LSU, SEC turn in top performances

Three seeded teams are out of the bracket, several others are counting their blessings after rallying for two wins on Sunday to keep their seasons alive and UCLA will not be part of the Women's College World Series for the first time in 23 postseason appearances.

Originally Published: May 21, 2007
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

For all the coaching decisions, hitting heroics, pitching gems and selection decisions that can be debated, argued and parsed in the wake of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, one fact stands out above all else now that the field has been trimmed from 64 to 16.

Rachel Mitchell
Steve Franz, LSU Sports InformationRachel Mitchell came up big for the Tigers in the regional round.
What a fun weekend it was to be a college softball fan.

As perhaps best illustrated in the Los Angeles Regional, and painfully so for fans of classy, productive and enjoyable UCLA seniors like Lisa Dodd, Tara Henry and Jodie Legaspi, the sport of college softball has grown to the point that no team is safe in a double-elimination format.

"It is kind of exciting to know that parity is happening," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said after her Sooners, seeded third overall, survived their stay in the Amherst Regional. "It just used to feel like some of the stuff was so automatic. And that's why it's just shocking, and everyone is shocked, when you hear that UCLA is out of the postseason for the first in time in how many years? It opens the door for others. And all it does, too, is bring more fans to our game because there are new programs [in the super regionals]."

Three seeded teams are out of the bracket, several others are counting their blessings after rallying for two wins on Sunday to keep their seasons alive and UCLA will not be part of the Women's College World Series for the first time in 23 postseason appearances.

It was so much fun we'll have to do it all over again at the end of the week.

Most impressive performance (team category)
LSU Tigers
That's how you address complaints about a lack of respect. Instead of letting the sting of being both seeded well below expectations and shipped far away from home fester into a ready-made excuse for bowing out in the opening round, No. 10 LSU won the Palo Alto Regional without losing a game against a loaded field.

The Tigers showed off a little bit of everything during their trip to California, rallying for a win against an upset-minded Cal State Northridge team in the opener, surviving an extra-inning pitcher's duel against Fresno State in the second game and then putting on a power display in clobbering Stanford to clinch a spot in a super regional against Arizona State. But for everything LSU did this weekend -- and we'll get to Rachel Mitchell's heroics in a minute -- the most impressive showing might have been the teamwork of pitchers Emily Turner and Dani Hofer.

Wrapped around a nine-inning, two-hit gem from Turner against Fresno State, the two pitchers bailed each other out in the first and third games, with Turner relieving Hofer against Northridge and Hofer relieving Turner against Stanford.

LSU scared Arizona in Tucson last year in a super regional, beating the Wildcats once to force a decisive third game. But with Hofer untested and unproven on the postseason stage, the Tigers wilted when Turner lasted just an inning in the finale and Hofer was hit hard in relief. With Hofer far more prepared and capable of splitting duties now, or at least of giving her senior teammate a breather, another trip to a super regional in the state of Arizona won't be quite so daunting.

Honorable Mention
South Carolina: The Gamecocks took advantage of playing at home by first dispatching No. 16 North Carolina State with two wins against the regional's seeded team and then avenging a loss to Oregon by becoming one of just two unseeded teams to win two games on Sunday. As a result, South Carolina is moving on to Northwestern for the program's first super regional.

A team that managed just three total runs in losing six of eight games to close out the SEC regular season scored 19 runs in five games against NC State and Oregon (South Carolina never even got to play fourth-seeded Penn State). To put that in some perspective, the Gamecocks hadn't posted that kind of run production over a five-game span since playing Campbell, Charlotte and Pittsburgh in late February and early March. And when the Gamecocks most needed the pitching that got them to the postseason, they got it from junior Melissa Hendon. Facing two must-win games on Sunday, Hendon first blanked Oregon with a two-hit shutout and then stepped up with a gutsy six-hit complete game to win the winner-take-all game against the Ducks.

Hawaii: Another team that seemed to lose a little momentum in the final days before the NCAA Tournament, although not to nearly the same degree as South Carolina, Hawaii made arguably the biggest statement of the opening weekend of play by winning the Los Angeles Regional.

The Rainbow Wahine broke out the bats that made them such an offensive juggernaut in rolling to a clinching win against upstart Loyola Marymount, but it was the combined pitching efforts of Justine Smethurst and Kate Robinson throughout the weekend that made it abundantly clear Hawaii is anything but Cinderella as it heads to Knoxville for a super regional against Tennessee.

Smethurst kept Hawaii in its opener against UC Santa Barbara, striking out 12 in 10 innings and repeatedly keeping her composure to work out of jams. Hawaii finally solved UCSB pitcher Jennifer Davis on Tanisha Milca's winning home run. And the Australian ace was brilliant again on Sunday, completely shutting down the same Loyola Marymount bats that had chased UCLA's Anjelica Selden the previous night. But coach Bob Coolen showed what kind of faith he has in his two aces by starting Kate Robinson, WAC Pitcher of the Year, against UCLA in the second game of the weekend and watching her handle the Bruins like few pitchers in the Pac-10 were able to this season.

