Will history get in Texas' way?
Rare is the NCAA tournament in which all 16 national seeds advance to the super regional round. With more than 90 games awaiting in regional play this week, espnW's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
Friday: Army at Texas (Longhorn Network, 7 p.m. ET); Houston vs. South Carolina (Longhorn Network, 4 p.m. ET)
The favorite: No. 4 Texas
The Longhorns enter the NCAA tournament with a .469 slugging percentage, the first time they have been under .500 as a team since 2009. But that is largely offset when it comes to run production because this team gets on base and runs exceptionally well -- it needs six stolen bases to match the program's single-season record and succeeds at an 80 percent clip. Taylor Hoagland and Taylor Thom are the best power bats, but with 43 stolen bases between them, they also push the short game. All of which provides plenty of support for Blaire Luna, who is 26-5 with a 1.19 ERA and 342 strikeouts in 200⅔ innings (and 25-3 with a 0.93 ERA against every team that isn't Oklahoma).
What could get in the way: History
Texas is 7-7 at home in the NCAA tournament since its last trip to the Women's College World Series in 2006. Four of those wins came last year, necessary to dig the home team out of the hole into which it fell after a loss in the opener. The record spans four series, three regionals and a super regional, in which Texas was never worse than the No. 7 national seed. Can one of the teams here push the buttons that might make these Longhorns their own worst enemy? South Carolina hits .303 as a team and went 12-10 away from home, but it also finished next to last in the SEC in walks, one way some teams find success against Luna. Responsible for one of those seven losses a couple of years ago, Houston can get runners on base and has bats like Haley Outon (1.214 OPS) to drive them in, but it also committed 85 errors in 58 games.
Player to watch: Kendra Cullum, Houston
Is Houston's Kendra Cullum the best hitter in college softball? Well, no, but everyone else in the discussion needs a bat to get the job done. Cullum could all but leave hers in the dugout. That's a pretty good trick. As valuable a run producer as Outon is, it's Cullum who leads the team with a .492 on-base percentage. What makes that remarkable is she's hitting just .238. She has 30 hits on the season -- but has been hit by a pitch 36 times and drawn 27 walks.
The favorite: No. 13 South Alabama
Two of the wins that helped South Alabama establish its bona fides this season came against Florida State and Mississippi State, so don't expect jitters from the host when those same teams arrive for a regional. The Jaguars are a complete team, with an offense led by shortstop Brittany Fowler, the kind of player who looks like she was born on a softball field. But the key to earning a seed and dreaming of a trip to Oklahoma City is the pitching of ace Hannah Campbell and unbeaten No. 2 Farish Beard. If they are on, as Campbell was in throwing an eight-inning no-hitter with 13 strikeouts against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament, this team can win this weekend and beyond.
What could get in the way: Good pitching
South Alabama may have the best, but there is a lot of good pitching coming to Mobile. Florida State's Lacey Waldrop and Monica Perry are strikeout pitchers with excellent command. Waldrop, in particular, has been terrific and simply doesn't let the ball leave the park. The first meeting between the teams wasn't her best outing, but she was hardly most culpable in defeat. Mississippi State's Alison Owen is going to give up some long balls, but there aren't going to be any extraneous runners on base. Her better than 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is outstanding. Like Waldrop, she wasn't to blame for her team's South Alabama loss. The level of competition is different (although she owned Indiana and nearly beat Ole Miss), but even Mississippi Valley State's Alicia Lorenz is a strikeout-per-inning pitcher.
Player to watch: Courtney Senas, 3B, Florida State
For starters, Senas is the only hitter in the regional with double-digit home runs and stolen bases. She leads the Seminoles in both categories, as well as OPS. And her career is pretty much a model of how you hope a hitter matures. As a freshman, she started 57 games, hit .291 and stole 21 bases, but she struck out 48 times and walked just 14 times. She cut the strikeouts to 27 as a sophomore but struggled to get on base consistently or hit for power. Now she's the team's most complete hitter and has just 16 strikeouts in 175 at-bats.
