- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Here's a look at the softball action from the Palm Springs Classic:
San Diego State
No team challenged itself more over the weekend than No. 25 San Diego State. Just days after entering the top 25 for the first time this season, the Aztecs played five ranked opponents in less than 48 hours.
From the first pitch Friday afternoon against Arizona through the final out on Sunday morning against Baylor, they spent essentially one out of every five hours of the day playing softball against one of the best teams in the country. And even if the Aztecs looked like a weary bunch while committing five errors in a 7-5 loss against Baylor to close out the weekend, they made their case for remaining in elite company with wins against No. 2 Northwestern and No. 10 Arizona on Friday.
"Probably the biggest two wins in the program's history -- the greatest day in its history," coach Kathy Van Wyk said in the afterglow of a 3-2 win against Northwestern on Friday night. "I'm surprised, but I'm not surprised. I know this group has just worked their butts off all year. They've got a lot of talent and it's coming together for them."
When Van Wyk arrived in 1997, San Diego State had finished 18 of its previous 20 seasons with losing records. This season should bring the program's fourth NCAA Tournament appearance during her tenure and possibly her third 40-win season.
The recipe isn't complicated: get California kids to play old-school softball in one of the nation's most serene settings. (The cover of the media guide has seniors Christina Ross, Megan McDonald and Tamani Wells standing in uniform superimposed on a beach with waves breaking behind them; take that, flyover state recruiters.) It brought leadoff hitter Tonye McCorkle home after two seasons starring at Syracuse. It brought senior ace Ross home after a standout freshman season at Kansas. And it kept hometown standout Erin Floros in town for a college career that was interrupted last season by a torn ACL.
On in relief after striking out 11 in a complete-game win against Arizona earlier that day, Ross retired Northwestern in order in the top of the seventh to preserve a 2-2 tie in Friday's nightcap. That set the stage for McCorkle to reach on a walk in the bottom of the frame and eventually come around to score when Floros' bloop single fell just beyond the reach of Northwestern shortstop Tammy Williams.
It's how things work for a team that won 32 games last season despite hitting just 21 home runs.
"By [Floros] just putting the ball in play, we could make things happen," Van Wyk said. "That's our game. We're not going to hit a lot of home runs. We're going to have to hit the ball on the ground and use our runners. And the defense and pitching held them long enough for us to do that."
Patty Gasso may have all the right pieces on her Oklahoma roster, but some assembly is still required in putting together this season's Sooners.
Watching Oklahoma feels a little like opening the box from Ikea: The finished product could look good if someone in the room turns out to be handy with an Allen wrench.
The sixth-ranked Sooners set a single-game school record for home runs in one win and got a complete-game shutout from D.J. Mathis in another. But after losses against Stanford and Oregon in which they scored a total of two runs, they needed a second gem from Mathis against Georgia to get out of town with a winning record for the weekend.
The Sooners arrived at the tournament short two key pieces in the circle. Pitching coach Melyssa Lombardi stayed home after recently giving birth and senior Lauren Eckermann didn't make the trip to California due to what the team described as a family emergency that took her back to Texas. That the team still came out of things with three wins despite missing their pitching coach, the ace who won 37 games last season and consistent offensive production is a testament to how well Mathis has started her junior season.
Slowed last season while she continued to regain strength from offseason surgery to repair rotator cuff and labrum injuries, she took the summer off in 2007.
"Last season took a pretty big toll on me, both mentally and physically," Mathis said. "It's nice to be able to go out and throw without pain."
The diminutive southpaw shut down UCLA two weeks ago to hand the Bruins their lone loss of the season and looked every bit as effective in three starts in Palm Springs. Errors behind her helped undo the Sooners in a 3-2 loss against Stanford Friday, but she shut out No. 25 San Diego State on Saturday and blanked No. 18 Georgia with a one-hitter Sunday.
Oklahoma showed it still has plenty of power with six home runs in a 14-5 win against Pacific -– getting two home runs each from Savannah Long, Traci Dickenson and Lindsey Vandever. Long, in particular, seems to have regained the stroke that produced a .512 slugging percentage two seasons ago. But excluding the Pacific outburst, Gasso's team is averaging just three runs over its past nine games.
Good thing the Sooners had Mathis around to make those runs count.
Had there been any sort of championship trophy awarded for the massive tournament, Stanford would have been the odds-on favorite until a 3-1 loss against Texas on Sunday.
Then again, the previously undefeated Cardinal also probably could have absconded with the trophy and any other souvenirs of their choosing without risking detection.
Stanford played the first game of the event early in the evening on Thursday before most fans had checked in for the weekend. Then it played two games Friday morning on a field next to crowd favorite UCLA and two games Saturday on a field so remote it goes by the name "Pawtucket" at a complex with low-grade replicas of Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. Even the team's finale Sunday came with the largest crowds next door watching the conclusion of Arizona-LSU and waiting for UCLA-Northwestern.
