Commentary

Regional play features perennial contenders, up-and-coming teams

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

What should fans expect to see in the NCAA tournament's regional round? Graham Hays breaks down the first round of the double-elimination tournament:

Amherst Regional

No. 12 Stanford (46-12): The good news for Stanford is it can't meet Arizona, Arizona State or UCLA until the World Series. The Cardinal went 1-8 against the other top seeded teams from the Pac-10 and 45-4 against the rest of the country, including a win against fellow seed Oklahoma. Missy Penna (34-10, 1.10 ERA, 372 Ks) provides the foundation of the team's success. Opponents hit just .193 against Penna last season but walks and a propensity for allowing home runs on her part left her with a so-so 2.45 ERA. Opposing hitters still flail away at most of her pitches -- they're hitting just .160 against her this season -- but what little contact they make is less harmful now thanks to reduced walk and home run rates. On offense, Alissa Haber (1.035 OPS) avoided any sign of a sophomore slump and Rosey Neil (1.183 OPS, 18 HR) came into her own in her second season.

Dangerous: With one of the strongest nonconference schedules in the country and a perfect run through the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference tournament, Massachusetts had a strong case for a seed. But that really leaves Stanford as the team that has a gripe with the selection committee that dispatched it to Amherst to face the Minutewomen. Getting out of Massachusetts unscathed starts with solving Brandice Balschmiter, who allowed a total of seven earned runs in 34 innings against seeded foes UCLA, Texas A&M, Michigan, Arizona and Fresno State. The only real question for Massachusetts is whether a very young lineup that blew away A-10 pitching found its stroke or gained false confidence against weak pitching.

Longshots: Lehigh has the Patriot League leader in all three triple-crown offensive categories (average, RBIs, HR) and the leader in all three triple-crown pitching categories (wins, ERA, strikeouts). And the Mountain Hawks only need one uniform for both. Senior Lisa Sweeney leads the team in the circle (25-4, 1.54 ERA, 297 strikeouts) and at the plate (.416 average, 13 HR, 46 RBIs). Along with Kate Marvel (.400 OBP) and a handful of others, she was also part of the Lehigh team that stunned Texas A&M twice in Amherst two seasons ago.

The Ivy League hasn't been a player in softball's postseason, but Princeton rode roughshod over the league in a way that suggests it's not your typical champ. Staying competitive in Amherst will depend on the power the Tigers showed with 38 home runs in 20 Ivy games -- including 11 from Kathryn Welch -- transferring to a higher level of competition.

Ann Arbor Regional

No. 4 Michigan (48-6): Like Florida, Michigan came within a game of the World Series last season -- possibly a year earlier than expected in both cases -- and only got better over the summer. In Michigan's case, the improvement stems both from the familiar (Samantha Findlay's bat) and the fresh (newcomer Jordan Taylor). Making the most of her final season, Findlay (1.373 OPS, 21 HR) is posting her best numbers since the freshman season that ended with a national championship. And in Taylor (27-3, 0.72 ERA), the Wolverines have an ace who hasn't needed to carry the full weight of that title thanks to another standout season from sophomore Nikki Nemitz (21-3, 0.85 ERA). More than any other top seed, Michigan is likely to rely on two pitchers for as long as it remains in the running for Oklahoma City. At the plate, the elder Findlay posts the gaudiest numbers, but from younger sister Angela through Alessandra Giampaolo, Teddi Ewing and freshman slugger Dorian Shaw, there is plenty of depth.

Dangerous: Kent State exemplifies why postseason experience is more than simply making the NCAA tournament. The Golden Flashes went 15-3 in the MAC last year but saw their season end with a loss in the conference tournament. With the core of that team back, Kent State rolled to 44 wins and swept the conference regular-season and conference tournaments. The team isn't a powerhouse offensively, but it does have power with Jessica Toocheck (1.099 OPS, 11 HR). What really stands out is the pitching with Kylie Reynolds (24-4, 1.23 ERA, 269 Ks) and Gabrielle Burns (19-5, 1.07 ERA, 216 Ks).

Notre Dame may not have backed into the NCAA tournament, but it perhaps sidled sideways into the bracket after going 8-7 in its last 15 games and 2-3 in May. But with wins against California, Cal State Fullerton, Virginia Tech and DePaul early in the season, as well as one-run losses against UCLA and Long Beach State, the Fighting Irish have a lot of high-end potential. That begins with pitcher Brittney Bargar (29-13, 1.18 ERA, 233 Ks), but it also extends through a good offensive short game with a sprinkling of power from Christine Lux (.981 OPS, 14 HR).

