For many in college softball, this Sunday marks the only show that matters: the Selection Show, when the NCAA will decide the 64 Division I teams that will play in the NCAA tournament and have a chance of advancing all the way to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in June. Which teams will be called? Well, obviously, you’ll hear No. 1 Florida and reigning–national champion Oklahoma, along with most of the other 50 schools in the Power Five conferences of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
What’s not so obvious is how many mid-major schools, or the 200-plus programs outside the five major conferences, will earn one of 32 automatic or 32 at-large bids into the postseason. If history is any indication, far fewer mid-majors than Power Five schools will make the tournament, let alone the WCWS. In fact, only nine mid-major schools have made it to the WCWS since 2000. And the last time any mid-major school actually hoisted the trophy in Oklahoma City was all the way back in 1998, when Fresno State defeated Arizona to grab the program’s lone national title.
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“If I had taken the time to look at it like that, then I would have looked at it as something really, really important,” former Fresno State coach Margie Wright, one of the winningest coaches in Division I softball history, told Excelle Sports. “But to me, I never thought we were anything less than one of the top teams in the country.”
In Wright’s time, the success of mid-major programs like Fresno State wasn’t uncommon. The Bulldogs were perennial powers, along with mid-major schools Cal State Fullerton (the 1986 national champion), Long Beach State and UNLV.
But the predominance of mid-major schools ended at the beginning of the 21st century when the Power Five conferences changed for one reason: football. In 1998, the new Bowl Championship Series (BCS) caused certain schools to realign under different conferences, which changed how funds were allocated across all sports, including softball.
“The financial situation became tougher and tougher for schools that were not in the [Power Five] conferences,” Wright said. “I started recognizing then that it was going to be more difficult to convince an administration that you needed the kind of budget that could compete at [a major-conference] level.”
Although the BCS no longer exists, its impact on college softball has not changed.
“I think for someone that’s on the outside looking in, they don’t realize the differences that took place in the early 2000s,” Wright said. “It wasn’t always this way, but the BCS changed everything.”
“It’s an arms race”
University of Louisiana–Lafayette head coach Michael Lotief knows all too well the stigma that mid-major schools face today. Despite ULL being one of the best mid-major softball programs in recent years—the team has made six trips to the WCWS since 1993—it still struggles to lure top recruits.
“It’s an arms race,” Lotief told Excelle Sports. “The other schools do it by recruiting the blue-chip players and we do it more with development. If it takes us two to three years to get players there, then we hope we can make a run, and then we hope to pick up another kid like that and do it all again.”
With over 95 percent of women in all of college softball on teams outside the Power Five conferences, most athletes never have the chance to play in the WCWS. When recruiting, Lotief emphasizes instead what potential recruits can gain by signing on with ULL: life lessons like improved patience.
“Development and failure and growing and taking your time and being persistent and staying at it—those are values that are good for people to see,” said Lotief, who has been ULL’s head coach since 2002. “It’s not just about finding the blue-chip kid. Sometimes that’s not the greatest story to be writing.”
Just a few years after winning the 1998 WCWS, Wright admits that she had a hard time attracting quality talent to Fresno State.
“In the early 2000s, there was a big difference: We weren’t able to get the same number of top recruits,” Wright said. “The BCS schools made it really difficult.”
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Suddenly, the perception of going to a Power Five school, fueled in part by the media, began allowing some of the worst teams in those five conferences to attract top talent.
“The last-place team in some mid-major conference is some no-name team, but the last-place team in the SEC is known by everybody,” Wright said. “So if a kid has to choose between a mid-major and an offer from a last-place team in a big-time conference, she is likely going to choose the big-time conference.”
“We could win 50 ball games and possibly not make the NCAA tournament”
There is little room for error during the regular season if a mid-major team hopes to have a chance at advancing to the NCAA tournament. For teams that don’t win their respective conference tournaments, the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) becomes a vital factor in deciding a mid-major squad’s postseason fate.