Most impressive performance (individual category)
Rachel Mitchell, LSU
The weekend started slowly for LSU outfielder Rachel Mitchell, who totaled just a sacrifice bunt in three plate appearances against Northridge, but she made up for lost time against Fresno State and Stanford. With the Tigers and Bulldogs locked in a scoreless duel to avoid relegation to the loser's bracket on Friday, Mitchell drilled a one-out home run in the top of the ninth that held up as the lone run in LSU's win. And Mitchell wasn't done. In her first two at-bats the next day against Stanford, Mitchell went deep again, driving in five runs as the Tigers eventually pulled away for an 11-5 win and a spot in the super regionals. Not too shabby for a freshman.

Honorable Mention
Danielle Lawrie, Washington: Tennessee has Monica Abbott and Arizona State has Katie Burkhart, but don't forget about Washington ace Danielle Lawrie. The Canadian right-hander pitched every inning of Washington's stay at the Lincoln Regional, including 15 innings in a pair of starts against Georgia on Sunday. After dropping Sunday's opening game 2-1 in nine innings -- despite allowing just five hits and no walks while striking out nine -- Lawrie bounced back and threw a shutout in the decisive third game. And wanting no part of another overtime effort, she even provided the key hit that sent the Huskies through to the super regionals, leading off the bottom of the seventh with a double before yielding to a pinch runner who scored on Alicia Matthews' game-winning single. All told, she struck out 30 and allowed just three earned runs in 27 innings.

Kasi Carroll, Georgia: Georgia pitcher Kasi Carroll matched Lawrie inning for inning in both of Sunday's games before finally succumbing. Without Carroll's dramatic improvement in the second half of the season, Georgia might have missed the NCAA Tournament, let alone come within a run of the super regionals.

Stacey Nelson, Florida: A little overshadowed by events elsewhere, including a dramatic comeback for SEC mate Alabama and a banner road trip for LSU, Florida handled a solid field at the Gainesville Regional with remarkable ease. A team that struggled at times this season to score runs put up 18 runs in wins while running the table against Stetson, Georgia Tech and Texas, but the star of the show was Stacey Nelson. The Gators pitched three consecutive shutouts to move on to Texas A&M, and the Gators' sophomore was the one in the circle for all but a handful of that damage. Nelson pitched 16.1 innings in the three wins, allowing just four hits and striking out 19. Four teams will fight it out in Texas in the super regionals, with Florida visiting Texas A&M and Michigan traveling to Baylor, and Nelson might just be the best pitcher of the bunch.

Most impressive performance (conference category)
SEC
After telling everyone who would listen that the league's conference schedule made up for any perceived weakness in nonconference scheduling, the SEC went out and posted a 21-6 record during regional play. Only one of the six conference teams in action posted a losing record, with Mississippi State dropping two of three games in the Tucson Regional, and more than a quarter of the remaining bracket is composed of SEC teams. Granted, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina all enjoyed home-field advantage to open the postseason, but LSU and Georgia went 6-2 on the road, with the Tigers advancing out of the Palo Alto Regional.

Not that the challenge gets any easier now. Of the five teams still up for a spot in the World Series in Oklahoma City, only No. 5 Tennessee will host a super regional. Alabama travels to Washington, LSU travels to Arizona State, Florida travels to Texas A&M and South Carolina travels to Northwestern.

Least impressive performance (conference category)
Pac-10
Cal State Fullerton's comeback against Ohio State, taking two games on Sunday in Columbus to advance to a super regional against Arizona, saves the Big West from this dubious honor after the league's other four NCAA Tournament participants bowed out in somewhat lackluster fashion. Likewise, Northwestern and Michigan rolling to perfect 3-0 records spares the Big Ten, despite Ohio State's collapse and Penn State's predictably short stay.

But while Washington did its best to rally to the Pac-10 flag by winning an "if game" against Georgia to clinch the Lincoln Regional, the bastion of softball power still took an undeniable beating during the opening weekend. Used to sending three or four teams to Oklahoma City on an almost annual basis (four made it last year), the Pac-10 will have just three teams playing during super regionals. That's a little tough to explain for a league deemed strong enough to merit postseason bids for all eight softball-playing members. In the league's defense, UCLA was the only seeded Pac-10 team to lose, and the Bruins had one of the bracket's strongest unseeded teams on their hands with Hawaii in Westwood.

But Oregon State losing 8-0 against Louisville (even though the Beavers exacted some revenge with an 11-4 win against the Cardinals) and 7-0 against Michigan in the Ann Arbor Regional? Stanford serving up gopher balls galore at home against LSU in the Palo Alto Regional? Oregon losing two on Sunday against South Carolina, needing just one win to advance?

Either the short-term reality is that several Pac-10 teams played below their capabilities and bungled away postseason possibilities, or the long-term reality is that the Pac-10's reign of dominance is over and the league will have be content with being first among equals most seasons.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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