'Sick to my stomach': Why OU softball's Patty Gasso, other coaches want changes to WCWS
Patty Gasso watched Paige Parker record one out after another like a machine, plowing her way through opponents and motoring toward a national title.
She was so proud of her pitching ace.
And so scared for her.
“It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been as a coach, feeling sick to my stomach that I could be really ruining this kid’s life,” Gasso said. “Maybe she’s not able to lift her arm up again.”
That Women’s College World Series experience five years ago stays with the OU softball coach even now. Parker and the Sooners ultimately won a championship that year, but Gasso opted to sit and rest Parker, then just a sophomore, in the second game of the best-of-three championship series against Auburn.
It cost OU a win in the second game, but it revived Parker for the third game.
Truthfully, Gasso wishes more players could’ve rested in that WCWS; the Sooners were young in 2016, playing only freshmen and sophomores in the infield and leaning heavily on underclassmen for offense.
“It was physically grueling on so many of them,” Gasso said. “You’re not getting the best of anyone; it’s just who can stand the longest and make their body do something when your body’s saying no but your mind is saying, ‘You need to do this.’
“I don’t think that’s right.”
Gasso isn’t alone.
A sampling of some of college softball’s most successful coaches reveal various opinions on how the WCWS could be improved. The question has surfaced after glaring discrepancies between NCAA men’s and women’s championships came to light during March Madness. Oregon forward Sedona Prince’s video of a single rack of free weights, all that was available inside the bubble for the women’s basketball tournament, juxtaposed with the ballroom-sized weight room inside the men’s basketball bubble. It went viral, laying bare long-standing issues and creating such a tidal wave the NCAA struggled to keep its head above water.
But the ripples continue.
Last month, women’s volleyball coaches took to Twitter with frustrations over their own tournament. Bad playing surfaces. Lacking locker rooms. Game broadcasts without commentators.
Then a week ago, the Washington Post waded into the water, looking at disparities between the baseball and softball tournaments.
Carol Hutchins was among the coaches who spoke to the Post, and as the longest-tenured coach of a Power 5 softball program — she’s been head coach at Michigan since 1985 — no one has more knowledge of where WCWS has been and where it is going.
She had nothing but praise, by the way, for Oklahoma City and Hall of Fame Stadium as host of the WCWS.
“Oklahoma City,” she told The Oklahoman, “what a fabulous home for softball.”
But considering what baseball has at the College World Series in Omaha, Hutchins believes softball has much room for improvement.
“The biggest inequity in the entire tournament,” she said, “is the fact that the men get to play into the end of June and they weren’t having it with us. Can’t do it. Can’t afford it.”
That sort of thing is a microcosm, Hutchins believes, of the differences in how the NCAA treats baseball and softball, inequities that boil down to one thing.
“This is how tight they have been in our tournament,” she said.
She and other coaches believe the WCWS is played on a more condensed schedule to limit the NCAA’s cost. Lengthen the WCWS, and teams would have to stay longer, increasing the bill for hotels and meals and transportation.
But coaches say there is another cost — the toll on their players.
Compressed WCWS schedule
Go to the College World Series, and you’ll find yourself with lots of downtime.
During the double-elimination portion of the tournament that determines what two teams make the best-of-three championship series, teams usually have a day off between games. In only one instance during double elimination would a team even have to play games on consecutive days.
At the WCWS, a team can go the entire tournament without a single day off.
What’s more, under the current format, at least two teams are guaranteed to play two games on the third day of the tournament and as many as four teams might have to play two games on the fourth day.
“You work so hard to get there,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said, “and then it seems like we’re compressing everything into a smaller window.”
At most, the WCWS lasts seven days.
The CWS can last as long as 12.
Candrea has navigated the WCWS better than any coach in history. His eight national titles are the most ever. But along the way, he has seen first hand how much of a mindfield the format can be.
In 2007, his Wildcats ended up playing the WCWS maximum. They not only played every day of the tournament but also played eight games in seven days.
Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt threw every pitch, more than a thousand total.
What Arizona did, by the way, using Mowatt in every game, was not abnormal in the world of college softball. Even teams with a couple good pitchers have been known to use their ace exclusively in the WCWS.
Mowatt not only carried the load but did it well — she led Arizona to the national title.
But should she have had to throw so many games in such a short amount of time?
“When you get to the (WCWS), I think it’s even more important that you’re giving equal rest and allowing a little better preparation,” Candrea said. “In championship play, you want to be able to put your best foot forward.”
Coaches believe that’s becoming increasingly difficult as the quality of softball has risen.
Softball parity the new norm
Time was, a handful of programs dominated college softball.
Seventeen of the first 23 national titles awarded by the NCAA went to UCLA (11) and Arizona (6). There was a decade-long stretch, 1988-97, that every championship went home with the Bruins or the Wildcats.
But in the past decade, six different teams have won a championship.
Parity has skyrocketed.
That is one of the reasons coaches pushed for an extra day for super-regional play. Used to be, the best-of-three series was played on two days, and if the winner of the second game forced an if-necessary third game, it was played immediately after.
That didn’t change until 2017.
Coaches are hopeful the WCWS format might one day change, too.
Florida coach Tim Walton has voiced his desire for an off day before the best-of-three championship series begins.
“The emotion that it takes to get to the finals,” Walton said, “we won (to get to the finals) one year, and we weren’t equipped to go play the next day. Not because we weren’t good enough. It was just the emotion.”
