangement continues, the Wildcats and their fans would have the opportunity to experience the premier venue in American softball at least once a year if not twice.
The 2023-24 additions
Cincinnati does not play softball, so the 2024 season will only see the additions of BYU, Houston, and UCF. Among that trio, UCF carries by far the biggest bat.
The Knights didn’t add softball until 2002, but they have built a strong program in their 21 years of existence. They broke through into the NCAA Tournament just three years after they started playing and have made the NCAA postseason 10 times in total.
The problem for UCF is that it has had to play almost every regional either in Tallahassee or Gainesville. The Knights finally got to host a regional in 2022, though, and they made the most of it. They got the overall No. 16 seed and took care of home-field advantage by advancing out of their regional with a 3-0 record. Unfortunately, that just meant a date with Oklahoma in Norman, where they lost 0-2 to the Sooners.
The Knights have defeated mid-tier teams from the top conferences. They are still trying to break through with regular wins over top-tier teams, though. Like in volleyball, where they are also competitive but unproven, they are going to have to prove that they can win against tough teams week in and week out.
BYU has been to the NCAA Tournament 16 times, all in the 21st century. Like UCF, it has only advanced to super regionals once. The Cougars lost to Arizona in two games in 2010 after grabbing Texas’ home regional 3-0.
The program has flourished in the West Coast Conference, taking eight straight league titles from 2014-22. Prior to its run in the WCC, it won the Pacific Coast Softball Conference in 2013, the WAC in 2012, and the MWC from 2009-2011, giving it 13 straight conference titles in four different leagues. Last season, it missed the NCAA postseason but won the National Invitational Softball Tournament, which is softball’s version of the WNIT.
The problem for BYU will be the step up in competition. It is able to beat some lower-level power conference teams, as evidenced by a 10-5 win over ASU last season. Even mid-level teams from bigger leagues have given it trouble, though, and the likes of Oklahoma State and even Arizona are likely to be roadblocks.
Houston is another relatively new program. This group of Cougars didn’t start playing softball until 2001. In their 22 years of existence, they have made the NCAA Tournament 10 times with the last appearance coming in 2019.
In 2008, they hosted both regionals and super regionals but were unable to break into the Women’s College World Series field. They again made super regionals in 2011, but they lost to Oklahoma State in Stillwater in three games.
The Big 12 Old Guard
Of the eight holdovers from 2022-23 that will still be there when the Wildcats arrive, only five sponsor softball. Arizona softball will not be taking trips to West Virginia, Kansas State, or TCU. Of the group that does sponsor it, Oklahoma State and Baylor have had the most success.
The Cowgirls and the Bears were the only two teams other than OU and UT that had at least 40 wins last season. Texas Tech tied for last in the conference with a 5-13 league record, but the Red Raiders had an overall winning record of 31-22. Both Iowa State and Kansas finished below .500.
OSU has not had an overall losing record since 2015 when it went 21-30. The Cowgirls have not finished below third in the Big 12 regular season since 2016. They went 32-26 overall and 6-11 in conference play that season, finishing fifth among the seven teams. Since that time, they have finished third three times and second three times, as well as winning the conference tourney in 2022. Conference play, including the Big 12 Tournament, was called off in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Last year, OSU made it to its fourth straight WCWS, setting a program record for consecutive years in OKC. It was a top eight seed for the third straight year. It won at least 40 games in all three of those seasons. The Cowgirls earned an NCAA postseason berth for the seventh consecutive season.
Arizona knows how good Baylor can be when it’s on its A-game. The Bears knocked the Wildcats out of the postseason in 2017 at the Tucson Super Regional when UA was seeded second.
BU has been playing softball since 1979. It has finished below .500 just seven times in 44 years. It has won at least 40 games 12 times. In two of those seasons, it had over 50 victories. It made the AIAW tournament twice and the NCAA tourney 15 times. The Bears have earned their way to the WCWS four times, the last one in 2017 when they kept the Wildcats from advancing to OKC.
Kansas, Iowa State, and Texas Tech tend to bring up the rear of the conference. While the Red Raiders have been at or near .500 in the Big 12 a couple of times in the past decade, neither the Jayhawks nor the Cyclones have approached a winning record in conference play over that period. TTU was 13-10 in 2012, the last time it had a winning record in Big 12 competition. Kansas last had a winning conference record in 2013 when it went 9-8.
