Despite featuring three Southeastern Conference schools and the exciting offense of the underdog Hawaii softball team, the story of the first three days of the Women's College World Series this year has focused on the umpires.
Illegal-pitch calls have been the talk of the tournament at Oklahoma City. Arizona pitcher Kenzie Fowler was called for eight illegal pitches in the Wildcats' opening loss to Tennessee on Thursday, and Florida's Stephanie Brombacher had four illegal-pitch calls in the Gators' 16-3 loss to UCLA.
In fastpitch softball in the United States, the pitcher is required to stay in a 24-inch lane during her delivery and keep her plant foot on the ground at all times. The primary infraction being called this year involves the pitcher "hopping" or having her back foot come off the ground before the ball leaves her hand. The penalty for an illegal pitch is similar to a balk call in baseball, with each runner moving up a base.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Frank Reed represents the Southern Conference in an NCAA head coaches committee, and he's seen firsthand the impact of the tightened interpretation. UTC senior Brooke Loudermilk struggled at a tournament in March with a series of illegal pitch calls.
"I definitely think the illegal-pitch calls drastically affected Brooke's senior season," Reed said. "It's hard to take a pitcher who's been taught one way and then ask her to change. Muscle memory just takes over."
Cameron Schuh, the NCAA's associate director for public and media relations, said via e-mail that the increased emphasis on illegal pitches this year resulted from concerns raised after the 2009 World Series. She said the increased enforcement was to "raise the level of integrity, fairness, accuracy and consistency by improving umpire education in order to enforce the rules established for the game without excuses or misunderstandings."
Coaches at the WCWS have complained that the calls are being made inconsistently, and pitchers aren't able to prepare if they don't know when they will be called for an illegal pitch.
The issue isn't limited to the NCAA. Lee University's Brittany Balough was called for two illegal pitches and then, rattled, walked a batter late in the loss to Trevecca Nazarene that kept the No. 2-ranked Lady Flames from advancing to elimination play in the NAIA national tournament.
"This year it was an emphasis, but realistically if a pitcher throws every pitch in a similar manner then they could call it every time," Lee coach Emily Moore Russell said via e-mail. "The punishment for this rule is too severe because it changes the impact of the game. ... People aren't tuning into ESPN to see who can throw fewer illegal pitches."
Reed said coaches complained during the season about the situation, prompting the NCAA to ask umpires to give pitchers the benefit of the doubt. That resulted in fewer illegal-pitch calls later in the season, according to Reed. But with the increased number of calls in the WCWS, the question of consistency and fairness is back during college softball's biggest time of year.
"We didn't want this to impact the college world series, but here we are," Reed said. "It's making a mockery of the game. People are watching this world series on television, and they must think it's some kind of joke."