Longshot: One way to judge how familiar Wright State's opponents in Ann Arbor are with the Horizon champs may be how many pitchers Jherica Williams sees this weekend. Even taking into account strength of schedule, Williams' offensive line (.476 average, 1.499 OPS, 73 RBIs) is simply staggering. Wright State knocked off a very good South Florida in Tampa in February.

Baton Rouge Regional

No. 9 LSU (42-16): At least the Tigers get a chance to start at home, a year after the NCAA dispatched them to Stanford for a regional and Arizona State for a super regional. This year's team didn't quite match that group's production in the regular season, but there are enough pieces in place to suggest they remain upwardly mobile. Dani Hofer pitched like a true No. 1 at times early in the season but her walk rate and home-run rate increased significantly in conference play as she continued to battle wrist tendinitis. Sophomore Cody Trahan ended up with the majority of SEC innings and got the nod in the conference tournament. LSU also slipped a little at the plate after hitting .304 as a team last season, but the Tigers have big bats with all-SEC outfielder Rachel Mitchell, third baseman Quinlan Duhon and catcher Killian Roessner. Getting speedsters Jazz Jackson and Dee Dee Henderson on base consistently will be key.

Dangerous: There may not be a more dangerous unseeded team in the field than Louisiana-Lafayette, in part because few other teams are as capable of beating quality teams 1-0 or 10-9. Like Danyele Gomez before her, senior Holly Tankersley (1.479 OPS, 19 HR) is wrapping up her career as one of the most productive power hitters in the nation. She's the hub of an offense that enters the NCAA tournament slugging .475 and which scored seven runs against North Carolina earlier this season. But even when the Ragin' Cajuns failed to produce runs in games against other top teams, they were often in the game late because of outstanding pitching from freshman Ashley Brignac (27-6, 1.25 ERA) and Donna Bourgeois.

Longshot: Arguably the most surprising at-large selection this season, East Carolina enters the NCAA tournament after finishing with a 10-12 record in Conference USA. League opponents hit .303 against the Pirates, suggesting offense will be their best route to a surprise run in Baton Rouge. That effort begins with Stacey Andrews (1.023 OPS. 11 HR) and late charger Vanessa Moreno (37 RBIs).

SWAC champion five years running, Mississippi Valley State is no stranger to the NCAA tournament. But in eight games this season against top competition (Mississippi State, Louisiana Lafayette, Oregon and Oregon State), the Devilettes allowed 73 runs. Overall, opponents hit .288 against the Devils this season.

Chapel Hill Regional

No. 15 Georgia (43-22): Georgia went 1-12 against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee and 13-3 against the rest of a league that went eight or nine deep. So while the Bulldogs may be a longshot for Oklahoma City at this point -- although they also played UCLA and Oklahoma tough early in the season -- they will certainly be an obstacle on the road in Chapel Hill. The Bulldogs don't hit for much power beyond Melissa Wood (.854 OPS, 11 HR), but they run, bunt and get on base well. Taylor Schlopy (.445 OBP, 21 SB) leads the short game. Kate Gaskill (15-6, 2.08) has the best numbers in the circle, but Christie Hamilton threw a lot of key innings down the stretch.

Dangerous: Virginia Tech has the biggest name in the ACC in Angela Tincher, but North Carolina has the most balanced team in the league. Simply put, the regular season champ does everything well. The Tar Heels hit .293 as a team and have eight players hitting .280 or better. Breanna Brown leads the way as an all-around threat who slugs .475 with 22 walks and 15 stolen bases. After not producing a single player with double-digit home runs last season, the Tar Heels already have a pair of them in Danielle Spaulding (10) and Jennifer Jacobs (10). That same group of hitters also gets it done in the field, with a .979 fielding percentage and just 33 errors in 61 games. All of which backs up the most balanced three-person pitching staff this side of UCLA. Senior Lisa Norris led the way with 17 wins, but Spaulding and Amber Johnson performed equally well in almost equal time in the circle.

BYU is always dangerous if you're an opposing pitcher. Gordon Eakin's lineup has pounded the ball all season and enters the NCAA tournament slugging .559 with 80 home runs -- and all of that despite one of the program's most challenging nonconference schedules in recent years. The power base comes from Daniela Snow (1.272 OPS, 17 HR) and Angeline Quiocho (1.177 OPS, 17 HR), but the Cougars also have a tremendous leadoff hitter with a 523 on-base percentage in Kristin Delahoussaye.

