We’ll never know if UCLA was the best team in NCAA softball this season, let alone one of the best teams ever. But the Bruins appeared to be pulling off an understudy performance for the ages. With stars Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles away all season on Olympic duty, the Bruins had nevertheless settled in as the No. 1 team a month into the campaign. And with the second-best ERA and fourth-best run production in the country, who knows what awaited in June.
In the spirit of all eight teams we won’t get to see play for their place in history in the Women’s College World Series this spring, here are the eight best teams that didn’t win a national title.
1. UCLA (1983)
While far different in scale and societal seriousness, this won’t be the first year that a health issue affects the national championship race. In just the second season of softball’s NCAA era, one of the sport’s greatest assemblages of talent was undone by a bad meal.
Winners of the first Women’s College World Series under the NCAA umbrella in 1982, UCLA returned loaded the following season. Future Olympian Dot Richardson played shortstop and led the offense. The brilliantly named Debbie Doom struck out 20 batters in a WCWS game in 1982 and made the all-WCWS team in 1982, ’84 and ’85. Tracy Compton set the NCAA’s most unbreakable single-season record with a 0.04 ERA in 1983 (one earned run in 168 innings).
The Bruins cruised through their first two games in the World Series. Yet by the time they faced rival Cal State Fullerton, much of the team was sick with symptoms resembling food poisoning.
A team that had allowed just 17 runs entering that game against Fullerton trailed 3-0 after the first inning and lost 6-1. It got so bad that event staff power-washed the dugout afterward because so many Bruins got sick during the game. After a few hours of rest at the hotel, the Bruins somehow stayed alive in the double-elimination tournament with a 17-inning win against South Carolina. But a 14-inning game against Texas A&M the next day proved too much. The mighty Bruins were out, the only time in the first four years of the Women’s College World Series as an NCAA entity that UCLA did not win the title.
2. Arizona (1995)
Offense has reached record heights over the past decade, but no team has been more prolific than Arizona and its 8.74 runs per game back in 1995. It remains the best mark among teams beyond the low-major level in NCAA history. That happens with a lineup that features hitters like Leah Braatz, Jenny Dalton, Laura Espinoza and Leah O’Brien. Espinoza hit 37 home runs in 1995, which remains the NCAA single-season record. O’Brien would make the first-ever Team USA Olympic softball roster the following year. On top of all that hitting, Arizona had two elite sophomore pitchers in Carrie Dolan (33-2, 1.09 ERA) and Nancy Evans (31-4, 1.65 ERA).
But after carrying a 65-5 record into the national title game, outscoring postseason opponents 60-2 to that point, Arizona became the case study for the vagaries of a one-game championship. UCLA used an error and a home run to break a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning and won the game 4-2.
That was painful enough, though Arizona fans will say it’s only part of the story. The NCAA later vacated the Bruins’ title because of eligibility issues with their Australian ace, Tanya Harding.
3. Florida (2009)
Florida went 133-10 over the 2008 and ’09 seasons yet didn’t get a title to show for it. The two teams obviously had considerable overlap, so separating them gets tricky. But while the 2008 team actually won more games (70 to 63) and had a slightly better winning percentage (.933 to .926), the 2009 version was arguably the most complete team in Gators history.
One of the underrated aces in recent memory, perhaps because her career followed Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman and was overshadowed in the moment by Danielle Lawrie, Stacey Nelson went 41-5 with a 0.61 ERA in 2009. It’s also difficult to do better as an understudy than Stephanie Brombacher’s 22-0 record. But Nelson and Brombacher were both excellent in 2008. What tips the scales toward 2009 was the development of an offense that went from 5.5 to 6.3 runs per game and a slugging percentage that went from .468 to .543. Megan Bush and Kelsey Bruder emerged as stars, Francesca Enea was one of the best hitters in the country and there were even signs of what was to come from freshman Michelle Moultrie (now a Team USA mainstay).
So what went wrong? Well, Lawrie. After Washington’s ace sat out 2008 to compete for Canada in the Olympics, she was on a different level than everyone else in the championship series in Oklahoma City in 2009. And with the title that once seemed such a given slipping away again, Florida looked tighter and tighter against the Huskies.
4. California (2012)
Cal won a national title in 2002. Before that, it had one of the greatest pitchers in NCAA history in Michele Granger. But the 2012 team might have been the best the program ever produced.
The key moment in Cal’s 2012 success actually came on the second day of practice in 2011, when Valerie Arioto broke her leg. The injury forced the All-American to redshirt that season but left her with eligibility remaining in 2012. That meant that instead of playing as a true senior with a team that might have been a year too young to win the title in 2011, she finished her career alongside the best versions of Elia and Jamia Reid, Britt Vonk, Jace Williams, Lindsey Ziegenhirt and, of course, Jolene Henderson. Team USA’s top slugger these days, Arioto hit 23 home runs for Cal in 2012 and also won 20 games in the circle, sparing Henderson enough innings to keep her fresh enough to produce a 37-4 record and a 1.29 ERA.
