OKLAHOMA CITY — The Women's College World Series will have a new look this year.
After teams combined to smash the World Series record by scoring 120 runs in last year's event, the walls in right and left field were moved back by 10 feet and made 2 feet taller. Now, the walls are 200 feet from home plate in the corners and stand 6 feet tall around the outfield.
No. 9 seed Missouri (51-11) vs. No. 16 seed Hawaii (49-14)
WHEN: Noon, Thursday
WHERE: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
MISSOURI OUTLOOK: The Tigers, 7-1 at neutral sites this season, hope to accomplish more than they did last season in a return trip to the Women’s College World Series. Last season, Missouri lost to Arizona State in its opener and was eliminated by Georgia. Missouri is 4-4 against Hawaii and last played the Rainbows in 2002 when they lost twice to them at the Aztec Invitational. Sophomore Kristin Nottelmann (24-7) has become the Tigers’ ace this season. She has won all five of the Tigers’ NCAA tournament games with three earned runs in 31 innings while walking five and striking out 22. Junior Rhea Taylor is one of the Tigers’ top offense threats, entering the WCWS with a .442 batting average and 38 RBIs. She has stolen 47 bases in 50 attempts.
HAWAII OUTLOOK: The Rainbows are making their first trip to the Women’s College World Series after upsetting top overall seed Alabama in the super regionals. Hawaii was down to its last out when Jenna Rodriguez hit a two-run walk-off home run for a 5-4 victory. Hawaii has hit an NCAA record 153 home runs this season, and the Rainbows’ Melissa Gonzalez and Kelly Majam both have batting averages higher than .400. Eight players on the team have hit more than 10 home runs this season with Gonzalez at 25 and Majam at 30 entering the WCWS. Stephanie Ricketts (28-8) and Kaia Parnaby (19-6) share pitching duties for Hawaii.
ADVANCEMENT: The winner of the Missouri-Hawaii matchup will advance to meet the winner of a opening-round game between No. 5 seed UCLA and No. 4 seed Florida. Bracket play will use a double elimination format that leads to a best-of-three championship series.
FOLLOWING THE WCWS: Games will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2, and will also be streamed online at ESPN3.com. Live stats and scoring will be available at NCAA.com, which will also provide updated brackets and tournament statistics.
That will make it a little bit more difficult for players to go deep when play begins Thursday in a field that features five of the nation's top seven home-run-hitting teams: Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Georgia and UCLA.
Kelly Majam of Hawaii, the nation's top home run hitter, doesn't think a few extra feet will make much of a difference for her team full of sluggers.
"We've played on big fields before and it hasn't really affected us," said Majam, whose 30 home runs are fourth-most in a season in NCAA history. "We don't really shoot for the fences necessarily. We're just going up there swinging as hard as we can. I don't think the size of the field will really affect us."
The changes come as offense has been on the rise in college softball. The past four years have seen the most runs per game in Division I history, and that finally became evident in the World Series last year. The eight teams combined to hit a record 24 home runs and scored 31 more runs than in any other WCWS.
Washington scored 32 runs (one off of UCLA's record from 1995) and won its first NCAA title behind ace Danielle Lawrie. Now a two-time national player of the year, Lawrie is back to lead a repeat bid by the Huskies, who are the favorites after No. 1-seeded Alabama and No. 2-seeded Michigan were eliminated in the super regionals.
"It definitely is a different approach. It's, I think, a lot easier to approach it as a coach when you're hunting people," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "We've been on the other side of it this year a lot of times where we're not sneaking up on anybody. It forces you to be on and to always compete."
While games averaged less than three total runs in the early years of the World Series, there were eight runs per game last year. In one 24-hour span, there were four grand slams, after only one had been hit in the previous 26 years at the World Series.
Only a month later, an NCAA committee decided it was time for a change.
"There was a lot of times in past games that a line drive could go over the fences, and hopefully it'll keep more balls in the ballpark," said Arizona coach Mike Candrea, who has won eight NCAA titles with the Wildcats.
"The thing I like to see is to bring back and put an emphasis on outfield play. If you look at the College World Series in the past, you had outfielders that are playing three steps from the fence."
Candrea blamed the offensive surge on the sport's switch to bats with composite barrels instead of aluminum. His Wildcats set an NCAA record with 132 home runs last season, only to have Hawaii surpass it with 154 long balls this season.
Candrea said he thinks the numbers would go back down "quite readily" if softball followed college baseball's lead and placed a moratorium on composite-barreled bats. In the meantime, the new walls are one way to offset the power surge, especially since many college ballparks had been bigger than the World Series home in Oklahoma City.
"I think if we're going to continue to have the composite bats that yes, definitely I think it's good to have a little bit more room," said Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer, whose team hit a record seven home runs at last year's World Series.
"But still, if you get a good piece of the ball, it's going to go out anyway."
The first test of the new walls will come in Thursday's opener, when Missouri, making its second straight World Series appearance, takes on Majam and the rest of Hawaii's sluggers. The Tigers have allowed 49 home runs in 62 games this season while the Rainbow Wahine are hitting 2.4 per game.
"They're a home run hitting team," Missouri coach Ehren Earlywine said. "It's kind of like in baseball. If you can keep the Phillies or the Yankees in the park, you've got a chance to beat them. I think it's a slight advantage, the fact that the fences have been moved back and raised.
"And hopefully the wind will be blowing in."