OKLAHOMA CITY — When Clint Myers coached Arizona State to the 2008 Women’s College World Series championship, the Pac-10 Conference was still riding high in the softball world.
The Sun Devils’ national title was the Pac-10’s seventh in eight seasons, and the conference now known as the Pac-12 would go on to win three more in a row.
But even back then, Myers could sense a changing of the guard. The Southeastern Conference’s money, power and influence was becoming apparent in softball, and sure enough, that 2008 World Series was the last one that included more teams from the Pac-10/12 than from the SEC.
“We knew the direction it was going,” Myers, who is now Auburn’s coach, told SEC Country on Wednesday. “They’ve got the best facilities in the country, as far as a league goes. They spend a lot of money. They have a lot of clout. They have the best football-type of atmosphere.
“You knew there was gonna be a new kid on the block and they were gonna take over.”
The 2016 Women’s College World Series begins Thursday with four SEC teams — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and LSU make up half the bracket — and only UCLA representing the Pac-12.
Georgia only reached the World Series after stunning top-seeded and two-time defending national champion Florida in last week’s super regional round.
Of course, for the SEC teams playing in Oklahoma City this week, most conference series felt a little bit like a postseason competition.
“Our team felt very prepared for the super regionals because with our eight conferences series, we felt like we’d already played in eight super regionals,” said LSU coach Beth Torina. “(Playing in the SEC is grueling mentally, because you have to go out and get punched in the mouth over and over and over again.
“The kids that succeed are the ones that are mentally tough.”
But how did the league get to this point? A lot of it started — unsurprisingly — because of football money. The SEC is the richest and most powerful conference in college sports because of its gridiron success, and one of the ripple effects of that has been more money for sports like softball.
Seven SEC schools have built new softball stadiums since 2008.
Torina played SEC softball herself at Florida from 1997 through 2000, and when she returned to the conference as LSU’s coach in 2012, it was hardly recognizable.
“I think the difference has been our universities and the amount of money they’re putting into the programs,” she said. “There’s only a few facilities that are the same as when I played. It’s just unbelievable.”
As more money has been infused into the league’s softball programs, naturally, on-field success has followed. Five SEC teams made their first Women’s College World Series appearances just in the last 11 years.
The 2012 additions of Missouri and Texas A&M — which made a combined 18 WCWS appearances before joining the SEC — only made the league’s softball stronger.
“Out of all the sports in the SEC, softball got the best deal when those two joined,” said Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, whose 2012 team gave the SEC its first softball national championship.
Another strong indicator of the SEC’s ascension to the top of the college softball world comes in the form of All-America selections.
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association announced its 2016 Division I All-America teams Wednesday. Of the 58 players on the first, second and third teams, 18 play at SEC schools, compared to 10 for the Pac-12, eight for the Big Ten and five each for the Big 12 and ACC.
In terms of softball national championships, of course, the SEC has a long way to go before it can catch the Pac-12’s 23 titles.
Still, the Pac-12 is five years removed from its last Women’s College World Series championship. From the event’s 1982 inception through 2011, the conference never went more than two years without winning it.
And the coach who won the Pac-12’s most recent World Series has now led Auburn to Oklahoma City in consecutive seasons.
“We beat Florida in 2011 in the championship, and that was the start of everything,” Myers said.
“From there, the SEC’s just been phenomenal.”