Yet after losing just three times in the regular season, Cal ran into two of the hottest pitchers in the nation in the World Series. Beaten early by eventual finalist Oklahoma and Keilani Ricketts, the Bears were eliminated by eventual champion Alabama and Jackie Traina in a semifinal.
5. Tennessee (2007)
It’s one of the great mysteries of college softball, a sport supposedly so long dominated by pitching, that neither Abbott nor Osterman won a national championship. It is mostly because neither record-setting ace ever had an offense behind her that was on par with the other teams on this list. But by the final season of Abbott’s reign in Knoxville, the Lady Vols had assembled a championship-caliber supporting cast. They had a truly elite run producer in Tonya Callahan and speed to burn, stealing 168 bases at an impressive 90% success rate.
And, of course, they had Abbott. The legendary lefty went 50-5 with a 0.68 ERA with an NCAA single-season record 724 strikeouts — recording more than two of every three outs by strikeout.
There were some signs that Tennessee might struggle to become the first SEC team to win it all. The Lady Vols lost to Florida in the SEC tournament, then needed all three games to eliminate Hawaii in a super regional. Then Abbott took over, shutting out Northwestern, Texas A&M and Arizona twice to reach the championship round of the World Series. Abbott didn’t allow a run until the 10th inning of the final series against Arizona, but Tennessee’s offense went quiet and that was the run that mattered in a 1-0 loss. By then, Oklahoma City was awash in the magic of Taryne Mowatt’s 1,000-pitch redemption tour through the losers’ bracket. The wheels came off for the Lady Vols in Game 2 and the Wildcats won the title.
6. Florida (2016)
The Gators suffered a shockingly sudden end to the 2016 season when they were swept out of a super regional by Georgia on a walk-off home run. But the toll of three seasons had as much to do with their place on this list as those two game against the Bulldogs. After back-to-back titles in 2014 and ’15, Florida had a chance to join UCLA as the only teams to win three titles in a row — and the first to do so in a 64-team tournament. While not as prolific at the plate as the two titles teams, this Gators team hardly suffered for runs with Amanda Lorenz, Kirsti Merritt and Kelsey Stewart around. Current Team USA catcher Aubree Munro anchored the defense.
What set Florida apart as one of the best teams of all time was a pitching staff as deep as any team has assembled. In Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio, the Gators had three elite pitchers who offered three different looks. The team finished with a 0.93 ERA, nearly a full run better than any other program in a Power 5 conference. It was stunning for that team to not only miss out on a title but not even reach the World Series when Kaylee Puailoa’s home run sailed into the Gainesville night.
7. Arizona (1998)
Maybe Arizona overachieved to begin with in 1998. Maybe mixing in nearly half a dozen freshman starters among a senior class that included icons like outfielder Alison McCutcheon and ace Nancy Evans shouldn’t have worked so seamlessly. But buoyed by one of the most productive groups of freshmen ever assembled, the Wildcats went 67-4. Unfortunately for them, the third-best winning percentage in NCAA history is also the best by a team that didn’t win the title.
Mixing in newcomers like Lauren Bauer, Becky Lemke and Toni Mascarenas, Arizona lost its third game of the season on April 4. A few days later it swept a doubleheader against Fresno State. And just kept winning. By the time the Wildcats reached the national title game on Memorial Day, they were working on a 29-game winning streak. They outscored postseason opponents 45-0 entering that championship game, a rematch with Fresno State. But the one-game winner-take-all championship format struck again. A solo home run from Nina Lindenberg was all Fresno State pitcher Amanda Scott needed to earn a 1-0 win and the championship.
If Arizona had pulled out that game, and if the Wildcats had been awarded the vacated 1995 title, it would have marked a sixth consecutive national championship for the team from Tucson.
8. Alabama (2008)
At the very least, this has to be the best team that didn’t win a conference regular-season, tournament or NCAA tournament title. The Crimson Tide found their conference path blocked by one of rival Florida’s strongest teams, while both SEC juggernauts played second fiddle to Arizona State in the World Series. It was an especially sweet prize for the Pac-12, which was able to hold off the surging SEC without even relying on traditional powers Arizona or UCLA.
But what it didn’t win aside, Alabama did a lot of things pretty darn well en route to a 58-8 record. The Crimson Tide ranked among the top three nationally in runs per game and slugging percentage, the offense led by Brittany Rogers’ speed and Charlotte Morgan’s power. With Kelley Montalvo at third, Kellie Eubanks at shortstop and Ashley Holcombe behind the plate, they had one of the best infield defenses in college softball history. And in freshman Kelsi Dunne, they found a pitching ace worthy of the cast she had around her.
It just wasn’t to be. Alabama led Florida in the SEC final in the sixth inning but lost. It led Arizona State in its World Series opener in the seventh inning but lost. It fought back to earn another game against the Sun Devils in a semifinal and again took a lead. But again it didn’t last.