We are a little more than halfway through the college softball season, and we have seen records broken, walk-off homers and thrilling defensive plays on the diamond.
Much like last year, Oklahoma has showed off its dominance. The Sooners, who won their first 33 games of the 2021 season en route to the Women’s College World Series title, are 32-0, leading the nation in batting average (.383) and ERA (0.67). Star Jocelyn Alo ranks third in the country in batting average (.513) and fourth in home runs (16).
Can anyone dethrone — or even stop — the Sooners? Alabama’s Montana Fouts started the year with a sub-1.00 ERA but has allowed five runs in three of her last four outings and four of her last nine.
Virginia Tech has also gotten it done in the pitcher’s circle, with freshman Emma Lemley and senior Keely Rochard ranking third and fourth, respectively, in the country in strikeouts per seven innings.
While UCLA lost two-way threat and Olympian Rachel Garcia, the Bruins, who rank fourth in the country in RPI, average 7.2 runs per game and have a pitching staff, anchored by Lauren Shaw and Megan Faraimo, that has a paltry 1.16 ERA.
Our softball analysts break down the first two months of the season and make their picks for Oklahoma City.
How long can Oklahoma stay undefeated for?
Madison Shipman: Looking at the rest of Oklahoma’s schedule, the team that I think has the best chance of beating Oklahoma is Oklahoma State. The Sooners play the Cowboys in their last conference series in May. OU has been so dominant this year because of its consistent pitching in the circle and because of the way the Sooners command their at-bats. They rarely swing out of the zone. When they swing, they swing with authority at pitches they can drive out of the park.
Amanda Scarborough: I think it may come down to the Oklahoma State series, the last conference weekend, although unexpected teams like Baylor and UAB have played them the closest out of anyone all year in the past week. The sport is so unpredictable. What makes the Sooners so dominant is their approach at the plate. Their hitters just see the ball so well. They’re on time and their barrels stay through the zone forever. Their lineup is the toughest in the country.
Michele Smith: Oklahoma has an outstanding pitching staff, as well as a top-notch defense. Add in incredible offense and this is a very complete team. Their offense alone would be able to make up for a subpar pitching staff and defense, but the fact that it’s just as hard to score runs against them makes this team one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Jenny Dalton-Hill: I think this Oklahoma team has it in it to win every game this season. I remember the 1994 Arizona team that I played on, and we faced the same obstacles. We rarely stumbled that year, and Oklahoma has the same kind of feel: dominant pitching, quality defense and bats that can outhit anyone in the country. The key to this team is attacking every opponent. The Sooners have a target on their backs that requires them to always be the aggressor. One game that isn’t attacked from the moment it begins will allow the opportunity for a loss. I think the most difficult opponent they will have in the remainder of the regular season is Oklahoma State, and then the real show begins at the WCWS for them. I cannot imagine them not being in Oklahoma City this season.
Besides Jocelyn Alo’s record-breaking homer, what has been your favorite moment of the season so far?
Shipman: My favorite moment of the season so far has to be UCF first baseman Shannon Doherty’s walk-off home run to beat Georgia in the first game of the season. From the swing to the bat flip to the celebration at home, everything in that moment reminded us why we love this sport so much. Turns out, that play was a good representation of the craziness that we have seen so far this softball season.
Scarborough: My favorite and most memorable moment of the season so far was seeing Northwestern come back and walk off against UCLA at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational in February. (This answer has much more to do about Northwestern than UCLA.) Northwestern has been the real deal this season, and this walk-off win was a statement that defines who this Northwestern team is the season: fiery, fierce competitors with a pitcher, Danielle Williams, who is having one of the best seasons in the country.
— Northwestern Softball (@NUSBcats) February 19, 2022
Dalton-Hill: Watching Brooke Rice from Ohio University throwing the ball around the field and throwing out base stealers with ease. I was blown away by her skill and her arm strength. Her team may not make the postseason, but for me, it was a reminder that some of the best players in the country don’t play for Top 25 teams and to always give them as much attention as possible.
Which team has surprised you the most this season?