Longshot: With the best nickname in the field, the Fighting Camels of Campbell earned the Atlantic Sun's automatic bid with a surprise win in the conference tournament. Campbell didn't play a strong nonconference schedule, but there is no ignoring the power numbers put up by Amanda Littlejohn (1.062 OPS, 14 HR) and Courtney Quinn (1.159 OPS, 19 HR) -- the latter pulled off the rare feat of two walk-off hits in one game after an apparent winner in the Atlantic Sun final was called back on a roster re-entry miscue.

College Station Regional

No. 5 Texas A&M (49-7): It's difficult to envision many teams overcoming a season-ending injury to a senior All-American and remaining a title contender, but that's what the Aggies are doing. Amanda Scarborough, the team's ace and RBIs leader last season, saw her career end due to injury after just 15 games this season. In the wake of that loss, senior Megan Gibson emerged as one of favorites for national player-of-the-year honors, going 30-1 with a 1.08 ERA in the circle and leading the team in home runs, RBIs and OPS at the plate. Gibson may see the majority of innings in the postseason, but freshman Rhiannon Kliesing stepped up a year ahead of schedule with a 12-4 record and 1.31 ERA. At worst, Kliesing's performance gave Gibson some rest during the regular season, and at best, it gives the Aggies depth in the circle in the NCAA tournament. Not that a lineup producing a .405 on-base percentage and averaging nearly six runs per game is entirely dependent on its pitchers. If there is a big hit to be had, senior Jamie Hinshaw (.996 OPS) is a good bet to claim it.

Dangerous: Auburn isn't a one-woman team, but its upset potential centers around the individual in the circle. That's likely to be Anna Thompson (12-11, 2.01 ERA, 222 Ks) for most of the innings in College Station, although senior Brittany Day (11-5, 1.96 ERA, 118 Ks) was a very effective No. 2 all season and could get the ball for a start or in relief. What Thompson brings to a team that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in both hitting and fielding is the kind of strikeout dominance that can keep the score low and the chances few and far between.

Longshots: Louisiana Tech proved its NCAA tournament potential in the WAC tournament in Hawaii, beating all three of the teams that subsequently earned at-large bids en route to a surprise automatic bid. The Lady Techsters didn't score a lot of runs in Hawaii, but they showed poise in bundles by winning four consecutive one-run decisions behind strong pitching from Krissi Oliver (who also homered in the title game).

Another bubble-bursting team, Stephen F. Austin upset top-seeded Texas State in the Southland tournament. That's good news for softball fans -- at least those not affiliated with Texas State or Texas A&M -- who now get a chance to see freshman southpaw Monika Covington in action in the circle. Covington allowed one earned run in 20 innings in the Southland tournament.

Fresno Regional

No. 16 Fresno State (51-11): During a season in which a significant number of freshman pitchers are making major contributions for contending teams, Morgan Melloh may be the most valuable of them all. Fresno State lost key bats from last year's team that upset Stanford in its opening game of the Palo Alto Regional (although it ultimately failed to advance beyond the opening weekend), but Haley Perkins and Jenna Cervantes returned as lineup anchors. Those two, along with freshman standouts like Caitlin Stiglich, Andrea Ortega and Haley Gilleland, have sparked an offense that is actually outperforming last year's offense, although Perkins is a question mark after suffering an injury during the conference tournament. The question entering the season was what the Bulldogs would do without ace Robin Mackin, who took this season off to focus on her role with the Canadian Olympic team and subsequently announced she won't return next season. A late addition in recruiting, Melloh leads all freshmen with 39 wins.

Dangerous: Any team that beat Arizona and Northwestern on the same day isn't likely to be intimidated by the trappings of the NCAA tournament. San Diego State managed that impressive feat in Palm Springs early in the season and remains a tough out. They won't beat you with the long ball -- no player has more than four and they slug .352 as a team -- but they're proficient in the short game. And it rarely requires many runs to win when Christina Ross (30-12, 0.95) is moving the ball all over the zone.

A year after fighting much of the season just to get into the NCAA tournament, California returns with a team capable of fighting to get out of the Fresno Regional. The Bears struggled to hit in the Pac-10, hovering around a .200 team batting average, but they did hit well out of conference play. Gina Leomiti was perhaps the most consistent hitter, but Sanoe Kekahuna, Valerie Arioto and Bernice Masaniai all bring power. One key for surviving the Pac-10 as well as they did was Marissa Drewrey, who made tremendous strides in her sophomore season.

Longshot: At the very least, Sacramento State's stay in the NCAA tournament will give fans a chance to see an under-the-radar hitter in junior Jamie Schloredt. But a team that piled up 37 runs in four games during the final weekend of conference play to seal its title may be more than a one-hit (or one-hitter) wonder. The Hornets beat California early in the season and held their own against Oklahoma, Stanford, Fresno State, Houston and DePaul.

