May 10, 2012; Berkeley, CA, USA; General view of Levine-Fricke Field during the seventh inning between the California Golden Bears and the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Golden Bears defeated the Sun Devils 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
Baseball and softball are unlike nearly every other NCAA sport in that they use double elimination as a playoff format. In track, you only get one sprint, and if you false start you're out of luck. In basketball, if you lose to Norfolk State because they make half their three pointers, you don't get a 2nd chance. It's the inherent randomness that makes college sports so frustratingly compelling.
Softball's double elimination format is presumably a nod to the even-more-inherent randomness of softball as compared to other sports. But it's still a crazy format. Pro baseball teams have to lose twice as many games to be eliminated in the World Series, and even then strange things happen over seven games.
This all sounds like a set up - I'm going to argue that Cal was the best team in the country this year, and only random variance in the post-season prevented that fact from being recognized. But that's not really a fair argument. When Cal faced their two biggest challengers for the title - top 5 teams they hadn't faced all year - they lost. That counts for something.
The reality of the situation is that Cal, Oklahoma, Alabama and Arizona State were amongst the small handful of teams that had the depth and quality of talent to win the title. Maybe Oklahoma is still alive because they have the single best pitcher so far in the playoffs. Maybe Alabama is alive because they've had the best offense in the playoffs. Maybe it's those two teams because they were the two teams that kept doing what they had been doing all season long, even against the best competition the NCAA has to offer.
Cal didn't, and they're out as a result. It's unfortunate, but not a shock. The Bears were a great team, quite possibly the best team this season. Maybe, if you played the College World Series over 100 times, Cal would take home the title more often than anybody else. But I'd bet that more than half the time somebody other than the Bears would win it, because those other teams are pretty talented too.
So what does this season mean? This year wasn't a season that established Cal as a perennial power - that status has been cemented a decade ago. Obviously, Cal has had better post-season runs. But this is easily the best regular season in Cal history, and ultimately regular season success is a better predictor for future success than a hot post-season run. And Cal's second outright conference title (they won the first ‘Pac-10' title back in 1987 when there were only six teams that played softball and the conference season was ten games long) will never get taken away. That 21-3 Pac-12 record is the best conference winning percentage in nine years.
What remains to be seen is if Cal can use the best regular season in school history to springboard towards further dominance. To do that they will have to replace a group of players that have been crucial in two CWS runs. No team can assume repeated success when they have to replace 4/9th of their starting lineup and one half of an extremely successful pitching duo. The players that batted 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th in the lineup in Oklahoma City have graduated.
Then again, three true freshmen started the majority of the season, and Cal still has Jolene Henderson. Coach Ninemire has some talented freshmen coming in. It will be a different team that takes the field in 2013, but they can still be very very good. They will have to be. They've got a Pac-12 title to defend.