- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Arizona's inconsistent focus drove legendary coach Mike Candrea to distraction in the early and middle stages of last season, but he still ended the season guiding an increasingly mentally tough team to the program's seventh national championship. That "team turmoil" persona has crept up again at points this season, partly due to the struggles of two highly touted freshmen who are no longer with the team, but the Wildcats still won the Pac-10 rather easily, entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and advanced to the World Series without a loss in the first two rounds. A lot of coaches would love to have such problems.
Of course, Candrea is a major reason why the Wildcats have been able to overcome both the loss of key contributors like Alicia Hollowell and Autumn Champion to graduation and the distractions of a younger generation. Along with pitching coach Nancy Evans, he coaxed a successful campaign out of freshman pitcher Sarah Akamine, a player not expected to see the circle much this season, giving junior ace Taryne Mowatt just enough rest to be ready for the postseason. He also reshuffled the top of his order, replacing Champion's slap-hitting speed in the No. 2 hole with Chelsie Mesa's power and turning leadoff hitter Caitlin Lowe loose on the bases. The middle of the order after No. 3 hitter Kristie Fox remains an uncertain proposition, but speedsters K'Lee Arredondo and Adrienne Acton provide the program's trademark productivity at the bottom of the order.
Player to watch: Taryne Mowatt, P
The diminutive junior who has an almost perpetual grin when she isn't in the circle doesn't look much like Arizona's recent legacy of imposing aces when you see her in person. But she does bear a striking resemblance to pitchers like Jennie Finch and Hollowell on paper, and odds are Candrea would rather have a short ace with great numbers than a statuesque hurler with lousy ones.
Mowatt can hold her own with the giants in Oklahoma City and get the radar gun moving into the upper 60s, seemingly using every pound in her body to launch the ball toward home, but she's among the best pitchers in the country because of her changeup. Nobody throws it better and nobody is willing to throw it in more situations. Her lone weak spot may be a propensity to let opponents off the hook by giving them free baserunners. Teams hit just .159 against Mowatt this season but she did walk 139 in 310 innings.
By the numbers: Arizona
Coach: Mike Candrea
Road/Neutral record: 15-9-1
Pac-10 record: 15-5-1
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 1 overall seed)
vs. Howard, 9-0 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Mississippi State, 8-0 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Pacific, 7-0 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Cal State Fullerton, 11-5 W (Tucson Super Regional)
vs. Cal State Fullerton, 2-1 W (Tucson Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette, Michigan, Missouri, NC State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Pacific, Texas A&M (2)
Notable nonconference losses: Baylor (2), Florida, Oklahoma (2), Texas A&M (2)
Arizona State Sun Devils
Once an afterthought in the ultracompetitive Pac-10, Arizona State has become a championship contender in its conference and on the national stage under coach Clint Myers. Led by the nation's best one-two punch in junior pitcher Katie Burkhart and sophomore outfielder Kaitlin Cochran (.495 batting average, 18 HR, 59 RBI), the Sun Devils are back in the World Series for the second year in a row and looking to improve on last year's 1-2 performance.
Success still begins with Burkhart throwing gems in the circle, as she did with a 10-inning shutout against LSU in the first game of the Tempe Super Regional, but this year's team is in better position to make noise in Oklahoma City because Cochran has more support in the batting order. Arizona State is hitting .285 and averaging 5.7 runs per game this season, compared to .257 and 4.5 runs per game last season. There still aren't any obvious threats behind Cochran, but overall improvement from top to bottom in the lineup has provided the cover to win games when Burkhart isn't perfect, as was the case in a 7-4 clincher against LSU the day after the extra-inning marathon.
One bugaboo that still haunts the Sun Devils is defense, where they were actually less sure-handed than a mediocre showing last season.