Evanston Regional

No. 11 Northwestern (37-13): With only one senior and a lineup that regularly includes seven freshmen and sophomores, Northwestern looks like a team built for 2009. But with a possible third consecutive trip to Oklahoma City on the line, the Wildcats aren't just playing for experience. Unlike the teams that reached the World Series in 2006 and 2007, Northwestern relied almost exclusively on one arm to earn its postseason seed. Sophomore Lauren Delaney (34-8, 408 Ks) is one of the game's hardest throwers and continues to grow into the role of championship-caliber ace. Postseason success may hinge on proving junior shortstop Tammy Williams (1.341 OPS) is not a one-woman show on offense. Doing that requires power from Michelle Batts, Nicole Pauly and Erin Dyer and speed from Robin Thompson, Jordan Wheeler and Kelly Quinn. Although the postseason will almost certainly dampen the current numbers, this year's team could finish with a better slugging percentage and on-base percentage than either of the last two seasons.

Dangerous: Considering DePaul could face Northwestern on Friday in a game between two teams that advanced to the World Series last year, it's safe to say the Blue Demons are dangerous. For that matter, coach Eugene Lenti's team seemed to be in the mix for a seed of its own after wins against Alabama and Northwestern late in the season and a win in the Big East tournament. Sophomore Becca Heteniak (31-6. 1.20 ERA, 284 Ks) is the cornerstone of DePaul's success, having improved on a terrific freshman season to become one of the top starters in the country. The Blue Demons are not a dominant offensive team, but they run well up and down the lineup and Amber Patton and Sandy Vojik are game-changing hitters.

Longshots: Drake snuck in as the last team standing in a wild Missouri Valley Conference tournament, but Northwestern need only check in with Big Ten peer Michigan to know this team can't be overlooked. The Bulldogs knocked off the Wolverines 2-0 early in the season behind a six-hit shutout from pitcher Brynne Dordel (19-10, 1.90 ERA, 214 Ks). The freshman ace has been a key for a team that was actually outhit by its opponents this season.

The surprise winner of the Summit League conference tournament, Western Illinois started the season 0-12 and enters the NCAA tournament with a 14-31 overall record. The offense produced 33 runs in three games in the conference tournament, and first baseman Samantha Valentine (1.120 OPS, 31 RBIs) is a player opponents have to worry about.

Gainesville Regional

No. 1 Florida (62-2): Florida came up a few hits shy of a trip to the Women's College World Series last season, dropping the decisive third game of a super regional at Texas A&M. As the team's record this season suggests, coach Tim Walton found more than just those few missing hits in strengthening his lineup. The Gators returned a lot of offensive talent, led by standout senior Kim Waleszonia, but they also added three impact freshmen hitters in shortstop Megan Bush (.934 OPS), second baseman Aja Paculba (.859 OPS) and designated player Tiffany DeFelice (1.040 OPS). With four home runs in the team's final 15 games before the NCAA tournament, Bush emerged as another slugger to complement veterans Mary Ratliff, Francesca Enea and Ali Gardiner. Even with all the run support, junior Stacey Nelson remains a championship cornerstone. As brilliant as Nelson was in her first two seasons, she didn't average a strikeout per inning either year. That's no longer the case for a right-handed with 298 strikeouts in 275 innings.

Dangerous: When you have a pitcher who allowed three hits and one earned run in six innings against the United States Olympic team, you have a chance to be dangerous in the NCAA tournament. Central Florida senior Allison Kime (31-10, 1.04 ERA, 343 Ks) did just that on Leap Day this year and college hitters fared no better as the season progressed. Potential NCAA tournament foes avoided her last season only after Central Florida lost a 1-0 decision in the conference tournament in which she went 12 innings and allowed just five hits. No such luck this season.

It's difficult, bordering on distasteful, to try and put the frightening heart ailment that ended pitcher Cristi Ecks' season into a softball context. But as utterly insignificant as any softball ramifications are in the big picture as Ecks continues her recovery (she was with the team in the dugout at the Big East tournament), losing her brilliance in the circle undeniably changed the complexion of South Florida's season. The Bulls still have two very good pitchers in freshman Capri Catalano and Courtney Mosch, but after allowing four or more runs in just four of their first 39 games, the Bulls have seen opponents reach that mark in 10 of their last 19 games.

Longshot: Chalk it up to geography, but it's a little surprising the tournament's No. 1 overall seed drew an at-large selection as a fourth seed instead of an automatic bid from a weaker one-bid league. The Yellow Jackets turned it on late after a horrendous start to the season, in large part because Whitney Humphreys (19-15, 1.89 ERA) emerged as a go-to pitcher for a team that struggled to match last season's offensive production. Even though the Yellow Jackets are struggling to reach base consistently, they remain a dangerous power-hitting team, led by Aileen Morales (.550 SLG) and Brittany Barnes (12 HR).

