Oregon pitcher Cheridan Hawkins is intimidating.
She stares hitters down with eye black smothering the sides of her face.
She strikes them out at an alarming rate — a school-record 313 times already this season.
See her from the batter’s box, and it’s easy to tell she’s all about grit and competitiveness.
But take a look at the back of her head and you’ll be reminded that yes, she is a college girl and yes, she is playing the only sport where it’s acceptable to wear a bow in your hair.
“I wear yellow, black or green,” Hawkins said. “Some people like the big bows and some people don’t. For our team, we’re just more of the little bows.”
Extravagant or not, the bow is still there, part fashion statement and part symbol of the softball subculture.
Especially in recent years, softball has faced an all-out bow craze. All colors, all shapes and sizes.
At this year’s Women’s College World Series, Florida, Oregon and Kentucky are sure bets to rock bows.
UK’s Kara Howard has one of the most creative, patterned with blue cheetah print. The Florida Gators even showed up to their Wednesday practice wearing decorative orange flowers in their hair.
Regardless of the bow choice, the fad certainly isn’t limited to college. Visit any major youth tournament, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a vendor selling homemade bows featuring everything from zebra print to rhinestones.
“More in my travel ball days before college, I’d see girls with bows that were bigger than their heads,” Kentucky pitcher Shannon Smith said.
Sure, there are teams that tend to stay away from bows. Patty Gasso’s Oklahoma squad is among them. But that doesn’t mean the Sooners are against fun.
“I don't think it's because of me, but just our style our personality is not quite as ‘big,’” Gasso said. “I've seen props in dugouts, and I've seen wigs and costumes and things that are going a little overboard, but that's the style of that team. That works for them. Maybe it doesn't work for us, but it doesn't take away from our passion for the game.”
Gasso said she loved playing against Louisiana-Lafayette, whose players are prone to drum along the dugout railing.
“It made me feel like we were at a big event,” she said. “It brought atmosphere.”
There is a level of personality and expression that really is unique to softball, and it goes beyond bows.
Kentucky players recently started wearing Wildcat blue eyeliner. It started with one player, then it took off. Now, Smith said, some players are superstitious about it.
Oregon players like to dance, but their weirdest quirk is having a rubber snake in their dugout at all times. Players named it Seth, and he’s usually wearing — you guessed it — a bow.
“We have no problem with our players expressing themselves,” Ducks coach Mike White said. “Our pet snake has his own Twitter page, so it's all good for me. But in all seriousness, it's the way they stay relaxed. It's the way they feel good to play, and if it helps us win I'm all for it.”
That opinion was a consensus among the eight coaches at the WCWS. It’s that eccentricity that makes the sport beautiful. ULL pitcher Christina Hamilton can become a cult hero for wearing lenseless, black-rim glasses. Fans can come from Alaska and reserve their vacations for the big event in Oklahoma City. Players can smile during the most important game of their lives, and that’s perfectly fine.
“If you're in the dugout with these kids and you know what's going on, they're intense and fierce competitors,” ULL coach Michael Lotief said. “To me, the fact that these kids can play under the pressure they play under and still smile and still cheer and still relax and still have fun, to me it's a talent.”
From bows and eyeliner to chants and snakes, the personality in softball is the essence of what makes the Women’s College World Series a way of life, a subculture, a ritual.
“I love our sport because we don't have to be stoic and follow the traditional rules of baseball,” Lotief said. “You can have your own personalities. We can have our celebrations at home plate after home runs. You can show emotion. You can do a dog pile.
“You can cheer in the dugout, you can have all that fun. I think that's why our fan base loves our sport, because we don't try to suppress all that.”