ed.- bumped from the fanposts. good stuff.
Let's be honest. This is not a sport that the SEC traditionally dominates. Since the NCAA established softball as a sport in 1982, 23 of the 27 champions have hailed from California or Arizona (21 of those were PAC-10 teams). Only twice in the past ten years has the PAC-10 had less than half of the teams in the College World Series. UCLA is the queen of women's softball with 11 championships, including six of the first nine and three in a row from 1988-1990. That said, SEC softball has made significant strides in the past few years to challenge the PAC-10 for the title of the top conference in Division 1.
The SEC officially endorsed softball as a sport in 1997, though Vanderbilt does not field a team. It was a slow start for the conference. In its first four years only South Carolina (who has been playing softball since the 1970s) was able to reach the College World Series and the conference didn't notch a win until Alabama beat DePaul in 2000. But the last five years have seen the SEC soar. In 2004, the conference placed eight teams into the regionals (each regional had six teams). The next year, four SEC teams hosted regionals for the first time in conference history. 2006 saw five of the 16 4-team regionals and two of the eight two-team super-regionals hosted by SEC schools. While Tennessee made a strong run at the title in 2006, it was 2007 that established the SEC as the main contender to end PAC-10 dominance. Five teams advanced to the super-regionals and Tennessee became the first SEC team to make it to the Championship Series where they lost to Arizona two games to one. Additionally, prior to the SEC tournament, the conference had the top three ranked teams for the first time in conference history with Tennessee, Alabama, and LSU rankin #1, #2, and #3 respectively. In 2008 Florida earned the #1 seed at the College World Series and Alabama joined them with the #3 seed. Florida was one game away from the championship series while Alabama was eliminated after twice losing to eventual champion Arizona State.
So what has made the SEC so good in so short a time? Two things: weather and football. The reason California and Arizona have been such softball hotbeds is because the weather there is conducive to year-round play. This has played a huge role in developing high school talent. While many SEC teams recruited heavily in California early on, they are now beginning to find and develop home-grown players. Two-thirds of the Tide's roster comes from SEC territory. Current #2 Florida provides the best example of how important weather is in developing softball players. All but two of the Gators' girls come from outside of Florida, California, and Texas and only one is from north of the Mason-Dixon line.
So what does football have to do with softball's success? Money. Every SEC softball program is a net drain on university resources. It is the strength (and profits) of the football programs that have allowed schools like Tennessee, Alabama, and LSU to build new stadiums, new facilities, and to pour money into recruiting and scholarships. That's not to say that the softball programs are valueless. Alabama led all schools in attendance last season and is hoping to do so again this year. Softball is gaining a following in SEC country, and the conference is only going to get stronger.
So what is in store for 2009? Florida and Alabama are legitimate, definite title contenders. They are currently ranked 1-2. Florida won an NCAA record 70 games last year, went 27-1 in conference play, and earned the #1 seed in the College World Series. They return all but one player from last year's roster and will likely finish either first or second in the SEC.
Alabama will be the top contender to unseat Florida. They return SEC Freshman of the Year Kelsi Dunne and are looking to improve on a season in which they finshed #9 in the country and made it to the national semifinals.
Until last year, Tennessee and LSU were the class of the SEC. LSU had won 6 of the past 11 SEC West titles and Tennessee won 50 games in 2008. Both are currently Top 25 teams and either one could win the SEC.
Georgia and Mississippi State are probably not contenders this season, but they have potential. Both teams won 40+games last year, though they both fell in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Auburn are all middling teams in the SEC. Arkansas went from last place in the SEC West in 2007 to making the NCAA tournament in 2008 (even though they were left out of the conference tournament). Ole Miss finished below .500 last year, but managed to wrangle the 8th seed away from Arkansas. And Auburn has consistently finished in the middle of the pack.
South Carolina has fallen on hard times after being one of the better SEC teams when they first recognized softball. Kentucky is just awful.
So, there you go. I highly suggest people keep track of this team. Alabama could very well win its first softball championship this season and, at the very least, the SEC will be making a play for recognition as the best conference in the nation.