From the very inception of the Women’s College World Series in 1982, one thing became abundantly clear — college softball ran through the Pac-12.
Or at least it did.
The totals are still lopsided. As a conference, the Pac-12 has seven more National Championships than every other conference combined. It has five times the number of championships, four times the number of championship appearances and twice the number of total WCWS qualifiers as the next best conference in each category.
But in the past decade, there has been a changing of the guard— the sport is no longer dominated by the West Coast With the rise of the SEC and the Big 12 — conferences that have claimed seven national titles since 2012 — it’s dominated by the South.
But in this realignment of power it seemed for a while as if the Big Ten had been left out. Not anymore.
This year, something changed.
“It’s a very, very strong Big Ten all around this year,” graduate second baseman Melina Livingston said on May eighth.
Livingston — who played three years at Penn State before transferring to Michigan — is right. The conference is much stronger than it has been in some time, and that’s a drastic change from past seasons.
While other conferences have made leaps and bounds in the past decade, the Big Ten hasn’t. It has remained a generally average conference with a lone crown jewel — Michigan. But as a whole, the conference has never been a marquee destination. The perception abounds that Michigan and Minnesota dominate; everyone else meanders.
This was pervasive, especially last season. With qualification for, and seeding within, the NCAA Tournament being exclusively decided based on RPI. The Big Ten could only play conference opponents, and according to that same RPI, the Big Ten is weak. This left a hole in the strength of schedule for conference teams. The result: the fewest Big Ten teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament since 2012, and a controversial seeding for the Wolverines.
Generally, strength in the Big Ten is top heavy. But this year saw a proliferation of talent.
Take Nebraska for example. The Cornhuskers haven’t historically had success and have won only one regular season conference title. This year, they were fantastic. They finished second in the Big Ten’s regular season standings and proceeded to defeat Michigan to win the Big Ten Championship, becoming the first team other than the Wolverines or Gophers to do so in a decade.
But Nebraska isn’t the only new guard team to show improvement. Northwestern won the regular season title for the first time since 2008, while Illinois and Maryland both boast victories over ranked opponents and high conference finishes just a year after posting ugly losing records. Hell, even tenth place Purdue was able to earn a ranked victory over USF.
This year’s Big Ten is unprecedentedly strong, and the NCAA Tournament selection committee took note, selecting a record-tying seven Big Ten teams to its tournament. That total ties the Pac-12 for the second most selections.
“Having seven Big Ten teams (in the tournament) says that our league is as strong as we thought it was,” Hutchins said.
And while the strength of this year’s Big Ten may be unprecedented, it isn’t a fluke.
“Our coaches have collaborated together,” Hutchins said. “What can we do to increase the visibility of our league and the competitiveness of our league from top to bottom? Everybody has worked together and bought into the same thing: ‘If you’re better, it’s going to make me better.’ And if we have to work harder to win, it only makes us better in the postseason.”
But drastic top to bottom improvement and growth doesn’t simply come from demanding such visible gains. It comes via drastic change, and that’s what the Big Ten did. As a whole, it began slating tougher non-conference opponents, reinstated the Big Ten Tournament and in turn built a larger on-campus softball culture.
“We needed to upgrade our preseason schedules, and we needed to win those games,” Hutchins said. “We’ve had a lot of heated discussions over representation and making sure the entire country continues to have strong softball because way back when, you saw the same teams hosting over and over.
“When we started hosting Big Ten Tournaments and regionals we became viable on this campus and it made us better. Now look at our stadium, look at our competition and look at what we’ve been able to do up here. It took some people with vision well beyond the first dimension.”
The Big Ten’s strength this year is a result of this vision. It’s the result of the coaches understanding — largely without the prodding of conference officials — that their programs needed to improve, and then those same coaches taking action to foster such improvement.
That’s why the emergence of the Big Ten is important — not because it’s a record — but because it could be permanent. The Big Ten isn’t randomly better, it’s better because the coaches have adopted the sink or swim method in fostering growth. They’re slating tougher opponents, going to tournaments that will be televised and working on building better venues, and the end goal is starting to come into focus.
The Big Ten might not produce a National Champion this year. Frankly, it might not even produce a WCWS team. But what it demonstrated this season is that its work to lay competitive foundations is already paying dividends. More tournament bids means better recruiting leverage, and this leads to all around strength that builds upon itself.
All that is far down the road, because the Big Ten was left in the dust when the power structures of college softball shifted a decade ago. But now, it’s trying to cause a shift of its own.