Shipman: Auburn has surprised me the most this season. I love that coach Mickey Dean took a hard look at last season and made drastic changes in the way they approached their fall practices to be better in the spring. So far, Auburn’s offensive numbers have been substantially better than last season, and the bats don’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.
Scarborough: Michigan has surprised me the most this season. Coming into the year, I thought the Wolverines would be a top-10 team all year, but here we are and they’re barely hanging on to a top-25 ranking. They still have April to get things back on track, but at this point I am surprised they have 11 losses.
Smith: I’m most surprised by Virginia Tech. I knew Keely Rochard was going to be strong in the circle, but the Hokies have a great addition of freshman Emma Lemley, making for a strong 1-2 pitching staff. Their offense really has come on strong; I was worried about them all offensively early in the year, but they have absolutely been on a tear as of late and are one of the top five teams, without a doubt, in the country.
— Virginia Tech Softball (@HokiesSoftball) April 4, 2022
Dalton-Hill: I have been surprised by the play in the Pac-12. While UCLA is continuing its trend of consistent, gritty and polished play, other schools in the conference are stumbling this season. The usual suspects such as Arizona and Washington have had unexpected hiccups this year, and we have seen other conferences such as the ACC stepping up with a surge in quality play from 4-5 teams.
Who is your front-runner for player of the year?
Shipman: Softball’s newly crowned home run queen, Jocelyn Alo. Her consistency, patience and power at the plate has been outstanding. It’s hard enough to hit the amount of home runs she has this season with pitchers throwing to her every at-bat, but to hit home runs when it feels like she’s being intentionally walked every other at-bat puts her at a different level.
Scarborough: My front-runner for player of the year is Alo. Batting average, home runs, RBIs, OPS — her numbers are just off the charts! Plus, don’t you get a few extra points if you break the NCAA home run record?
Smith: Alo. She broke the home run record and it’s just a matter of how high will she set the bar — not to mention her batting average is off the charts for a power hitter.
Dalton-Hill: I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the player of the year will come from Oklahoma. While most will say that it should be Alo again, I would give pause to the fact that she is playing as the DP this season, and I would like to see the award be given to a player that is multidimensional. It’s always easy to make a case for a hitting pitcher or a pitcher that completely dominates, but I am going to give my nod to Grace Lyons. She was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 and continues to play an amazing shortstop with only four errors. She is also putting up really good offensive numbers, hitting .425 with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs, and she has to protect Alo because she hits right behind her in the lineup.
Which team can be this year’s James Madison?
Shipman: To try to make a run like JMU did last season, you need to be led by strong pitching in the circle. For that reason, I have my eye on teams like South Florida and Miami (Ohio). Georgina Corrick and her dominant strikeout records for USF speak for themselves. Courtney Vierstra at Miami (Ohio) has fantastic movement and has gone up against some of the nations top teams already this season. Vierstra is backed by some big bats in Karli Spaid and Allie Cummins to give her run support.
Scarborough: San Diego State is a team that could make a run in the postseason. Their ace pitcher, Maggie Balint, is a veteran with dominant stuff in the circle, plus the Aztecs have figured out the best way to use Dee Dee Hernandez in many relief appearances. They have a coaching staff with tons of experience and have put together wins and solid games against very talented teams.
Smith: I don’t know that there will be just one James Madison — I think there will be quite a few. This is absolutely a year when anyone can be anyone. The key is can those “anyone’s” when a series, not just one game.
Dalton-Hill: I like UCF. I see them winning the American Athletic Conference, and with the confidence the Knights can play with, I see them giving a good run this season behind Gianna Mancha. I also like Ohio State, which is led by Auburn transfer Lexie Handley. She has plenty of run support coming in from Sam Hackenbracht, and I wouldn’t want to see them in my regional or super regional.
Who will be the last four teams standing in OKC?
Shipman: Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida State and UCLA. The last one standing is Oklahoma.
Scarborough: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, UCLA and Florida State. Last one standing: UCLA.
Smith: UCLA, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and, the last one standing, Oklahoma.
Dalton-Hill: The last four teams standing will be Oklahoma, UCLA, Alabama and Tennessee, with Oklahoma taking it all again in 2022.