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NCAA softball 2022: Can anyone stop Jocelyn Alo and Oklahoma?

(C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The NCAA softball season is underway, with No. 19 Georgia and No. 10 Texas already falling victim to upsets.

There are plenty of things we know about this season: Oklahoma is good. Jocelyn Alo is very good. Montana Fouts is deadly on the mound. ESPN needs to put more games on their main networks, such as this Sunday’s UCLA-Florida State showdown on ESPN as part of a 40-game weekend slate.

But there are also plenty of unknowns and intriguing storylines to follow along the way. Just Women’s Sports breaks down a few as the season continues with a couple of key tournaments this weekend that could shake up the national discussion.

How far will Oklahoma go?

The defending national champions are already off to a hot start, taking down No. 3 UCLA last Saturday 4-1. The Sooners have given up just two runs through six games so far.

Oklahoma has made it to six WCWS championship series, winning five of them, including four in the last decade. They’ve only gone back-to-back once, i 2016 and ’17.

While the Sooners lost some talent from the their title team, they return 2021 Player of the Year Jocelyn Alo, Freshman of the Year Tiare Jennings and Jayda Coleman, a finalist for the same award. They’ve also added freshman Jordy Bahl, who was named National Pitcher of the Week after striking out 14 in the win over UCLA.

The Sooners are at the top of the conversation about national championship contenders. They lost just four games last season, making it all the way to late April without a loss before Georgia handed them their first. Oklahoma’s next big test comes in a doubleheader on Feb. 25 against No. 9 Arizona and No. 18 Tennessee.

Which conference will stand out?

The Washington Huskies made headlines last season when they walked out of their NCAA watch party. The fifth-ranked team in the country wound up as the 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament and met eventual champion Oklahoma in the super regional.

The Pac-12 at large felt disrespected by the NCAA’s seeding last year, with UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez admitting she was “shocked” during the selection show. Since then, the Pac-12 has lost a lot of talent, and the conference’s strength will be tested in some early-season matchups. At the Elite Invitational this weekend, Washington and UCLA will go up against No. 5 Florida State and No. 7 Oklahoma State. While Oklahoma headlines the Big 12, Oklahoma State picked up a couple of key pieces in the offseason in Miranda Elish (Texas), Julia Cottrill (Florida) and Morgan Day (Illinois State).

The SEC, with three teams inside the top five, continues to be one of the strongest conferences in softball. Second-ranked Alabama has one of the nation’s best returning pitchers in All-American and reigning Pitcher of the Year Montana Fouts.

The Big Ten will resume a non-conference schedule after playing only conference games last season due to COVID-19. Last year, only three Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament and none earned a national seed. They didn’t fare much better in the tournament, with Minnesota making it the farthest — to the regional finals where they lost to UCLA. Going up against some of the country’s best against, the Big Ten has a fresh chance to prove itself.

Jocelyn Alo and the home run record: a matter of time

Jocelyn Alo will look to make some history of her own as she continues to anchor the Oklahoma offense this season. The fifth-year senior currently has 90 home runs in her career, just five shy of the record set by Lauren Chamberlain seven years ago.

If the Alo can break the record within 15 games, she’ll have done so faster than Chamberlain, who amassed 95 home runs in 220 games. It’s certainly possible: Alo hit 12 home runs in her first 15 games last season. In total, she smashed 34 homers, setting an Oklahoma and Big 12 single-season record. So far, she has two through five games, and the ability to heat up at any moment.

Oh, and did we mention that she’s a member of the Just Women’s Sports Varsity Squad?

Can ESPN and the NCAA come to terms on scheduling?

Inequities at NCAA Tournaments were at the center of national discussions last year, and softball was no exception. From a lack of showers to a tournament format that could mean going without a day off, the criticism over player treatment was loud.

On top of it all, despite a massive uptick in viewership through the first games of the WCWS, ESPN scheduled the final game of the national championship for 3 p.m. ET midweek. Issues arose earlier in the tournament when rain delays caused Florida State to play a game past 3 a.m. ET. A mere 12 hours later, the Seminoles took the diamond again for a spot in the championship series. This year’s tournament has expanded from seven days to nine, bringing it more in line with the men’s tournament and giving the athletes more rest days.

The 2021 WCWS was the most-watched on record, recording higher viewership than the men’s baseball tournament with an average audience of 1.2 million.

ESPN is promising unprecedented softball coverage throughout the regular season, including a new game-of-the-week series called “Thursday Night Throwdown” that will air for four weeks from mid-April through early-May. Those games will air in primetime slots on ESPN2.

There are still opportunities for more games to move to main networks; for example, Sunday’s matchup between No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 Florida State, originally slated for ESPN2, will now air on ESPN as part of the network’s premier weekend of women’s sports. If there is one learning from last season, it’s that people want more softball on their televisions.

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.