The Wichita State Shockers will move to the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2018 in all sports except football, which the school does not sponsor. The move will balance the conference out with twelve schools in both football and basketball, as the Naval Academy is a football-only member.
Though the move has been broadcast as being led by motives on the hardwood, there are some serious softball implications that go along with the change, as well.
The Shockers have been at or near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) softball scene for most of Kristi Bredbenner's term as head coach, a tenure that has most recently included advancing to the regional round of the NCAA tournament in 2016 and beating AAC champion Tulsa in a game in that portion of the tournament, before ultimately being eliminated.
The Shockers have seen some solid talent come their way over the last several years, a good portion of it due to their success under Bredbenner. The Shockers have also proven to be a breeding ground for young, successful hitting coaches, as current Mississippi State hitting coach Samantha Ricketts got her coaching start in Wichita and current hitting coach Nicole Hudson Entz shows no signs of sticking in the mid-major ranks for good.
The AAC, considered the proverbial "sixth man" and "best of the rest" to some of its Power Five neighbors, is a loaded softball conference in its own right. With defending champions Tulsa, perennial contender South Florida, as well as recent contender UCF, up-and-comer East Carolina, and the rebuilding Houston, among others, the AAC is packed left to right with teams that could be in contention each and every season.
The addition of the Shockers could very easily mean a shake-up atop the AAC's softball power scene, as well as a significant decrease from the Missouri Valley's resume and season's product without the Shockers program. Illinois State and Northern Iowa both currently lead the Shockers in the conference standings, but neither has historically shown the ability to hang at the top annually, as Bredbenner's program has.
Losing the Shockers from conference play will also hurt the resume of the eventual NCAA tournament-bound MVC tournament champion. Instead of a three-game series against a perennial NCAA-bound team to boast of, the conference competition is likely to be very level, with few exceptions. That will hurt the Missouri Valley Conference when it comes to determining the placements for the NCAA bracket.
Just as the MVC will suffer a significant loss with the departure of the Shockers, the AAC will gain a significant boost from the move. Teams will have another long-term NCAA mainstay to compete against, not only providing them with power points in victories, but also bolstering their own resumes if they emerge victorious. Teams such as Tulsa and UCF are less likely to enjoy adding three games against a top-80 team every year, but if they can adapt, it will certainly be a bolster to the conference programs' strength of schedule and their position in the RPI.
Undoubtedly, there will also be an impact stemming from this move during awards season; an extra three outings against tournament-level offenses or a solid showing at the plate against a former all-conference hurler can help make or break a case for all-region, all-American, or individual honors.
Wichita State going to the AAC was a bit of a surprise, even with a few small rumors ahead of the announcement. With the conference switch becoming official in 2018, the impact the move has on the softball landscape should be quickly-realized.