Hempstead Regional

No. 7 Arizona (36-16): Rarely has a seed come with as many question marks as it does for the defending champs. Just who are the Wildcats? They're a prolific offensive team, although not in the same way as many of the teams that preceded them in Tucson. The short game isn't completely gone, but it's not the instrument of softball torture it was with Caitlin Lowe at the top of the order. Instead, the Wildcats bludgeon opponents with extra-base hits. Laine Roth, Jenae Leles, Stacie Chambers and Callista Balko all hit double-digit home runs in the regular season, while sophomore shortstop K'Lee Arredondo added 24 extra-base hits of her own. Of course, Arizona's identity is probably still primarily wrapped up in Taryne Mowatt's right arm. The star of last season's World Series, Mowatt (24-12, 1.80 ERA, 354 Ks) has thus far duplicated the up-and-down regular season that preceded her exploits in Oklahoma City more than she's matched that starring role.

Dangerous: Hofstra was in line for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but the best proof of the Pride's postseason qualifications came in making sure they didn't need it. Kayleigh Lotti allowed one run in 16 innings as Hofstra came out of the loser's bracket on the final day of the conference tournament. Ironically, the team in Hempstead that most closely resembles the championship Arizona teams -- at least philosophically -- is Hofstra. In addition to a terrific strikeout pitcher in Lotti (21-5, 1.22 ERA, 223 Ks), this edition of the Pride is proficient at small ball. Erika Bernstein is one of the country's fastest players from home to first, while Casey Fee (24 SB) and Kris Root (26 SB) are outstanding on the bases.

Longshots: If there's such a category as a dangerous longshot, Long Island should be the poster team. The Northeast Conference champions rolled through the conference regular season and tournament with just one loss. The Blackbirds are even less of a home run threat than Hofstra, entering the NCAA tournament with just 12 on the season, but they execute the short game well and are a good fielding team given the amount of outdoor practice they sacrifice and the limited facilities they deal with. Blaire Porter (20-8, 1.08 ERA) broke through this season with a fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Yet another team with fewer home runs (11) than some of the Arizona players they'll try to slow in Hempstead, Canisius dominated the MAAC this season. And like their peers, the Golden Griffs make up in speed what they lack in power. They enter the NCAA tournament with 100 stolen bases in 107 attempts, led by Lauren Hope (.355 batting average, 38 SB) and Jenny Maheu (.409 batting average, 20 SB).

Houston Regional

No. 8 Houston (50-9): Regional results fade quickly, but it's worth noting that Houston nearly pulled off a regional stunner last year. The Cougars beat Louisiana-Lafayette and host Texas A&M in their first two games and needed just one more win to reach the super regionals. That didn't go so well (dropping two games against the Aggies by a combined 18-2 score), but it laid the groundwork for this season. Now Houston that enters the NCAA tournament as the favorite to advance, continuing the evolution of a program that began in 2001. Dreams of Oklahoma City begin with senior ace Angel Shamblin, a tremendously polished pitcher who is third in the nation in ERA and uses location and rhythm as well as anyone. But Shamblin has plenty of support from a lineup with three double-digit home-run hitters and a team OPS of .956. Conference USA competition aside, Jessica Valis (if she's able to return after missing the last two weeks), Laurie Wagner and Elaine Nordstrom can hit in any league.

Dangerous: Like Fresno State, Washington found itself counting on a rookie pitcher to replace a Canadian Olympian. And like Fresno, the results weren't too shabby. Freshman Aleah Macon thrived after taking over as the de facto No. 1 and held up just fine in Pac-10 play, although her walk rate could be an issue in the postseason. Fellow freshman Jace Williams leads an offense that makes up for modest power with a good team average and speed on the bases. And if some of the key faces are young, coach Heather Tarr has proven in four seasons that she's someone to be avoided in the NCAA tournament.

The spotlight on Texas isn't quite as bright as it was in the Cat Osterman era, but the next generation of Longhorns have quietly built the kind of offense the team didn't have when its ace ruled the circle. Texas enters the NCAA tournament slugging better than .430, still a modest mark by national standards but the best mark in program history. With Loryn Johnson (.622 SLG, 32 RBIs) and Tallie Thrasher (.29 SLG, 27 RBIs), Texas doesn't have to win games 1-0 or 2-1. Although with Megan Denny, it still can.