The favorite: No. 5 Arizona State
Winning two games against Oregon this past week was important in locking up home-field advantage through a potential super regional, but the way Dallas Escobedo pitched was equally important. Escobedo struck out 19, walked two and allowed just five hits in 13 innings against an elite team. The Sun Devils have their typically patient, powerful lineup, paced by Amber Freeman and Cheyenne Coyle. They have their steady defense. If Escobedo is on, they have everything. The former national champion cut her walk rate, maintained her strikeout rate and remains difficult to hit this season. The problem is 22 percent of the hits she allows go for home runs. Of the other aces among top seeds, Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts, Florida's Hannah Rogers, Oregon's Jessica Moore, Texas' Blaire Luna and Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, only Luna allows home runs on more than 8 percent of hits, and even she does so on just 13 percent.
What could get in the way: Georgia's power
Georgia is an offensive show unlike almost any other. Five Bulldogs have double-digit home runs, led by sensational freshman Geri Ann Glasco, with 19 home runs and a .777 slugging percentage. And none of the other teams with at least 80 home runs, a list that includes Arizona State, can match Georgia with two players who also stole at least 20 bases: Anna Swafford (one of the home run hitters) and Niaja Griffin. The question for the Bulldogs is can they get enough pitching? Freshman Chelsea Wilkinson threw the fewest innings of the three primary pitchers and had the highest ERA, but she also threw some gems in big spots down the stretch and seemed to emerge as the pitcher of choice.
Player to watch: Lorena Bauer, DP, San Diego State
Bauer broke the San Diego State career home run record, which would have been a fitting way to wind down a stellar career -- if she hadn't done it two weeks into her sophomore season. Sure, part of that is because for all its success, San Diego State has never been a run-production factory. But it's also because Bauer, now a junior, can mash. A bit of a boom-or-bust threat early on, when she posted a .287 on-base percentage as a freshman, she's developed into an all-around star who leads the Aztecs with an .805 slugging percentage and .477 on-base percentage.
The favorite: No. 12 Kentucky
Kentucky built it and postseason games have come. Fresh off hosting the SEC tournament in their new stadium, the Wildcats host their first regional (they did host a super regional in the old stadium a couple of years ago). Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley proved to be the key to the season. She's not going to pile up strikeouts by the dozen, but in becoming the first pitcher in program history to win 20 games (she's at 24 and counting), she showed command and poise beyond her years. The offense behind her has the lowest OPS of any national seed, but it gets a boost from the recent return of Kara Dill, who can get on base for quality run producers like Lauren Cumbess and Griffin Joiner.
What could get in the way: Notre Dame's house money
We don't know if Notre Dame was the last team in the tournament, but it had the lowest adjusted RPI of any at-large team and fewer top-100 wins than Northwestern, DePaul and Oklahoma State, who missed the field. That said, the problem always had more to do with the résumé than the talent. It's not that the Fighting Irish failed in big games; they just didn't play many of them. Given that Notre Dame has a workhorse ace in Laura Winter, who strikes out better than a batter per inning and has a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and an offense with 59 home runs and 79 stolen bases paced by player of the year finalist Emilee Koerner, its most daunting opponent may have been the selection committee. Of course, with wins against Michigan, UCLA and Arizona, Virginia Tech isn't going to be an easy out either.
Player to watch: Andi Williamson, P, Marshall
The real entertainment in Lexington may come from the Marshall dugout, where the mood is such that players can be spotted wearing kids swimming floaties and costume tiaras. But if we stick with the field, Williamson is the surprise entrant's best hope for continuing the run of upsets that propelled it to the Conference USA tournament title. Only Hofstra's Olivia Galati has thrown more innings than Williamson among tournament pitchers, and while control can be an issue, she worked out of a lot of trouble with 344 strikeouts in 296 innings.