For many years, California, and Southern California in particular, has been the country’s hub for fastpitch softball. The state has 21 NCAA Division I programs, the most of any other state, and houses more than 130 total collegiate programs.
One out of every five DI softball players originate from California — ranking them first in odds of high school players making it on an NCAA DI roster. Compared to the national ratio which stands at 61:1, odds in California more than double to 28:1.
Nearly 57% of Penn softball's 21-player roster originates from California and Texas — arguably the top two softball states — with 42% hailing from California alone.
So, what makes California so popular? As is the case in categories other than softball, there’s one undeniable attribute: the weather.
In California, softball is not just a spring and summer sport. Inches of snow don’t cover the fields in December. Bone-chilling winds don’t cancel games in February. All teams — recreational, travel, select, all-star, you name it — play consistently throughout the entire year.
Senior infielder Ashley Waco, a Southern California native, credits the frigid temperatures as one the biggest shocks she’s faced while playing on the East Coast.
“The ability to play year-round in Southern California was something that was different from what my teammates experienced,” Waco said. “I was always playing games, always traveling. [Softball] was one of the more popular sports. Whereas, I’ve experienced something different on the East Coast. They have lacrosse while we have none of that in Southern California.”
Senior infielder Laurel McKelvey of Texas — a state where softball’s popularity doesn’t trail far behind that of California — describes a similar experience.
“Going from extreme humidity to coming and playing in the cold here was a pretty big adjustment,” McKelvey said. “Having to figure out how many layers I’m supposed to be playing in. Like, how do you even swing in that many layers? How do I keep my fingers warm so I can throw the ball?”
Aside from the weather, the quantity of travel teams in such hotspot states furthers the sport’s accessibility. McKelvey describes not having to travel far from her hometown of Houston to face good competition. The density of teams worked in her favor.
Being surrounded by top-ranked collegiate teams also didn’t hurt. Waco grew up idolizing one of the best programs in the nation, UCLA.
This made the team’s trip to California for spring break, rather than Florida as in past seasons, all the more special for the West Coast natives.
“So many of us, being from Southern California, had been pushing for that from freshman year,” Waco said. “Especially me being a senior, that was very exciting. Having my family there and getting to play at the UCLA stadium was so much fun. Also, we ended up going to our coach’s alma mater, which is Cal State Fullerton. It’s something that was really special for the whole team, including the coaches.”
But, how does the predominantly West Coast-based roster impact the overall team dynamic?
“In our team, specifically, we do have a great team culture in which the geography of where we came from doesn’t impact our friendships,” Waco said. “It’s really cool to get to know people from all different areas.”
The geographical rift mostly only arises in the context of music tastes.
“I would say our walk-up songs are a little bit different,” McKelvey said. “There’s some disagreement in the weight room if we should be playing rap music or country music. I am in full support of country music.”
Freshman pitcher from Kemah, Texas Payton Bean even picked “God Blessed Texas'' as her walk-out song for when she heads out to pitch. She also has the girls say a “God Blessed Texas” cheer in the circle before starting the inning.
So, which state has the best softball?
“I’ll always have an allegiance to California,” Waco said. “But I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had at Penn.”
“I’m a born-and-raised Texan, so, I’ll always say Texas,” McKelvey said. “But it’s been fun playing with girls from all across the country.”
Ask a Californian, they’ll say California. Ask a Texan, they’ll say Texas. Floridians and New Yorkers will also argue their cases. But on the field, geography doesn’t matter as long as the Quakers wear the Penn crest.