Longshot: It's not too often you see a team with a 5.23 ERA reach the NCAA tournament, but Delaware State earned its way in by winning the MEAC conference tournament. JoJo Shields paces a balanced power-seed offense and pitcher Brittney Ruark heads to Houston on a hot streak.

Iowa City Regional

No. 14 Long Beach State (39-15): A few too many losses at the end of the conference schedule seemed likely to cost Long Beach State a shot at a seed and consign the 49ers to a trip to nearby UCLA. Instead, the 49ers earned a seed reflective of their brutal early schedule, although it came with a trip to a loaded regional in Iowa City. Freshman though she may be, Long Beach newcomer Brooke Turner may be the most battle-tested pitcher in Iowa City. With wins against Florida and Northwestern -- and 1-0 loss against UCLA -- to her credit and an overall 0.70 ERA she's a legit No. 1. Run support has been the issue all season for Long Beach, which heads to Westwood with just 18 home runs and 22 stolen bass. Tennessee transfer Jennifer Griffin (.982 OPS) leads the way at the plate and the 49ers do have some bats that could catch fire in Jessica Beaver (.461 SLG, 42 RBIs) and Danielle Linke (.528 SLG, 32 RBIs).

Dangerous: None of the other three aces in Iowa City are prone to giving up home runs, but that will be tested against Missouri. Paced by Amanda Renth (19 HR), Lindsey Ubrun (15 HR) and Jen Bruck (14 HR) the Tigers rank behind only Oklahoma in home runs among Big 12 teams. But like Alabama, the Tigers don't necessarily wait for the three-run home run. Rhea Taylor (.405 batting average, 53 SB) ranks among national leaders in batting average and stolen bases, and the team as a whole has stolen 129 bases. Bruck also has her moments in the circle, but Michigan transfer Stacey Delaney (18-3, 1.74 ERA) should be the key there.

It's only fitting Iowa gets to host a regional as an unseeded team, considering Iowa City played host to just 13 games during the regular season. The Hawkeyes are a weak slugging team overall, but they have pockets of power, starting with first baseman Colleen McGlaughlin (1.006 OPS, 33 RBIs), that help complement a very good short game that produced the most stolen bases among Big Ten teams. Junior Brittany Weil ranks second in strikeouts, third in ERA, and fifth in opponents' batting average among Big Ten pitchers.

More often than not, a team needs to be able to win away from home to be a spoiler in regionals. No problem for Creighton, which proved its road mettle when it dropped a 1-0 decision against Arizona State in Tempe and then beat Arizona 2-1 in Tucson on a trip west early this season. As those scores suggest, the Bluejays have a known commodity in the circle with ace Tara Oltman, who has allowed just 27 extra-base hits in 261.2 innings.

Knoxville Regional

No. 13 Tennessee (47-14): The defining moment of Tennessee's season might have come in a game that didn't count. Facing the U.S. Olympic team in an exhibition, senior Tonya Callahan and freshman Jennifer Lapicki hit home runs against former Lady Vols ace Monica Abbott and briefly staked their team to a 2-0 lead against the best in the world. The Olympic team rallied for a 4-2 win, but with two swings, Tennessee showed Abbott hadn't taken the program's softball success with her when she graduated. In a literal sense, Tennessee replaced Abbott by splitting pitching chores almost equally between freshman Ashton Ward (27-5, 1.94 ERA) and senior Megan Rhodes (20-9, 2.24 ERA). But Ralph and Karen Weekly also went about replacing the legend with an offense that came together nicely after suffering its own offseason losses to graduation and transfers. Callahan (1.516 OPS, 61 RBIs) is right there with Kaitlin Cochran and Tammy Williams as one of the most feared hitters in the game, and the Lady Vols still have a great short game with Kenora Posey, Lillian Hammond and others.

Dangerous: Few things are as perilous for hitters as stepping into the batter's box against Virginia Tech senior Angela Tincher (33-6, 0.57 ERA, 571 Ks). The ace who famously no-hit the United States Olympic team earlier this year begins her final NCAA tournament appearance at the same regional site she and the Hokies visited in 2005 and 2006  albeit it in a new stadium this time around. Prolonging Tincher's spectacular career will depend on her holding her own against the Lady Vols, but it will also require timely hits from a lineup that averages fewer than four runs per game.

Louisville lost three games against Michigan and Florida by a combined five runs, suggesting the Cardinals have the potential to be dangerous when at their best. Australian ace Kristin Wadwell is not a dominant strikeout pitcher, making it imperative she not fall victim to an occasional penchant for walking hitters. The most patient hitter in the lineup, Chelsea Bemis (.333 batting average, 49 RBIs) also has nearly twice as many RBIs as any of her teammates.

