It is time to end the inequality in Division 1 Softball. The inequality I am referring to are the obvious differences between the top D1 college teams and their mid-major counterparts. It is finally time to acknowledge this inequality and develop a new approach to improve the competitive balance throughout the division, especially in the postseason.
Before I lay out the issues as I see them and offer a solution, I want to make it perfectly clear that mid-major D1 schools across the country play great softball! However, if the NCAA really believes all D1 softball programs are in the same class, the postseason tournament would not be dominated by a few power conferences.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Mid-major teams from all over the country travel to warm climates early each season to challenge “Top 20” opponents they have little chance to defeat. In 2019, a mid-major team from the Midwest played thirteen Power 5 conference teams. They went 1-12 and were outscored 82-12. Another midwestern school played five Power 5 opponents that spring. They lost all five games and were outscored 53-8.
The powerful Oklahoma Sooners played fifteen games earlier this season against mid-major opponents. They won every game and outscored their opponents 217-18. This included a 33-4 lopsided victory against New Mexico and a two-game sweep of UTEP with a combined score of 50-2. That is not equality.
You would be hard-pressed to find any mid-major teams that are consistently successful against elite programs. The question is why do mid-major softball teams schedule powerful opponents at the beginning of each season?
I have come up with two potentially viable answers. First, mid-major softball programs use these mismatch games to challenge their players. “Let’s see how we stack-up against the best teams in the country.” I am sure many coaches have used this statement to justify scheduling teams superior in every phase of the game. It sounds good, but do mid-major players really improve after playing these mismatch games?
The second answer has little to do with the challenge, but everything to do with recruiting. Mid-major coaches promise recruits they will have an opportunity to play traditional softball powerhouses like Florida, Alabama, Arizona, UCLA, and Washington. What they do not tell recruits is they will likely get shelled as a pitcher or will be overmatched at the plate as a hitter.
Of course, there are exceptions. A handful of mid-major schools compete favorably with the Power 5 programs. These programs are typically located in warm weather states where they recruit from a large and deep talent pool. Occasionally these teams even upset a Power 5 opponent, but that does not happen very often.
There are also individual players on mid-major teams who enjoy some personal success against this higher level of competition. Unfortunately, for every one of these players, there are several who do not matchup against the best softball players in the country.
A Blessing in Disguise
The pandemic caused some conferences like the Big 10 to schedule only conference games this season. Each team played three or four game series against all their conference rivals. This could be the foundation for a potentially better model. At the end of the season, overall records will be more meaningful and a more accurate reflection of the best teams in the conference. I am sure these teams missed beating up on mid-major schools to pad their statistics and records, but this is a positive step toward more competitive softball and schedule integrity.
I am assuming Power 5 conferences like the Big 10 will decide to play a non-conference schedule next season. I encourage them to play only comparable teams. The best early season games are the ones with equal talent in both dugouts. It is fun to watch a Florida-UCLA matchup in March as a potential preview of the Women’s College World Series.
I would also like to see more inter-conference tournaments in the preseason like the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. If Power 5 teams scheduled comparable opponents early in the season, games in late February and early March would be nearly as exciting as games in May and June.
The New Normal
Everyone is talking about the new normal after the pandemic is finally behind us. Eliminating the mismatches early in the season would also benefit mid-major programs. These teams would be free to schedule opponents like them for more exciting games and better player development. Mid-major conferences could even form their own inter-conference challenge tournaments.
I coached at the D3 level for several seasons. Each Spring, we would travel to Florida to play other D3 opponents. Some teams were better than us and others were worse, but every game was competitive.
Equally matched games provided our coaching staff with a clear indication of our strengths and weaknesses heading into our conference schedule. If we had played D1 or the better D2 teams during those trips, it would not have been as fun or meaningful for our program.
Stay in Your Lane
I am a highly competitive person and enjoy a good challenge to test my hitters. But we all need to understand our limitations. Some ultra-competitive mid-major college coaches reading this are probably furious with me. They may believe their players can hit and pitch with any team in the country. Most would be wrong.
I have seen college softball games at every level. There is an obvious difference between the players on elite D1 and mid-major rosters. The starters are superior athletes with better all-around softball skills. Look at the top 20 teams in the country from year-to-year. With rare exceptions, the same teams are on the list every season. Periodically, a mid-major team will crack the Top 20, but it is rare.
Separate But Still Equal
Division 1 college football has two divisions, Division 1A and 1AA. Like the elite college softball teams, the football teams that dominate the Top 20 each season are D-1A. Why not create similar classifications in college softball?
D-1AA football teams play in conferences that are comparable to mid-major softball teams. Even though some do play D-1 programs early in the season, a big payday is the primary goal for getting dominated on the scoreboard. Mid-major college softball teams do not get compensated for enduring lopsided losses against Top 20 opponents.
D-1AA football teams also enjoy a separate playoff system. This affords any team a realistic chance to be national champions because they play only other D-1AA opponents. Imagine the excitement when players realize they can “win it all”.
What if D1 college softball split into two divisions? With the growing popularity of college softball, the timing is perfect. I am sure ESPN or other networks would televise some of the mid-major playoff games and championship like they cover the D1-AA football postseason.
Think of the positive exposure mid-major teams would receive by going deep into the playoffs or winning a national championship. This would be a college softball recruiter’s dream to discuss the realistic opportunity to win a ring with prospective student-athletes and their parents.
A two-tier softball postseason tournament would also allow more teams from both divisions to make a “Big Dance”. The overwhelming majority of teams in the postseason tournament come from Power 5 conferences. In 2019, 33 of the 64 teams were from Power 5 conferences. The same is true for the 2021 tournament field. It seems like mid-major teams only serve to fill out the brackets.
I will leave it up to the NCAA to determine the size of each tournament and how the conferences are split between the two championships. Instead of one tournament with 64 teams, what about two tournaments with 48 teams? That is an additional 32 teams that have a realistic chance to advance deep into their respective tournament and win a national championship.
The Inequality Continues
As an alumnus of Illinois State University, I enjoy supporting all the Redbird sports programs. It has been fun to see the football team go deep into the D1-AA playoffs the past few years. This notoriety has helped the coaching staff recruit more talented student-athletes, some of whom have made their way to the National Football League.
The Illinois State Softball team had a great 2021 campaign. Unfortunately, while each of the Power 5 conferences received multiple bids again for the 2021 tournament, the Missouri Valley Conference will only be represented by the tournament champion, Southern Illinois University. Illinois State won the regular season championship, but they will be watching the tournament at home. It is indisputably clear the NCAA Selection Committee is biased toward Power 5 conferences, so the inequality continues for mid-major conferences.
I would have loved to see Illinois State compete with other mid-major teams for a national title this year. A separate championship would have allowed the Redbirds and more Missouri Valley teams to make the “Dance”. Perhaps, there are mid-major head coaches who are satisfied with making the tournament and losing in first round. That feels like a participation award to me.
Equality For All!
It is time to address the inequality in D-1 college softball. DII, DIII, and NAIA teams play only comparable opponents during the regular season and the postseason. Forming a new D1 softball division for mid-major teams to compete in the postseason has no downside. Mid-major players can still be boast about playing D-1 softball, but they would finally have a path to real postseason success, national recognition, and long overdue equality.
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is the hitting coach for Roosevelt University Softball in Chicago and the author of the book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball And Softball Hitters. He also is a public speaker and provides unique customer engagement training through his company Torque Consulting. Paul teaches a Customer Relationship Management class to undergraduates at Wheaton College (IL) and MBA candidates at Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University and the Benedictine University Asia Program