OKLAHOMA CITY — It used to be that the road to the Women's College World Series title involved beating a team from California — and usually UCLA.
Not anymore. There's a new home state for softball's champions.
Arizona State's Sun Devils followed back-to-back titles by rival Arizona with one of their own in last year's NCAA softball championships, continuing a trend away from the Golden State. And now, for the second time in three years, California will be without a representative when the eight-team Women's College World Series begins Thursday. It's also only the second time in the event's 27-year history that California doesn't have a team in the final eight.
From 1982 through 2005, California had at least one team playing in the championship game every year but one. UCLA won 11 titles and played for the championship seven other times. California, Cal State-Fullerton and Fresno State also won titles.
But with all those teams missing, Arizona — with its eight national championships — is the only West Coast power present.
"You can't play the name game because I think everyone here is deserving to be here and worked hard to get here," said Wildcats coach Mike Candrea, who led the U.S. team in the last two Olympics.
Even Arizona will start out as an underdog, though, in its opener against top-seeded Florida. Alabama and first-timer Georgia joined the Gators to give the Southeastern Conference three teams at the World Series for the first time in another sign that the game is expanding eastward.
Michigan is making its first appearance since becoming the easternmost team to win the title in 2005. Missouri is in the final eight for the first time since 1994, and Washington is back after a one-year hiatus while national player of the year Danielle Lawrie was away with the Canadian Olympic team.
More teams are proving they can get to the World Series with a talent pool from their home states.
California will still play a role in deciding who takes home the trophy as each team has at least one Californian on its roster. But while the Gators have as many players from Florida (eight) as they do from California — including ace Stacey Nelson — Michigan and Alabama have exactly one apiece, and Missouri has only two.
"I think softball right now is where baseball was 20 years ago," Candrea said. "You look at the college baseball World Series, and you see different people all the time arrive. The good thing we have is that there will be a little more regular names here because we don't have to deal with the draft or anything like that. But on the other hand, I think there's a lot more good players around the country to choose from.
"If you can get a good player and develop them into a great player, then you've got a chance to be successful."
The other first-round matchups pit Washington against Georgia, Alabama against Michigan and defending champion Arizona State against Missouri, the only unseeded team in the field.
The prime time game will be Nelson, with her best-in-the-nation 0.41 ERA, leading Florida against an Arizona offense with an NCAA-record 134 home runs.
"They have won more national championship games here than we ever have at this stage," Gators coach Tim Walton said. "Our kids are embracing that role and we have to do a good job at staying focused and staying grounded."
Even Arizona State, with last year's title in tow, comes in trying to match the game's standard-bearers.
"UCLA and Arizona, they've established that legacy and we want to be a part of that as well," said Kaitlin Cochran, the Sun Devils' hitting star. "We want to be able to have teams look at us the way that other people look at their teams because they're great programs.
"We really want to establish that tradition. That's our goal every year."