Arizona and ASU will be the only teams in the new Big 12 to have ever won a national title, but neither had a great season in 2023. They finished eighth and ninth in the Pac-12 and had to compete in the play-in game of the inaugural Pac-12 Softball Tournament. While the Wildcats finished slightly over .500, their 35-year run in the NCAA postseason came to an end.
Utah, on the other hand, had a breakthrough season. The Utes finished third in the league and won the first Pac-12 tournament to secure the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. They made use of their spot in the postseason, making a run all the way to Oklahoma City.
The question for the Utes is if they can keep the success going. Their trip to the WCWS was just their fourth time in the final postseason group in program history, which stretches back to the 1970s. They have one AIAW WCWS appearance and three NCAA WCWS appearances. It was their first time in the postseason at all since 2017 when they lost to Washington in three games at the Seattle Super Regional.
Historically speaking, both UA and ASU are more accomplished programs. All three programs have some questions to answer, though. Colorado does not field a softball team.
In the past, Arizona has been very dependent on talent from California. Its best players, especially pitchers, were almost always from out West. That is still mostly true, although the Wildcats have a strong core of players from the state of Arizona on the current roster.
Eleven of the 19 players on the 2024 roster are from the state of California, although three of those have strong ties to UA and Southern Arizona. Five more are from Tucson or other areas in southeastern Arizona, and another comes from a family of native Tucsonans. How much that changes going forward remains to be seen.
Head coach Caitlin Lowe has longstanding connections to Southern California travel ball. Like many teams around the country, a considerable number of Arizona’s recruits come from OC Batbusters-Stith. While that has been one of the best travel teams for years, it’s also highly recruited and perhaps picked over to some degree. Could Arizona be better served by spreading its recruiting focus and evaluating more talent from other parts of the country?
The Midwest, in particular, has produced several of the top pitchers in today’s game. Jordy Bahl, who helped Oklahoma to two WCWS titles before transferring home to Nebraska, is one of them. Washington freshman phenom Ruby Meylan is also from Nebraska. Stanford freshman ace NiJaree Canady is from Topeka, Kan. Alana Vawter, the other head of Stanford’s two-headed pitching monster, is from Kansas City. Tennessee’s Payton Gottshall is from Ohio.
Arizona has started to branch out into that part of the country, but it’s been slow going and the program has been rather late to the table. Former Wildcat Madi Elish is from Indiana, although she played travel ball for OC Batbusters. Incoming freshman pitcher Brooke Mannon is from Ohio. Outside the circle, Arizona has top catcher Emma Kavanagh coming from Illinois in 2024-25. Both Mannon and Kavanagh have also played their travel ball in the Midwest, suggesting that Arizona is starting to look more closely at travel teams from that part of the country.
Softball is a national sport now. California and Arizona will continue producing talent, but California especially will be highly recruited and the talent will be hard to get. These days not only are states like Texas and Florida producing top players, but cold-weather states are developing talent that can win postseason games and titles. Moving to a conference that has a footprint in Texas, Florida, and the Midwest could be good for Arizona’s future.
The softball team will not have to go to Morgantown, Manhattan, or Fort Worth for games. That takes two of the more challenging trips off the board, but several destinations will require connecting flights and/or a drive to Phoenix to fly out of Sky Harbor. Most trips will probably require a layover in Dallas or Chicago.
While Provo has its own small airport, it's likely that UA will fly to Salt Lake City about 45 minutes away for a series against the Cougars. Trips to Waco will probably require a flight to Dallas about 90 minutes away. Stillwater is a little over an hour from Oklahoma City. Fortunately, Arizona has plenty of experience flying to OKC.
The biggest problems for the Wildcats will be avoiding delays or cancelations. According to information online, the nonstop flights from Dallas to Des Moines that would take them to Iowa State are often delayed by at least 30 minutes.
Most planes on the routes Arizona will take hold between 124 and 156 passengers. The problem with large parties such as sports teams is making sure there are enough seats if cancelations or delays occur and alternate arrangements must be made.
Like most women’s sports, Big 12 NOW on ESPN+ is where most softball lives. There will no longer be regular availability on linear TV nor will there be free streams produced by the schools. This might be the biggest loss for fans of Arizona women’s sports.