RPI, which is a ranking calculated based on a team’s wins, losses and strength of schedule, was originally instituted in college basketball in 1981 and later extended to six other NCAA sports, including softball. Even the best mid-major teams are at an automatic RPI disadvantage since the opponents they play in their conferences are ranked lower than most teams in the Power Five. As a result, they are forced to front-load their schedules with games against top teams for the chance at pulling off upsets and consequently boosting their RPIs.
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The tactic, which often pays off for the better mid-major teams that earn one of the 32 available at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, forces each pitch to count even more than it does for those in the Power Five.
“When you play in a Power Five conference, you play such a tough schedule in-conference, so your RPI is high enough that you’re going to get six or seven teams from your conference in the NCAA tournament,” James Madison head coach Mickey Dean told Excelle Sports. “So you don’t have to win your conference tournament every year.
“For us, we could win 50 ball games and possibly not make the NCAA tournament if we don’t win our conference tournament.”
Dean, whose Dukes play in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and came just one game away from their first-ever WCWS appearance last season, has James Madison poised yet again for another deep run in the NCAA tournament this year. He is a firm believer in stacking his team’s schedule, which is why the Dukes faced several ranked teams early on this season in an effort to boost their RPI.
“The key is to keep getting back in the NCAA tournament,” Dean said. “For a mid-major, sometimes that can be difficult because they might only take one team a year out of your conference to the NCAA tournament.”
“Money is always a factor in everything”
It’s no secret that teams that traditionally win national championships in softball tend to have wealthy athletic departments with successful football and/or men’s basketball teams. Mid-major schools usually lack the level of funding of their Power Five counterparts, helping create the divide that now exists in softball between the powerhouses and the middle-of-the-roads.
“Money is always a factor in everything,” Don Porter, a former International Softball Federation (ISF) president, told Excelle Sports. “A lot of the time it has to do with the resources you have to go out and recruit and the resources you have to have first-class playing facilities and amenities that are very helpful in attracting top players.”
Porter, who served as ISF secretary general from 1965–87 and president from 1987–2013, believes the decisions made by university officials about the allocation of resources indirectly determine a program’s success.
“Every sport needs funding to support their programs,” Porter said. “Sometimes some schools have greater funding for some sports over other sports. It’s a continual battle to get funding and determine who gets it at a university to support a program.”
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According to Lotief, what’s more important than having money for pristine facilities and top-notch gear that can wow recruits is being able to fund support structures—things like strength coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists, trainers and videographers—for those athletes already on campus.
“All of those [Power Five] schools not only have the resources and money, but they also have monopolized the available support structures for our sport,” Lotief said. “We don’t have enough of that to go around at enough institutions.”
But if support structures can be established, Lotief believes the disparity between the Power Five and mid-major schools will diminish.
“Once we’re able to put more support personnel in place to be able to develop these kids,” Lotief said, “there is going to be more parity in our sport.”
“It will happen within the next 10 or 15 years”
If you look at the weekly college softball rankings, you’ll see that only a handful of mid-major schools make the list on any given week—and No. 12 James Madison and No. 14 Louisiana–Lafayette are often in the mix. Although the rankings don’t determine who gets to go to the NCAA tournament, they often mimic which teams the selection committee decides to advance to postseason play.
While the odds are stacked against their teams to actually win a WCWS title, two of the country’s top mid-major coaches believe it’s just a matter of time before they raise the trophy in Oklahoma City.
“The rest of us just haven’t caught up to the big schools yet in terms of resources,” Lotief said, “but [a mid-major winning the WCWS] will happen within the next 10 or 15 years.”
Dean added: “That’s the great thing about this game. It doesn’t matter what you did 10 years ago or three years ago, it’s about this year. You take players who have experience, you try to get back into that tournament every year, continue to have that experience and then you continue to grow and you get better.
“So yes, I do believe it’s very open for a mid-major to go and win the Women’s College World Series.”