Longshot: Winthrop avoided the upset bug that felled so many other favorites in conference tournaments and earned a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid. Pitchers Megan Evans (18-6, 1.32 ERA) and Cari Woolridge (16-9, 1.81 ERA) give the team two good arms but it's also a team that hit .280 and averaged 4.4 runs per game despite playing a tough nonconference schedule.

Los Angeles Regional

No. 2 UCLA (45-7): It's rare that UCLA's newcomers aren't the only ones on the roster who didn't play in the World Series the previous year, but the deepest collection of new arrivals in the nation is a big reason why the whole team is expected back in Oklahoma City. Five of UCLA's top seven hitters weren't around last season, led by freshman second baseman Samantha Camuso (.956 OPS, 33 RBIs) and junior shortstop Amanda Kamekona (.647 SLG, 38 RBIs), the latter a transfer by way of Cal State Fullerton. And while the Bruins are slightly off last season's pace in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, they also boast deepest pitching staff in the country, paced by a familiar face who rediscovered an old touch. Senior Anjelica Selden is once again in All-America form with a 24-3 record and 0.79 ERA. There's plenty of support from freshman Donna Kerr, and sophomore Megan Langenfeld (also one of six regulars hitting better than .300).

Dangerous: Ask Arizona and Fresno State about Nevada's potential to be dangerous in any given game. The common denominator in wins against those two NCAA tournament seeds (two against WAC rival Fresno State and one against Arizona) was Katie Holverson. The sophomore didn't allow a run in 20 innings to earn two wins and a save in those three signature wins. The Wolf Pack back up Holverson and senior Jordan McPherson with a balanced offense. They don't rack up exceptional totals of home runs or stolen bases but they produce both with some regularity and hit better than .300 as a team.

Cal State Fullerton squeaked in by its record, losing two out of three against UCSB in the season's final weekend to finish one game over .500, but it's hard to question the merits on which that record earned them a spot in the field. Fullerton run-ruled Oklahoma early in the season and scored wins against UCLA and Arizona. The highs and lows are indicative of a team that is balanced but not dominant across the board -- when it all comes together with hitters like Kiki Munoz (1.132 OPS, 29 RBIs) and Lauren Lupinetti (.877 OPS, 33 RBIs) and either Jessica Doucette, if she's fully healthy after pinch-hitting in the final regular season series, or Christine Hiner on their game in the circle -- this team can play with anyone.

Longshot: Purdue received an at-large bid after flirting with the bubble following a loss to Minnesota in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. That's the good news. The bad news is a trip to Westwood to face a deep field of opponents. The Boilermakers struggled mightily on offense during conference play. Candace Curtis (1.039 OPS, 11 HR) is the only player who enters the NCAA tournament with either double-digit home runs or steals. One player who did step up in Big Ten play was freshman pitcher Suzie Rzegocki (15-8, 2.49 ERA).

Norman Regional

No. 10 Oklahoma (43-12): The Sooners definitely still know how to use their bats, averaging nearly six runs per game and slugging better than .500 as a team, but this year's team isn't necessarily a carbon copy of last year's mashers -- a reality they obviously hope will work to their advantage in avoiding the upset that felled last year's team at home in a super regional. Without Norrelle Dickson, the Sooners are less active on the bases, although second-half starter Krystle Huey has the speed to change that if she reaches base consistently. But with bats like Amber Flores, Samantha Ricketts and Savannah Long, station-to-station offense still looks like the express train at times. All of that said, the biggest change for the Sooners this year is in the circle, where senior D.J. Mathis is healthy and thriving as the ace after essentially swapping roles with Lauren Eckermann.

Dangerous: One of three bubble teams that landed in Norman, Tulsa hopes a balanced blend of offense and pitching is the recipe for success. Oklahoma City native Lauren Lindsay (.744 SLG, 43 RBIs) leads the offense while freshman Jordan Kinard (14-6, 1.76 ERA) was the more statistically dominant half of a pitching tandem that split starts evenly. Tulsa managed just three hits against Mathis in an 8-0 loss at Oklahoma earlier this season.

Arkansas didn't qualify for the SEC tournament, finishing ninth in a league that sends only eight to its postseason event, but that didn't keep it out of the NCAA tournament. As that tight-rope act suggests, the Lady Razorbacks are something of a hit-and-miss bunch, but when they hit, the ball tends to go a long way. Miranda Dixon (1.039 OPS, 10 HR) and Kayla Johnson (.949 OPS, 35 RBIs) pace an offense that heads to Norman with 62 home runs.

