The fans voted, and our experts disagree.
We at ESPN narrowed it to eight Women’s College World Series championship teams to have fans decide. Eight turned to four, and four to two. The one remaining after the fan vote: the 2001 Arizona Wildcats, which received 72.65% of the final vote.
What turned out to be the sixth WCWS title of eight for legendary coach Mike Candrea, who announced his retirement on Monday after 36 years leading the University of Arizona, was certainly a memorable one.
The Wildcats slugged a then-Division I record 126 home runs and outscored their opponents by 412 runs while going 65-4, winning their last 26 games of the season. They boasted three first-team All-American hitters in Toni Mascarenas (.405 AVG, 25 HRs, 84 RBIs), Lauren Bauer (.426 AVG, 104 H, 38 SBs) and Leneah Manuma (.349 AVG, 19 HRs, 61 RBIs).
Oh, and Arizona also had ace Jennie Finch, who went 32-0 with a 0.54 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 279 strikeouts. She was named national player of the year and WCWS Most Outstanding Player after a four-hit shutout over UCLA ended a four-year drought for the Wildcats.
But our analysts disagree. Here is who some of them think is the greatest team of all time.
Michele Smith: 1994 Arizona Wildcats
This was the prototypical Mike Candrea team: great speed on offense, the defense defended the ball well and a great arm in the circle. Susie Parra had the ability to move the ball through the entire zone. She could strike you out but she also pitched for contact. Arizona was an excellent fielding team, which played into her ability to induce grounders and popups with a good drop ball.
Arizona’s lineup was intimidating top to bottom. Their power hitters all protected each other. Laura Espinoza hit 30 home runs but also hit for average; she was just a great all-around athlete. Leah Braatz hit .397 with 18 home runs. Leah O’Brien-Amico hit .416, slugged .542 and could run down anything in the outfield. You knew if the ball hit the ground twice, Amy Chellevold was going to be safe.
Second basemen are generally quick and agile because they have to cover second, get to first base on bunts and show off their mobility to make plays in the field. In turn, they don’t always have large power numbers; they typically hit for average. But Jenny Dalton-Hill had a lot of power — 16 homers, 91 RBIs — that you don’t normally see from middle infielders. She was an anomaly from that position at the time. (Smith played for Oklahoma State from 1986 to 1989).
Jessica Mendoza: 1994 Arizona Wildcats
The ’94 Arizona team set the standard. I remember watching Laura Espinoza on TV and the unbelievable power she had. Keep in mind, they were playing with sticks. I was playing softball in 1994 when I was 13 years old. I remember the bats they made us use. They made a loud “ting” noise and the balls didn’t go anywhere off of them. Composite bats weren’t around. I’m not trying to take away from the players now, but this went to show the purity of Espinoza’s power.
Oklahoma right now wouldn’t even hold a candle. If you look at Espinoza (30 HRs in 1994), Leah Braatz (18 HRs), Jenny Dalton-Hill (16 HRs). If you look at ’94 and the home runs that just those four players hit, those are all 30-home-run hitters then. (Editor’s note: Espinoza hit 37 in 1995; Dalton hit 28 in 1996; Braatz hit 25 in 1998.) Here at the World Series, there’s one player who has 30 home runs. Imagine giving the ’94 players this kind of technology? They would break the home run record, just those three players. (Mendoza was an outfielder for Stanford from 1999 to 2002).
I don’t know if it’s because we tend to glorify the past and be like, “it’s better than what it could be now,” but I definitely believe that ’94 team was the standard that you had never seen before. Now, everyone’s so freaking good, but they really stood out. I think that’s what makes you the best. Look how those players stood the test of time. I still look back on Amy Chellevold as the queen of slapping. Nancy Evans goes on to win more national championships. Leah O’Brien-Amico was a three-time Olympian. Espinoza, you watched the way she did it and she was the best hitter of her time.
Amanda Scarborough: 2008 Arizona State Sun Devils
You’re more connected to a team when you’ve been connected yourself and when you’ve laid your own eyes on them. You’re even more connected to them when they beat the team you played for (Texas A&M). When they were playing us in the championship series, we got to see them firsthand. We were having a great year, but pretty candidly, they dominated us. They run-ruled us in Game 2.
It’s partially an admiration thing, but Katie Burkhart that year (41 wins, 0.75 ERA, 513 strikeouts) was on another level. It felt like an accomplishment to get a foul ball off of her. She’s a lefty with a ton of movement and was just unhittable. They had Kaitlyn Cochran, one of the best left-handed hitters to ever play. Teams would pitch around her, but they had someone who would make you pay. And the few times that people would pitch to her, she would hit a monstrous home run.
It stinks that we only got to see some of these teams for four years. A team that sticks together for multiple years — like “The Last Dance” — that would be fun to think about. Sure, people have to graduate, but I wish we could have seen this team for multiple years in a row.
Jenny Dalton-Hill: 1994 Arizona Wildcats
Note: Dalton-Hill was an Arizona second baseman from 1993 to 1996.
The moment that I knew we were different: Coach Candrea was all business all the time. It was always about the grind — getting better, hitters getting the next hit, pitchers getting the next strikeout. When you’re on the road, we would go to eat, go to practice, go back to the hotel. In 1994, we got to Oklahoma City and after practice, Coach told us to clean up because we were going to dinner. But we didn’t just go to dinner. We went to bumper boats and miniature golf. He knew that team didn’t need to worry about X’s and O’s. That team just needed to be relaxed. That is how I knew we were different. I was like, “What’s Coach doing?” and all of us were like, “Don’t say anything, just enjoy it!”
Former Arizona softball player Jenny Dalton-Hill becomes emotional telling a story about coach Mike Candrea from her freshman season.
We never thought about how good we were through the Women’s College World Series. We just came away with it like, “OK, that was cool. We’ll see you next year.” Being an ESPN analyst has opened my eyes to how good we really were. When I first started calling games — I know this comes across as being really uneducated — but I was unimpressed with the numbers I was seeing when I was first doing my analysis. My husband had to point out, “Jenny, your team put up numbers that teams have never put up since. You need to be realistic about what you’re seeing. These players are really, really good. You guys were just a step ahead.”
Over time, the talent in our game has become more decentralized. The SEC emerged in the late ’90s, so players were leaving the Pac-10 and venturing out into other places. Talent wasn’t just funneling into one or two programs. There has been incredible growth of the game over time because so many more opportunities have become available.
When I’m seeing players set school records of 40 and 45 home runs, I thought, “Is something off?” And I realized, “Yeah, it’s my perspective that was off. I played with the best in the game.” I didn’t see myself as this amazing home run hitter because I played with Laura Espinoza, who hit 85. I had 76. I figured that her numbers were where the home run powers needed to reside.
The bats are probably the biggest piece of equipment that’s changed. Our slapper, Amy Chellevold, and I used the same bat — it was a 33-inch, 27-ounce — and you had to swing it with everything you had to get it to leave the ballpark. It wasn’t like it is now.
You also have so much more information in this era. We’re talking 1994, when there were still VHS tapes. We didn’t do video with our coaches, we didn’t have video of our own swings, let alone video of other teams, because it wasn’t on TV, so we didn’t have access to any of our opponents. We just walked in blind and had to rely on our athleticism and our competitiveness to go right at people. Today’s players, their softball IQ is so much higher than ours was at the time, but we felt the heartbeat of the game better. I think our team would’ve been really scary in today’s age of technology.