More new faces at Women's College World Series
Is it possible for the man in charge of the nation's top softball players to be considered a new kid on the block in one of his sport's premier events?
Ken Eriksen fills that role this week. The coach of the U.S. national team finally cracked the field of the Women's College World Series in his 16th season in charge at South Florida, and the Bulls will make their debut Thursday.
He's one in another batch of new faces at the World Series, which had historically been dominated by UCLA and Arizona until recent years. Those two programs combined to win 20 of the sport's first 28 NCAA titles and together won every championship for a decade - from 1988 to 1997.
But no more.
Neither team made the final eight for the second straight season, and only the third time ever, leaving openings for a new crop of teams to take their best shot.
Oregon is back for the first time since its only other appearance in 1989, and LSU returns for the first time since 2004. They join some of the usual suspects in the field: top-seeded California, defending champion Arizona State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
"Parity is happening and it's across the country," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said Wednesday. "Any team in any part of the country can be here now. It makes this sport so much more exciting."
Eriksen sees it from two different angles, trying to build South Florida into a top-level team while also interacting with the nation's top players during the selection process and summer circuit for the national team.
Seated next to him at a news conference Wednesday was national player of the year Keilani Ricketts, who pitches for him during the summer but will go against him Thursday when fourth-seeded Oklahoma faces South Florida.
The other opening-day matchups are Cal against LSU, No. 2 seed Alabama against SEC rival Tennessee and third-seeded Arizona State against Oregon.
"We are probably the healthiest we've been in a long, long time, with the number of great players on each team," said Eriksen, who took over as the U.S. coach last year.
"Ten to 12 years ago, if you had even three or four players, you're doing really, really good. Now, you take a look up and down the lineup, every one of these kids can play in every situation."
One after another, the coaches took turns repeating each other's assessment that the path to Oklahoma City is more difficult than ever. Two unseeded teams, South Florida and LSU, made it to the World Series for the second time since the NCAA started slotting the top 16 teams in 2004.
UCLA, two years removed from its last national title, didn't even make it out of regionals.
"There's no slouches anymore. You just can't go out there like an Arizona used to do and throw your gloves on the field and expect to win," Eriksen said.
"These girls have been watching ball, they've been playing ball for a long, long time. They're competitive. They're playing much more competitive softball in the summertime. College athletes now, they have all the tools to get better and better."
Eriksen credited better funding for the sport, noting that South Florida had a full-time softball trainer for the first time this season and now has a better focus on even the value of nutrition.
"You're going to see a lot more of this in the future," Eriksen said. "You already saw it in basketball. You already see it in football. Now, you're starting to see it in women's sports."
Despite all the parity talk, what hasn't changed is how all the championship trophies end up heading West. The Pac-12 has won six straight NCAA titles and 24 of 30. The SEC has had the runner-up three of the past five years.
"I think when one team does it, it's going to make it that much easier for the next team," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "The toughest one is the very first one."
"It shows that you're nationally relevant. The College World Series is always a legitimizer of your hard work. It's not an overnight success by any stretch of the imagination."