But it won't be easy for the Cardinal to keep a low profile after winning five in a row before Sunday's loss to obliterate the previous program record for best start to a season.
Aside from a pair of 1-0 wins against a quality Long Beach State team, Stanford's early schedule didn't offer a lot of clues to its quality relative to other top-10 contenders. That changed with three consecutive wins against No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 21 Ohio State and No. 21 UNLV during the middle stretch of the Palm Springs tournament.
Junior Missy Penna allowed nine runs in 31.2 innings over four days and struck out 40. Given the competition and the amount of work, the weekend was a solid affirmation of the dazzling numbers she posted the first two weeks of the season.
"I think when Missy gets in tight spots she's holding her composure," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "She worked awfully hard in the offseason. I guess the biggest thing is her ability to get ahead of hitters and rely on her defense when she needs to."
Stanford hit 1.18 doubles and 0.58 home runs per game last season. Through 16 games this season, those marks are 2.00 doubles and 0.81 home runs. Junior Maddy Coon has been a big part of the slugging resurgence that added 18 extra-base hits in Palm Springs. It's starting to look like Coon's sophomore slump was more the product of a variety of health woes that plagued her last season than merely pitching adjustments.
"She's in great physical shape," Rittman said. "Last season she battled injuries and mono and all types of obstacles. She's healthy and she's playing a nice shortstop and we're excited to have her back to being Maddy in the middle of the lineup."
After his team overcame a slow start to pull away from Oregon 8-4 in one of four tournament games played Thursday, Baylor coach Glenn Moore was clear on one thing he wanted to see out of a team trying to replace a number of last season's key bats.
"I'm also looking for some kids that can bring some offensive punch from the bottom of the order," Moore said. "We're struggling a little bit from the power end of it -- not asking for home runs, but we need some big hits here and there that we haven't been getting."
He may have some different questions after his team left California with four wins to its credit despite surrendering at least four runs in all six of its games, but the offense at least started to lay out the framework of an answer. Baylor managed just one run total in losses to Arizona and UCLA, but the offense piled up 29 runs in quality wins against Oregon, Massachusetts, Cal State Fullerton and San Diego State.
One player in particular who did exactly what Moore hoped was freshman K.J. Freeland, who bounced back from a rough start with the glove against Oregon. Freeland picked up two hits in Saturday's late game against Fullerton and drove in the go-ahead runs against San Diego State Sunday with a key hit.
And whether it was hitting home runs against Massachusetts and Fullerton, making a barehanded pickup and laying out to make the throw to first, or simply warming up a pitcher without a mask while waiting for the catcher before an inning, no player at the tournament offered fans as much for their money as junior third baseman Brette Reagan.
"She's the pulse of this team," Moore said. "She motivates me to come to practice. We joke around about her taking her meds all the time, because she's 100 percent when she's in the airport. She's going, you can hear her if she's 50 yards away. She's constantly going and then she's like a little 2-year-old kid, like a toddler, that runs and runs and runs until she's out and then she's out cold over there laying asleep on a pillow. But when she's awake, she's going 90 miles and hour and this team follows her."
Opponents got to Dani Hofer this weekend, but the Tigers will be just fine in SEC play if their ace is the pitcher coach Yvette Girouard think she's becoming -- and the pitcher she proved to be in a win that saved the Tigers from a lost trip to the other side of the country.
The unquestioned workhorse for LSU following the graduation of Emily Turner, Hofer surrendered five home runs in three starts and one relief appearance as LSU dropped games against Arizona, Florida Atlantic and Northwestern and picked up wins against Pacific and Cal State Fullerton. It was the Fullerton game that offered perhaps the sharpest insight into Hofer's progress from heralded pitching prospect to maturing ace.
After giving up a pair of solo home runs early against the Titans, she kept them off the scoreboard long enough for teammate Erika Sluss to tie the game with a two-out, two-run home run in the top of the seventh. Hofer then blanked the Titans in her next two innings of work to get the win after LSU produced a run in the top of the eighth.
"When she gets hits now, I think she can come back from it," Girouard said. "I think when she got to us and she got hit in the SEC, I don't think she knew how to handle that, because she had never failed before in her career. So that's the process of learning at this level -- you know, you make a mistake and the ball goes out of the park. You don't do that in high school and you don't do that in summer ball, but you do do that at this level."
Like a lot of hard-throwing pitchers with dominant stuff (even with the weekend dingers, opponents have totaled just 17 hits in 40.2 innings against her this season), Hofer is going to occasionally watch a well-timed swing turn physics against her. How she responds will go a long way toward determining just how much of a contender LSU can be in May.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.