National Womens Soccer League

Pac-12 helped put NCAA softball on the map, but it now faces ‘gut-wrenching’ end at WCWS

Pac-12 helped put NCAA softball on the map, but it now faces 'gut-wrenching' end at WCWS

The Pac-12 Conference will play its final softball games in the league’s history in the next week.

The end of the conference of champions was a topic of discussion among the Women’s College World Series coaches during media day Wednesday at Devon Park. With Stanford and UCLA moving on to the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, for the 2025 season, the programs serve as the Pac-12’s last dances.

The implosion of the greatest conference in the sport’s history has been tough to come to terms with for former Arizona coach and interim athletic director Mike Candrea, who boasts the most WCWS national titles with eight.

“It's gut-wrenching for me,” Candrea told The Oklahoman. “I spent my entire career from when we were the Pac-8, to the Pac-10 and the Pac-12. I was around watching the conference grow and admired the balance of academics and athletics and some great campuses and great cities, and to see that all go up in smoke, I was shocked to be honest with you.”

Entering the 2024 WCWS, the Pac-12 owns 60% of national titles awarded in the tournament’s history. UCLA with 12, Arizona with eight, Arizona State with two and California and Washington with one each.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Candrea’s Wildcats and Sue Enquist’s Bruins ruled the sport. From 1988 to 1997, either Arizona or UCLA took home the national championship trophy.

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Arizona head coach Mike Candrea talks with Alabama’s Montana Fouts (14) after the Crimson Tide’s win on June 3, 2021, in the Women’s College World Series.

Enquist cherishes those days and is most thankful for the people she was able to accomplish her goals with, as well as compete against.

“Because of the success of the conference, it’s bittersweet,” Enquist told The Oklahoman. “My memories are special because of the people that we competed against and the intensity of it.

“Just the overall character of the humans that were running those programs, I believe, pushed our sport to a place where we were able to be our best at the end of the season because of the conference. There was so much dominance there between Arizona and us.”

One of the most difficult things to reckon with is that the death of softball’s most decorated league had nothing to do with the sport, but the current landscape of college athletics. When it became clear the Pac-12 was falling behind other power leagues such as the Big Ten and SEC in attracting media rights fees mostly linked to football, UCLA and USC were the first to jump ship in summer 2022.

The Trojans, a blueblood in football, don’t have a softball team.

Eight other schools followed last summer, leaving behind Oregon State and Washington State and effectively ending the once renowned conference’s existence. Immediate concerns were raised, including regional differences, travel and overall athlete well being.

UCLA is in the same conference as Rutgers, over 2,700 miles east.

“For many years, all you heard about was student-athlete welfare,” Candrea said. “And I can't say that they were worried about that because it just doesn't make sense. And yeah, football and basketball are not going to feel it because they charter.

“Even in the Pac-12, we would go to Oregon or Washington and get back at 2 a.m. and expect our kids to get up for class the next day. You only had to do that maybe once or twice a year. But now it's going to be a regular thing.”

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‘We’re going to feel a void for a long time’

UCLA continued to run the Pac-12 and advanced to its 10th WCWS under Kelly Inouye-Perez this season.

Inouye-Perez won three titles as a player for the Bruins and has won two as their head coach. The four-time Pac-12 coach of the year was asked if playing this week to end a legendary run was poignant.

“Bittersweet? Yes, the answer is yes,” Inouye-Perez said. “I'm just going to say it was out of our control.”

Stanford coach Jessica Allister added: “Yeah, it is sad. Pac-12 softball, best conference in the country. Seeing that come to an end is sad. Sad ending of a chapter."

Of course, the conference’s finale was mourned by coaches in other leagues as well.

OU head coach Patty Gasso was born and raised in Pac-12 country. A Los Angeles native, she watched as the conference dominated for years right in her backyard.

She admitted Wednesday all of the losses to those schools she suffered during her first seasons coaching taught her about the game. Gasso even called UCLA a rival of the Sooners’ a few years back due to the frequency both programs make the World Series.

“One of the best things that happened to me was getting my rear-end kicked by the Pac-12 to learn what elite softball looks like,” Gasso said. “I appreciate them for helping me understand what it looks like. They're still doing it. But it's hard. I'm not even part of the Pac-12, but I am part of the love of this sport and the history of it. That kind of leaves a hole. But I'm going to try to keep teaching our program about it.”

A few decades ago, softball was primarily played on the West Coast. But the game’s popularity has skyrocketed, moving east.

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UCLA celebrates the home run of Jordan Woolery (15) in the sixth inning against Alabama on Thursday at Devon Park.

“Some of the greatest softball players of all time have played at UCLA, Arizona, and some other West Coast teams,” Gasso said. “I hope that history doesn't go away because that's where this started. It started on the West Coast, then it lended itself over to Texas A&M, Fresno State, different teams across the country. Then it came to Oklahoma, then to Michigan. You saw it starting to spread itself.”

The league will be remembered for its depth and the level of competition each season. The Pac-12 used to dominate the postseason, Enquist says, due to the stacked conference schedule.

While preseason tournaments and the WCWS will inevitably keep some of the Pac-12 rivalries alive, the lack of a West Coast league will be something the region will miss.

For Enquist and Inouye-Perez, it’s bittersweet the Bruins closed out the Pac-12’s history with a conference title and a WCWS appearance.

“To say we were able to close out the history makes me proud to represent something that I truly believe there is no competition against what we've done,” Inouye-Perez said. "The history speaks for itself. The sport is very exciting. But the Pac-12, we were known for not only athletic excellence but academic excellence as well. I'm very proud, also very sad that it's coming to an end.

“We're going to start a new chapter and see where everyone goes next year. But for now we're repping the Pac.”

Despite the Pac-12’s crumbling, the future of the sport is brighter than ever before. The Big Ten is surely to improve its reputation around the country, adding three significant softball programs to the league.

However excited they are for the future of the Big 12 and Big Ten, Candrea and Enquist will always represent the Pac-12.

“We're going to feel a void for a long time,” Enquist said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Pac-12's final days at WCWS are 'gut-wrenching' for softball legends

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