Before the first game of the championship series, teams are expected to spend a good chunk of the day at Hall of Fame Stadium shooting interviews and snippets for ESPN’s broadcast. Having the entire WCWS on TV has been critical for softball’s growth, so teams know they have a duty to help the broadcast partner as much as possible. But it adds to the difficulty of the quick turnaround.
Even though game times for softball are shorter than baseball, the stressors on players remain. They exert high levels of energy and emotion. They feel the effects of games all the same.
That's why Arizona’s Candrea would like even more days off at the WCWS. He would prefer no more than two games a day during double elimination. That would add another three or four days to the current format; if no if-necessary games were needed before the championship series, that day could become the rest day before the best-of-three series started.
Then again, at the CWS, the dates are set, and if the if-necessary games aren’t needed, teams actually get two days of rest before the championship series begins.
Gasso doesn’t want the WCWS to take as long as the CWS.
“Do I want to play over two and a half weeks?” she said with a bit of hyperbole. “No, I do not.”
“It is a major problem,” Gasso said of the tournament’s condensed format.
So, how could the format be fixed?
WCWS schedule format
The WCWS can be changed to not only please coaches and rest players but also grow attendance and exposure.
Day 1: Four first-round games; every team plays.
Day 2: Two winner’s-bracket games, and two loser’s-bracket games, which would eliminate two teams.
Day 3: Two elimination games between the winner’s-bracket losers and the loser’s-bracket winners from Day 2, which would eliminate two more teams.
Day 4: Day off.
Day 5: Two games between an undefeated team and a one-loss team.
If the undefeated teams win, the championship series is set and Day 6 is an off day, but if one or both of the one-loss teams win and force if-necessary games, Day 6 becomes a day for elimination games and Day 7 becomes an off day before the championship series.
The championship series would either start on Day 7 or Day 8.
Under this format, the tournament would run either nine or 10 days.
What’s more, if the WCWS started on a Friday instead of a Thursday as it currently does, the tournament would extend to include five or six days of play on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That is when it is much easier for fans to attend and when TV viewership is often highest.
It’s a format that could be a huge win for ESPN, for the NCAA, for Hall of Fame Stadium and Oklahoma City, but most of all, it would definitely be a big win for players.
NCAA managing director of championships and alliances Liz Turner Suscha said she is looking forward to talking with coaches about adding off days at the WCWS. She is taking over as manager of the softball tournament this year after the retirement of Sharon Cessna, longtime NCAA director of championships who oversaw softball, so Turner Suscha admits she’ll have a learning curve.
She isn’t opposed to changing the WCWS format but says it isn’t any one person’s decision.
“If we’re talking about things like adding a day of rest, for instance, in the series itself, how does that happen?” she said. “On the list of feedback. Gets considered. Gets prioritized at the committee. And then some of the things like that have to go through our governance process.”
But coaches who’ve regularly been to the WCWS say the support for days off is strong.
“I always say, ‘Nothing stays the same; it gets better or it gets worse,’” Candrea said. “And I think we’ve got to continue to look for ways to make it better.”
For years, there were other problems with WCWS. Subpar facilities. Lacking exposure. Limited parity. Now, coaches say concerns with things such as no locker rooms or bathrooms have largely been addressed.
“I can tell you this — when you’re at the Women’s College World Series, you feel pretty important,” Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski said.
Florida’s Walton said, “I don’t feel like we’re the have-nots.”
But after Hutchins, the Michigan coach, went to the CWS a couple years ago to watch Michigan’s baseball team play for the title, she realized inequalities remain. She believes money is just spent more freely at the CWS than at the WCWS, and in her mind, that is most evident in how long the tournaments last.
“We all want the kids to have the experience, but it should be the greatest experience,” she said. “And it should be treated the same whether at the College World Series or the Women’s College World Series.
“The only difference should be, well, probably the hairstyles and how they pitch.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
Road to OKC
The road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series begins in two weeks on Sunday, May 16, with the NCAA softball tournament selection show.
Selections: 8 p.m. on May 16 (ESPN2)
Regionals: May 21-23
Super Regionals: May 27-30
WCWS: June 3-9
WCWS wins and losses
The Women's College World Series has changed dramatically over the years, but with inequalities between NCAA men's and women's championships under scrutiny, it's fair to say the WCWS in Oklahoma City still has room to improve if compared to the College World Series in Omaha.
Here's a look at what has changed and what might still need to change at the WCWS and NCAA softball:
► Team facilities: Until 2011, teams had no locker rooms at the field. Now, there are locker rooms, bathrooms, meeting rooms and training rooms under the stadium only steps from the dugouts.
► Stadium capacity: In less than two decades, permanent seating at Hall of Fame Stadium has more than quadrupled from 2,000 to 9,000. Add temporary bleachers and standing room, and WCWS capacity is 13,000, double the next biggest softball stadium in the United States.
► Broadcast exposure: In 2000, only the winner-take-all championship game was broadcast. Now, ESPN broadcasts every WCWS game.
► Player perks: The CWS includes lots of player gifts as well as a sit-down banquet and a parade. The WCWS used to have a banquet but moved to a more informal gathering at the request of some teams.
► Stadium enhancements: The WCWS lacks showers in the locker rooms and covered batting cages for hitters.
► Oversight committee: Football, men's basketball and women's basketball are the only NCAA Division I sports with an oversight committee tasked with enhancing their sport's development and making recommendations for regular season and postseason.