Player to watch: Kaitlin Cochran, OF
There are others who are close, but there is nobody better at the plate than Cochran. The sophomore who idolizes Ted Williams somehow managed to improve significantly on a freshman season that took the college softball world by storm. Despite being a known commodity who is constantly pitched around (Cochran drew 56 walks and struck out just 14 times), she managed to hit nearly .500 with an .897 slugging percentage. And as if to get back at all those coaches who took the bat out of her hand, Cochran found ways to get to second base anyway, stealing 27 bases in 31 attempts.
Pitchers usually dictate tempo in college softball, especially in the World Series, but Cochran is the rare hitter who must always be factored into every at-bat. If she's not at the plate, you can bet opposing coaches are looking to see exactly how much room they have to work with until she's up again.
By the numbers: Arizona State
Coach: Clint Myers
Road/Neutral record: 25-12
Pac-10 record: 13-8
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 7 overall seed)
vs. Southern Utah, 2-1 W (Provo Regional)
vs. BYU, 7-1 W (Provo Regional)
vs. BYU, 6-3 W (Provo Regional)
vs. LSU, 1-0 W (Tempe Super Regional)
vs. LSU, 7-4 W (Tempe Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: BYU, Cal State Fullerton, Creighton, Illinois State, Long Island, Missouri (2), North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State
Notable nonconference losses: Fresno State, Louisiana-Lafayette, NC State, Northwestern, UC Santa Barbara, UTEP (2)
Baylor has been building toward its first berth in the World Series ever since Glenn Moore took over seven years ago, but this isn't a group likely to be in awe of its surroundings in Oklahoma City. The Bears enjoyed a somewhat subdued celebration after beating Michigan to advance to the World Series and spoke after the game about believing they're capable of winning it all. It's bold talk for a first-time participant, but there's plenty of evidence to support it, including a Big 12 regular-season championship and two wins in a three-game series against Arizona in March.
Baylor has long been an aggressive team on the bases under Moore's guidance, a trend that continued with 140 stolen bases this season, but the addition of players like Ashley Monceaux (.409 batting average, 20 HR, 70 RBI) to a foundation that included senior Chelsi Lake (.303 batting average, 10 HR, 48 RBI) has added power to the speed. The Bears can beat you with small ball or they can beat you by making the ball look very small as it recedes into the distance beyond the outfield wall.
Player to watch: Brette Reagan, 3B
If you watch Baylor play in the World Series, chances are you'll see its third baseman make a nice play in the field. Reagan may have the best hot-corner glove in the country. Playing for a team that relies on its defense behind two pitchers who are effective without amassing a lot of strikeouts, Reagan led the way with 131 assists and made just nine errors. She has the requisite quick first step for a position that is just 60 feet away from home plate and has the arm to make a throw from across the third-base bag if necessary.
Just as importantly for Baylor's success, Reagan is also a threat at the plate. Second on the team in batting average at .351 and third with 10 home runs and 45 RBI, she's a patient hitter (44 walks, 24 strikeouts) who teams with leadoff hitter Ashley Monceaux to give the lineup two players who get on base at least 48 percent of the time near the top of the order (speedy Kirsten Shortridge hits second).
By the numbers: Baylor
Coach: Glenn Moore
Road/Neutral record: 20-11
Big 12 record: 14-3
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 8 overall seed)
vs. Albany, 8-2 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Hofstra, 7-2 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Albany, 10-0 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Michigan, 9-0 W (Waco Super Regional)
vs. Michigan, 0-3 L (Waco Super Regional)
vs. Michigan, 4-0 W (Waco Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Arizona (2), Cal, DePaul, Florida, Hawaii, Houston (2), Massachusetts
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Cal, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Illinois State, Liberty, Louisiana-Lafayette (2), Nevada
DePaul Blue Demons
Carrying the banner for the Big East, a league that is usually a softball afterthought, DePaul makes its fourth appearance in the Women's College World Series and its second appearance in the last three seasons.
Pitching is the foundation of this year's success, with senior Tracie Adix and freshman Becca Heteniak teaming to post a 0.97 ERA in 233.2 innings. Both were dominant in conference play as DePaul raced to a 20-0 record (Adix struck out 50 and walked three while allowing just 27 hits in 66 innings), but they also proved themselves against top-tier competition. In addition to sweeping Louisville and Notre Dame during conference play, DePaul went 10-8 in games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament.