Like Arkansas, Oregon is looking to prove it didn't just land an at-large bid on the strength of what other teams in its conference did this season. The Ducks lost All-American Jennifer Salling to the Canadian Olympic team but still possess threats on the bases. Three players have at least 20 stolen bases for a team that collectively is already in triple digits in steals. Neena Bryant leads the attack (.337 batting average, 10 HR, 22 SB), but the problem for the Ducks is getting people on base to do damage. The team has just a .319 on-base percentage.

Tempe Regional

No. 6 Arizona State (56-5): The Sun Devils began the season with arguably the best pitcher and the best hitter in the nation. Lefty ace Katie Burkhart (32-5, 0.88 ERA, 418 Ks) and junior outfielder Kaitlin Cochran (1.439 OPS, 73 runs) lived up to those lofty reputations, but coach Clint Myers' Sun Devils enter the NCAA tournament with a chance to improve on back-to-back trips to the Women's College World Series -- and back-to-back disappointing exits -- in large part because Burkhart and Cochran didn't need to carry as much of the load this season. Myers brought in a host of new talent this season, and newcomers like freshmen Krista Donnenwirth and Lesley Rogers and junior Renee Welty have added a lot of run production to the lineup. At the same time, returning veterans like Mindy Cowles, Jackie Vazquez and Kristen Miller rose to the challenge for playing time and fuel a lineup that ranks among national leaders in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.

Dangerous: For Hawaii, matching last season's phenomenal run to within a game of the World Series was going to be difficult enough before losing co-ace Justine Smethurst to the Australian Olympic team shortly before the start of the season. But building around Kate Robinson's contributions in the circle (17-8, 1.84 ERA), and at the plate (1.180 OPS, 19 HR), the Rainbow Wahine earned a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

Infielders in Tempe better be ready for work, because they're about to spend a lot of time scrambling after bunts and rushing to cover bases. Small ball is old hat for Mississippi State, and coach Jay Miller has assembled a lineup suited to playing that style. Chelsea Bramlett (.444 batting average, 44 SB) and Courtney Bures (.403 batting average, 42 RBIs) are as good a one-two punch as there is in any lineup in the country. Pitchers Misty Flesher and Kelsey Nurnberg can't count on strikeouts, but both proved capable of coming up big in close games against Alabama and Florida in SEC play.

Longshot: Stony Brook was a surprise winner in the America East tournament, but it earned the bid the hard way by beating top-seeded Albany twice on the favorite's home field. Perhaps that's not surprising for a team that heads to Tempe with a 20-12 in road/neutral games this season. Ace Alyssa Struzenberg allowed just one earned run in 21 innings in the conference tournament and the offense scored 51 runs in the team's last eight games.

Tuscaloosa Regional

No. 3 seed Alabama (51-6): Alabama once again makes its mark on offense, pacing the SEC and ranking among national leaders in home runs, stolen bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs. Senior Brittany Rogers (.488 OBP, 53 SB) is the best leadoff slapper in the nation and sophomore Charlotte Morgan (1.335 OPS, 16 HR) blossomed from a potential star into a proven one. Mix in Kelly Montalvo, Jordan Praytor, Dani Woods, Ashley Holcombe and Kellie Eubanks -- all slugging .500 with .400 on-base percentages -- and there aren't any easy outs. The question mark is senior second baseman Lauren Parker. Battling an injury to the same shoulder that limited her last May, Parker's effectiveness remains uncertain. Whitney Larsen, her replacement at second base, will be in the lineup somewhere either way and is an offensive weapon in her own right, but Alabama's offense is an almost unsolvable riddle with an effective Parker in the middle of the order. One element the Tide knows it will have that it didn't have last year is freshman ace Kelsi Dunne (22-3, 1.28 ERA).

Dangerous: Florida State made perhaps its strongest case as a sleeper with a win against Arizona State at the Judi Garman Classic in March (in addition to wins this season against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Massachusetts and Cal State Fullerton). Tiffany McDonald allowed just three hits and one walk against the Sun Devils and her success is crucial for a team that doesn't put up a lot of runs of its own. Carly Wynn and Whitney Buckmon are key ingredients in setting up the runs that the Seminoles do manufacture.

Longshots: Jacksonville State, the Ohio Valley Conference champion, brings a lot of power with it back to Tuscaloosa, where it opened the season with a loss against Alabama. The Gamecocks slugged 72 home runs en route to the regular-season and conference tournament titles, led by Nikki Prier (1.127 OPS, 14 HR) and Allie Barker (1.040 OPS, 15 HR).

Things came together at the right time for Chattanooga, which outscored opponents 30-7 in its final five games of the Southern Conference tournament. The pitching side of that wasn't much of a surprise with ace Brooke Loudermilk (18-7, 1.67 ERA, 239 K) in the circle.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. 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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