Power Rankings: UCLA holding steady
What does the start of April mean in softball? We know something, but we don't know as much as we might like to think. A year ago at this time, five of the eight teams that would wind up in the Women's College World Series were ranked in the top eight of the USA Softball Top 25. But Michigan (No. 12), Washington (No. 15) and Nebraska (No. 19) made the most of what season remained. So even as the power rankings settle into a period of relative stability, not counting Florida State's return and South Alabama's debut, it doesn't mean we're all that much closer to our answers.
1. UCLA (33-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
After back-to-back weekends at the center of marquee matchups, UCLA was able to keep a low profile and quietly pile up some wins while its peers beat one another up. The Bruins swept five games by a 39-6 margin, a midweek doubleheader against UC Santa Barbara and a weekend series against Utah.They don't have a long breather -- a weekend trip to Oregon awaits. The Ducks took two of three from UCLA a season ago in Los Angeles, the third consecutive season in which they won the series. It would be difficult for a battery to have a better game than pitcher Ally Carda and catcher Stephany LaRosa did in the series opener against Utah. In addition to a shutout, both homered.
2. Michigan (25-6, 6-0 Big Ten)
One weekend in State College, Pa., 17 innings of softball and 40 runs scored. Michigan bludgeoned Penn State in a three-game sweep, including a 22-0 win in five innings in the middle game of the series. Pretty much everyone had a big day in that game, but it was noteworthy for Sara Driesenga. So good in the postseason a year ago but still trying to hit her stride this season, she had a four-hit shutout in the circle, and hit a homer and drove in five runs. A home series is next against Ohio State, which climbed above .500 only this past week.
3. Tennessee (31-3, 8-1 SEC)
It was a strange sweep, but it was a sweep. Tennessee took three in a row against Florida, although technically it won the finale before it won the middle game. Weather forced the two teams to play a doubleheader on Sunday, but television commitments forced them to pause the second game and start the third game, returning to finish the second after that. Got all that? Figuring out the order of wins is easier because they all went to Ellen Renfroe. The senior ace is 21-0 with a 1.29 ERA. What appears to be Tennessee's three toughest remaining SEC series all come on the road, beginning with this week's trip to LSU.
4. Alabama (31-5, 11-1 SEC)
Downhill skiers in the middle of a race don't have the momentum Alabama has at the moment. The Crimson Tide swept LSU this past weekend in front of more than 10,000 fans and have won 14 of 15 since a setback against Florida State the first weekend in March. And in five games since a loss at Florida, they have yet to allow more than two runs in any game (while scoring 29 runs of their own). On the hitting front, Jadyn Spencer and Andrea Hawkins are settling in as strong complements to Haylie McCleney and Kaila Hunt in the top half of the order. The two combined to go 8-for-17 in the LSU series.
5. Oregon (32-4, 6-0 Pac-12)
There was a midweek stumble at BYU as the Ducks wrapped up an extended visit to the state of Utah, but sweeping three games from Washington last weekend more than merits this spot. Oregon didn't overlook UC Santa Barbara in a doubleheader sweep Tuesday, but the upcoming set against UCLA is the series of the weekend in college softball. The two teams combined for 39 runs in three games a season ago. A repeat would be a bit of a surprise, considering Oregon ace Cheridan Hawkins is No. 12 in ERA nationally and UCLA ace Carda is No. 6.
6. Arizona State (32-6, 6-3 Pac-12)
Dallas Escobedo had a very good week in Oklahoma City a few years ago. This most recent one wasn't bad, either. Escobedo opened her final series against in-state rival Arizona with a 16-strikeout masterpiece in a 2-1 win that set the Sun Devils on the path to a series win (even if they dropped the final game in 10 innings). Then Escobedo became the No. 1 overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft, selected by the Pennsylvania Rebellion. Teammate Cheyenne Coyle, who also heard her name called in the draft, walked eight times in the Arizona series.
7. Florida State (34-4, 12-2 ACC)
Stop the presses: Florida State gave up more than two runs in a game. No, it didn't lose the game. Let's not get silly. The Seminoles rolled to a three-game sweep at North Carolina in what should have been one of their most notable ACC tests. The Tar Heels did manage three runs in one of the losses, snapping a streak of 11 consecutive games in which the Seminoles didn't allow more than two. Lacey Waldrop improved to 22-2 with three wins, including a three-hit shutout and another three-hit complete game in which she didn't allow an earned run. This week brings a trip to Florida, the first of a home-and-home set with the Gators in the next week.
8. South Alabama (29-3, 7-0 Sun Belt)
South Alabama doesn't need to prove itself after beating LSU and Georgia, in addition to Oklahoma State and UAB, but Wednesday's trip to play Alabama does bring an opportunity to open a lot of eyes that may still be looking elsewhere. The Jaguars are not the offensive team they were a season ago, not without departed senior Brittany Fowler, transfer Haley Fagan (now at Auburn) and assistant coach Jimmy Kolaitis (now at Oregon), but Farish Beard and Hannah Campbell don't need a heck of a lot of run support.
9. Arizona (29-8, 4-5 Pac-12)
The Wildcats were in the thick of all three games against Arizona State in Tempe and showed something by coming back to win the finale in 10 innings. So there isn't much of a drop despite a 1-2 week and a losing conference record. Arizona pitchers allowed just 16 hits across the three rivalry games, impressive in a vacuum. But those same pitchers also walked 25 batters. At this point, that may just be a fact of life, and at least Arizona's staff isn't giving up a lot of extra-base hits that could make those free passes all the more costly. Stanford visits this week for three games.
10. Florida (31-7, 5-7 SEC)
Is this just the schedule crunch of all schedule crunches, or is something really amiss in Gainesville? That seems to be the hot question of the moment in college softball after Florida dropped three in a row at Tennessee to drop well off the pace in the SEC. With the exception of defense, which at least statistically remains above water, the collapse has comes from all sides. The Gators aren't hitting generally, aren't hitting for power specifically and aren't getting on base in any capacity.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff that already pitched to contact more than some of its peers is seeing more of those balls fall for hits. They wouldn't be No. 10 if it was time to abandon ship, but let's just say a lot of people will be watching Wednesday's game against Florida State and a weekend series against Auburn with interest.
Next five: No. 11 Washington, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 13 Baylor, No. 14 Georgia, No. 15 Auburn.