On offense, DePaul relies on putting the ball in play to make up for average power numbers. The Blue Demons struck out just 4.4 times per game, third-best in the WCWS field behind Tennessee and Baylor. Sandy Vojik and Amber Patton occupy the top two spots in the order and embody that approach better than anyone, striking out just 29 times in 300 at-bats while combining for 104 hits, 36 walks and 67 runs.
Player to watch: Sandy Vojik, 2B/RF
It's easy to say a player has experience, but it's hardly a monolithic thing. There is good experience, such as DePaul's juniors and seniors gained in going to the World Series in 2005. There is bad experience, such as that same group endured in missing the postseason altogether as injuries derailed DePaul last season. And there is bad experience that eventually becomes good experience, as may be the case for Vojik.
A freshman starter who hit .277 for the 2005 team, Vojik struggled mightily at the plate in Oklahoma City as DePaul managed just one run in losses against Michigan and Alabama. Two years later she is the team's most complete offensive player, ranking second in batting average, tied for first in home runs and first in stolen bases. And when the Blue Demons needed to make a statement early in the second game of the Norman Super Regional, it was Vojik who led off the bottom of the first with a triple and subsequently scored to silence the previously boisterous crowd of more than 1,600.
So it's not so much that Vojik has been here before that will help her this week as it is what she's done with that experience in the intervening years.
By the numbers: DePaul
Coach: Eugene Lenti
Road/Neutral record: 29-11
Big East record: 20-0
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 14 overall seed)
vs. Miss. Valley State, 10-0 W (Carbondale Regional)
vs. Missouri, 2-0 W (Carbondale Regional)
vs. Missouri, 3-0 W (Carbondale Regional)
vs. Oklahoma, 3-0 W (Norman Super Regional)
vs. Oklahoma, 7-2 W (Norman Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Cal, Cal State Fullerton, Florida, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nebraska, Texas
Notable nonconference losses: Baylor, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Illinois State, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Northwestern (2), Oklahoma
The Wildcats return to the World Series for the second year in a row, having spent much of the season demonstrating why last season's surprising run to the final series against Arizona wasn't necessarily so surprising after all.
The Big Ten has taken steps forward in recent years as it moves closer to the Pac-10, SEC and Big 12 as one of softball's power conferences, but aside from the annual showdown against Michigan (taking three of four games from its archrival this season), Northwestern still gets the best chance to prove itself outside of conference play. Coach Kate Drohan believes in signing up for as tough a schedule as she can find, and the Wildcats have already faced Arizona, Arizona State, DePaul and Texas A&M from the field of contenders in Oklahoma City.
The core of the team remains pretty much intact from the team that fared so well last season, although freshmen Nicole Pauly, Lauren Delaney and Kelly Dyer have stepped in as immediate contributors. The offense rests largely on the shoulders of the first four hitters in the order, with Katie Logan, Tammy Williams, Garland Cooper and Pauly accounting for 59 percent of the team's RBIs and 64 percent of its hits.
Player to watch: Eileen Canney, P
Experience in the circle counts this time of year, a sentiment reinforced by the fact that of the eight projected No. 1 starters in the World Series, only Washington standout sophomore Danielle Lawrie is an underclassman. And while Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt was certainly a key contributor on last season's championship team, only Northwestern's Canney can fall back on the experience of having the ball in her hand and a championship on the line.
Even if that experience didn't work out the way the lanky right-hander would have liked, her senior season paints a picture of a pitcher who was fully aware of how much time she had to work up to her peak form. Canney battled minor control issues, at least by her standards, early in the season, but arguably no pitcher was more dominant through the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament. She throws hard and has a world-class rise ball, but she also has good movement and command of her other pitches.
