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How Pac-12 Softball Is Built On Women Leaders

kelly inouye-perez Genaro Molina _ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.jpg
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Pac-12 has long been designated the Conference of Champions. With 24 national championships since the NCAA first sanctioned the Women’s College World Series in 1982, the history is there to prove it. Nine universities in the conference sponsor softball, and five different programs won the top prize in their history—UCLA (12), Arizona (8), Arizona State (2), Washington (1) and California (1).

After decades of dominance, an eight-year drought plagued the league between the Sun Devils’ run in 2011 and the Bruins’ national title reclamation in 2019. Since then, another legacy emerged out west—women in charge.

With Mike Candrea’s retirement and Caitlin Lowe stepping into the Arizona head coaching role in 2021, the Pac-12 officially had all women head coaches. The Pac-12 is currently the only Power Five conference able to make this claim, which is especially notable after the recent 50th anniversary of Title IX.

“It’s pretty cool,” Oregon State head coach Laura Berg said. “Softball has given so much to us as athletes that we want to be able to pay it forward and give back to the game that gave us so much.”

Under these women, the conference made a statement in 2022. Seven teams made the NCAA Tournament, while some argued the remaining teams—Cal (28-27-1) and Utah (27-27)—should’ve advanced as well.

Washington and Oregon reached their respective Regional finals. Stanford and Arizona State both hosted Super Regionals, which marked the first time for the Cardinal since 2009. Three Pac-12 teams went on to the WCWS in 2022. And while UCLA and Arizona were in familiar territory, Oregon State found itself in OKC for the first time in 15 years.

Ask any of these coaches which conference is the best in the country, and they won’t hesitate to name the Pac-12. While competition is always high on the field, they also collaborate well off the field. Berg, the most decorated player in USA Softball history, and Lowe, an Olympic silver medalist, are particularly close. The former teammates shared a moment together after playing each other at Hall of Fame Stadium in the WCWS back in June.

“She’s a competitor and she wants to win,” Berg said. “I’m a competitor and I want to win. At the end of the day, after the game, we’re colleagues again. We’re friends again.”

Coming into 2023, those seven postseason programs all broke into at least one national top 25 poll. After two weeks, over half are still holding strong, and climbing, with UCLA at No. 1, Washington at No. 8, Stanford at No. 11 and Arizona at No. 15.

After going undefeated with four ranked wins at the Clearwater Invitational, the Bruins are the first team to overtake the top spot from now-No. 2 Oklahoma since 2021, and they’re set to clash at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this weekend. All four of the ranked Pac-12 programs are now also led by alums.

Six out of the nine total Pac-12 softball head coaches lead their alma maters, all of whom competed in the WCWS in their time as college players, and their resumes are impressive.

It’s impossible to ignore how their on-field experience enhances their coaching abilities. Lowe became the only head coach to ever go to the WCWS in her first year since the tournament expanded beyond 16 teams in 1988. It’s a result that validates the hiring decision, especially following the career of eight-time national champion coach Mike Candrea. Her experience as a four-time All-American was cited as a factor when her promotion was announced.

“Caitlin Lowe has been a superstar her entire life," Candrea said in a statement. "She has continued that growth and success as the associate head coach for Arizona Softball. She is bright, a good communicator, understands what it takes having been there as an athlete and the players love her.”

Three Pac-12 programs also have pitching coaches who are not only alums, but also former teammates of their head coaches—Arizona’s Taryne Mowatt-McKinney, UCLA’s Lisa Fernandez and Stanford’s Tori Nyberg. Fernandez and Nyberg both have the added bonus of having been battery mates with Kelly Inouye-Perez and Jessica Allister, respectively. It turns out managing a bullpen together translates well to managing an entire program.

“Lisa and I have so many stories and memories together,” Inouye-Perez said on the Bleav in Softball podcast. “There is a secret sauce about what defined her that I think is bleeding into the pitchers here in this generation.” An example of this, she says, lies in how they teach the “Lisa Fernandez stat” to their players.

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“They know that I understand the stresses that they’re being asked to do, and they trust that it’s all for the right reasons,” Fernandez said on the Bleav in Softball podcast.

Even with recent changes, including the departure of Trisha Ford from Arizona State to Texas A&M, the legacy of women’s leadership still stands with the hiring of new Sun Devils skipper Megan Bartlett. When UCLA officially joins the Big Ten before the 2025 season, the remaining programs, as they stand, would still be led by women, and more than half would still be alums.

And the Pac-12's leaders are dedicated to continuing to support each other. “Why would you want to tear down another woman?” Berg stated. “Empower them. Empower them to be successful because that just makes our game even greater.”

There’s still a long 2023 season ahead, but there’s one thing the Pac-12 can lean on during the grind—the Conference of Champions also champions women.

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