- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- The desert landscape around Palm Springs is not the first place that pops to mind when thinking of places that personify youth and renewal.
The communities straddling California Highway 110 from Indio to Palm Springs are perfectly pleasant places to spend time, as long as that time doesn't stretch much beyond sunset. The money is old. The population is old. Even the baristas at Starbucks are old. It is a place where the present can feel as if it's intruding on the past.
But even if the weekend's Palm Springs Classic offered softball's version of an early-bird special on championship competition this season, youth dominated the proceedings.
More than half of the top 25 was on hand for the four-day, five-field extravaganza, including five top-10 teams representing the Pac-10 (two teams), SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten. And even with all that firepower eyeing a trip to Oklahoma City, the weekend themes had more to do with addressing flaws and working in new faces than showcasing strengths.
With no team to beat, everyone is figuring out how to avoid beating themselves.
"I'm looking for what we can do," Baylor coach Glenn Moore explained early in the weekend. "I'm moving some kids around and trying to figure out exactly what the best nine will be for us. You know, whether that's having a kid play a position that may not be her best, but will work best into our philosophy and what we're trying to do."
Moore's team reached the Women's College World Series last season, but was picked to finish behind Big 12 rivals Texas A&M and Oklahoma this season after losing Chelsi Lake, Lisa Ferguson, Ashley Monceaux and others to graduation.
LSU coach Yvette Girouard's team fell just short of Oklahoma City last season, but has its own personnel issues to address before figuring out how to win that one extra game in May.
"This is to see what we've got early on," Girouard said. "We go into conference [play] so early, and our conference is brutal, it's a grind. We play 28 [SEC] games and we just keep meeting one ranked opponent after another. So it's a chance to see what we're going to do under pressure a little bit, a chance to see what our rotation is going to be, who is going to be effective and put yourself under some adversity."
Moore and Girouard weren't alone. At one point in Friday's heavyweight tilt between No. 5 UCLA and No. 18 Georgia, the two teams had a combined seven freshmen playing in the infield -- and the only reason it wasn't eight was that Bruins freshman Donna Kerr got the start in the team's first game of the day against Massachusetts.
UCLA's class arrived in Westwood last fall with perhaps the loftiest reputation of any group of newcomers in the country and still managed to exceed expectations at Palm Springs. Not only did Kerr get the win against Massachusetts, she also got the run support she needed courtesy of an all-newcomer effort that foreshadowed things to come.
With the Bruins holding a slim 2-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth, GiOnna DiSalvatore led off with a single, moved to second on Samantha Camuso's double and came home with Camuso on Monica Harrison's two-run single. Both runs proved critical when Massachusetts rallied for a run of its own in the seventh before ultimately falling 4-2. (Freshmen Amanda Kamekona and Amy Crawford scored UCLA's first two runs of the game.)
For the weekend, the newomer quintet of DiSalvatore, Camuso, Harrison, Kamekona (a junior transfer) and Katie Schroeder started in all five of the team's games and hit .388 with 15 RBIs and 15 runs. Hitting either third or fourth in the order each time out, DiSalvatore led the way with five RBIs, two doubles, a triple and a home run.
"Absolutely, I'm pleased," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "Because our freshmen that are coming in, they're leading on the field. And one thing about UCLA is we demand that once you step between the white lines, there is no class distinction. You're here to play ball. They're no longer freshmen; their freshmen year ended the day fall ball started."
The Bruins missed out on a chance for revenge when a midweek game against Loyola Marymount, the crosstown mid-major that eliminated them from last season's NCAA Tournament, was rained out, but the influx of new faces has done far more to help the team move on than even that win would have.
"The freshmen bring a youth to us, and a vibrance, that really reminds me and the other seniors of why we love the game," senior Krista Colburn said.
Not that the seniors are riding on anyone's coattails. Colburn remains a lineup cornerstone and a leader Inouye-Perez credits with setting a tone off the field for the newcomers. And after a rough start against Oklahoma two weeks ago, Anjelica Selden is keeping Kerr at bay with a 1.21 ERA and 78 strikeouts against just four walks in 52 innings. A two-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio is good. A three-to-one ratio is stellar. Selden's nearly 20-to-1 ratio is off the charts -- even by the standards she set for herself as a freshman and sophomore.
Selden shut down Georgia in her first start at Palm Springs after two tough-luck runs in the first inning, retiring the last 13 batters she faced and striking out a total of 13. And in Sunday's marquee showdown against Northwestern, she struck out 17 and allowed no earned runs in a 6-2 win. All in all, she looked little like the pitcher who went 17-11 with a 2.82 ERA as a junior.
"Jelly is on a mission," Colburn said. "She's always been mentally tough, but she has an edge about her this year that is almost indescribable."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.