By the numbers: Northwestern
Coach: Kate Drohan
Road/Neutral record: 33-8
Big Ten record: 15-3
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 2 overall seed)
vs. Wright State, 4-1 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. Illinois State, 5-2 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. Illinois State, 4-1 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. South Carolina, 6-1 W (Evanston Super Regional)
vs. South Carolina, 3-0 W (Evanston Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Arizona State, Cal, Cal Poly, DePaul (2), Fresno State, Oregon State (2), Stanford (2)
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Louisville, Texas A&M, UCLA
Tennessee Lady Vols
Even if you're not a regular softball viewer, you probably already know Monica Abbott. Tennessee's ace and the NCAA's all-time strikeout leader became arguably the game's most recognizable face following the departure of Cat Osterman, whose strikeout record Abbott broke this season. But unlike Osterman, who made three trips to Oklahoma City with offenses that almost necessitated she pitch shutouts every game, Abbott has some support in her third trip to the World Series.
Tennessee hit .328 and averaged 5.4 runs per game this season. And while it's a team that has long battled the perception that it benefits from playing a weak nonconference schedule, this year's docket did include tests against UCLA, Cal State Fullerton and Loyola Marymount in which Ralph and Karen Weekly's team averaged almost seven runs per game. Losing senior India Chiles (who hasn't been officially ruled out of the World Series after tearing an ACL during the Knoxville Regional) hurts the one-two speed punch at the top of the order that the Lady Vols had with Chiles and Lindsay Schutzler, but replacement Lillian Hammond has good speed and there is plenty of gap power (.457 slugging percentage) in a lineup that hit just 38 home runs.
And when you have a pitcher against whom opponents hit just .106, a few runs just might do the trick.
Player to watch: Tonya Callahan, 1B
Abbott is a long-limbed marvel in the circle, but there is plenty worth keeping an eye on when Tennessee is at the plate. Callahan and Schutzler are the anchors of the offense now that Chiles is likely out, with Callahan providing the big bat behind Schutzler's table-setting efforts, and the slugging first baseman ranks among the best all-around hitters in the college game.
Teams are likely to pitch around Callahan (despite a good eye, some of her 36-10 walk-to-strikeout ratio is due to teams wanting nothing to do with her), but she has spent a season making opponents pay when they don't or can't avoid her. And after going 1-for-15 in last year's World Series, including a rough four-strikeout day against Katie Burkhart and Arizona State, she'll be looking for a little postseason redemption.
By the numbers: Tennessee
Coaches: Ralph and Karen Weekly
Road/Neutral record: 31-5
SEC record: 23-4
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 5 overall seed)
vs. Furman, 8-0 W (Knoxville Regional)
vs. North Carolina, 2-0 W (Knoxville Regional)
vs. Winthrop, 7-0 W (Knoxville Regional)
vs. Hawaii, 9-0 W (Knoxville Super Regional)
vs. Hawaii, 6-9 L (Knoxville Super Regional)
vs. Hawaii, 7-1 W (Knoxville Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, Loyola Marymount, North Carolina, Tennessee Tech, UCLA
Notable nonconference losses: None
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M announced itself as a championship contender during the season's first weekend, beating Arizona, Northwestern and UCLA in the span of 48 hours. And even as the Aggies fell just short of both the Big 12 regular-season title and the conference tournament title, they displayed the kind of all-around balance that has landed them in Oklahoma City.
Pitchers Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson, aided by a defense that averaged less than an error per game with a .970 fielding percentage, allowed just 63 earned runs in 57 starts. At one point during conference play, the pitching staff ran off nine shutouts in an 11-game stretch. And after dropping an 8-1 decision to Houston early in the College Station Regional, the Aggies allowed just five runs in winning five of six games to advance to the World Series.
Offense of their own was hard to come by against Florida in the College Station Super Regional, but the Aggies generally give themselves plenty of opportunities to manufacture runs. The team posted a .374 on-base percentage and walked 196 times, an average of better than three free passes per game, setting up the chances that led to 116 stolen bases.
