Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Growing SEC Presence in WCWS

When the 2015 NCAA Women's College World Series begins tomorrow, an inescapable fact will be the presence of five teams from the Southeastern Conference (SEC) within the eight-team field. In the following graph, I've depicted the number of teams the SEC and other major conferences have placed in the WCWS over the past 10 years, based on data from the Wikipedia.


The expanding share of yellow represents SEC teams. And the trend is likely to get even more pronounced. The dashed-yellow slashes across some of the red (Big 12) blocks signify teams that were in the Big 12 at the time of their WCWS appearances, but have since moved to the SEC (Texas A&M and Missouri).

The SEC's rise in softball started slow, but once begun, has been continuous. College softball came under the aegis of the NCAA in 1982, but it wasn't until 1997 that the SEC got a team (South Carolina) into the World Series. It's not that the SEC had a bunch of weak teams in the 1980s and '90s. Many of its top softball schools of today simply did not field a team during this era. To take some examples, Florida's first year competing in softball was 1997, the same year as Alabama. Tennessee first took the field in 1996. LSU had a softball team from 1979-1981, but then dropped the sport until resuming in '97.

Between 1997-2004, the SEC  placed either a single team or no team into each year's World Series. It wasn't until 2005 that the SEC sent multiple teams to Oklahoma City (in this case, Tennessee and Alabama). Tennessee became the conference's first World Series finalist in 2007, and now the SEC has won two of the last three titles (2012 Alabama; 2014 Florida).

Part of the SEC's current dominance appears to have come at the expense of the Pac 12 (formerly Pac 10), although we're dealing with small samples. National championship-caliber programs such as UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, and Washington appear to have lost a step in recent years (although the Bruins are in this year's WCWS), with Oregon becoming the most reliable program in the conference. Counting this year, the Ducks will have appeared in three of the last four World Series.

The Big 12 is now down from its high-water mark of getting four teams (Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Missouri) into the 2011 World Series to none this year. OU, which narrowly lost in last weekend's super-regionals to Alabama, appears to be the most reliable Big 12 contender, having won the 2013 national championship and finished as runner-up in 2012. Baylor may well now be the second-best program in the conference.

As Yogi Berra once supposedly said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Still, it seems hard to imagine the SEC's current run of success slowing down any time soon.