Player to watch: Amanda Scarborough, P
Returning to the form that made her a star as a freshman, Scarborough turned in an amazing junior season. Not only did she lead the team in the circle with a 26-8 record and 0.99 ERA, but she produced more extra-base hits of her own at the plate (24) than she surrendered to opponents (23).
Scarborough struggled last season to match her freshman success, striking out less than a hitter per inning and walking 54 in 158.2 innings. She improved dramatically on both counts this season, and while not a pure strikeout pitcher in the mold of Monica Abbott, Katie Burkhart or Eileen Canney, she has the ability to get out of jams without the risk of the ball being put in play. Of course, with just 40 walks in 212 innings this season, she's also proved adept at avoiding jams in the first place.
By the numbers: Texas A&M
Coach: Jo Evans
Road/Neutral record: 19-8
Big 12 record: 12-6
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 4 overall seed)
vs. Sam Houston State, 9-5 W (College Station Regional)
vs. Houston, 1-8 L (College Station Regional)
vs. Sam Houston State, 11-0 W (College Station Regional)
vs. Houston, 13-2 W (College Station Regional)
vs. Houston, 5-0 W (College Station Regional)
vs. Florida, 2-0 W (College Station Super Regional)
vs. Florida, 2-3 L (College Station Super Regional)
vs. Florida, 2-0 W (College Station Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Arizona (2), Fresno State, Houston (2), Masachusetts, Northwestern, UCLA
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona (2), Florida Atlantic
Perhaps the least talked about of the teams in Oklahoma City, Washington quietly went about its business all season, overcoming a far shorter home schedule than most Pac-10 teams to emerge as the one of the conference's best teams and then traveling arguably the most difficult road to the World Series by going through the deep Lincoln Regional and beating Alabama in the Seattle Super Regional.
Any lack of buzz surrounding the Huskies shouldn't be associated with a lack of talent. Coach Heather Tarr has an ace in sophomore Danielle Lawrie who stacks up favorably with the rest of the elite pitchers in the field and an offense that goes six deep with run-producing hitters. Senior first baseman Dena Tyson supplies the largest share of power, hitting 17 of the team's 46 home runs, while fellow junior Ashley Charters has built an All-America profile for herself after hitting .393 with seven home runs and 33 stolen bases. Together, the lineup is hitting 20 points better and averaging nearly a run more per game than last season.
Player to watch: Danielle Lawrie, P
Lawrie might be the only underclassman likely to handle the majority of innings for her team in the World Series, but she doesn't lack for experience in big games after playing extensively for the Canadian national team and battling Cat Osterman in last season's Austin Super Regional. This time around, Lawrie has pitched every inning for Washington in the postseason, showing durability even when she hasn't been at her best, including a 7-5 win against Alabama to clinch a spot in Oklahoma City.
Possessing a dominant rise ball, Lawrie makes that pitch all the more effective by ensuring opposing hitters can't dial in on it, working in good command of a variety of breaking balls and a good changeup. She'll also battle Texas A&M's Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson as the best two-way players in the field. After hitting just .238 with three RBIs in 38 at-bats while concentrating mostly on pitching as a freshman, she hit .307 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs this season. That offensive success has allowed Tarr to use her designated player for defensive stalwart Jacki Hansen, aiding Lawrie's own cause in the circle.
By the numbers: Washington
Coach: Heather Tarr
Road/Neutral record: 30-13
Pac-10 record: 12-9
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 6 overall seed)
vs. Creighton, 5-1 W (Lincoln Regional)
vs. Georgia, 8-0 W (Lincoln Regional)
vs. Georgia, 1-2 L (Lincoln Regional)
vs. Georgia, 1-0 W (Lincoln Regional)
vs. Alabama, 4-3 W (Seattle Super Regional)
vs. Alabama, 7-4 W (Seattle Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Cal Poly, Hofstra, LSU (2), Missouri, NC State, Pacific, Texas
Notable nonconference losses: Cal Poly, Cal State Northridge, Florida State, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.