Breaking down the super regional teams
Originally Published: May 22, 2008By Graham Hays | ESPN.com
Sixteen teams are aiming for a shot at the women's College World Series. Graham Hays breaks down these super regional teams.
No. 7 ArizonaIn the circle: Taryne Mowatt ranks behind UCLA's Anjelica Selden, Arizona State's Katie Burkhart and Stanford's Missy Penna in ERA and WHIP among Pac-10 pitchers. Those walks are important, because although Mowatt once again ranked among national leaders in strikeouts per seven innings, she needs those strikeouts more than other pitchers because of her tendency to grant free passes. But after struggling early in the season with her vaunted changeup and adjusting to new pitching coach Gale Bundrick calling pitches from the dugout, she has been in top form the past four weeks. At the plate: It's not as if recent Arizona teams treated the home run like Bud Wilkinson used to treat the forward pass. The 2001 Wildcats slugged 126 home runs en route to a national championship, and even the teams led by Caitlin Lowe the past two seasons averaged nearly a home run per game. But you can't miss the contrast between last year's team and the current group that may collectively fall short of the 49 stolen bases Lowe alone swiped last season. From leadoff hitter Brittany Lastrapes (six home runs and a .565 slugging percentage) through Callista Balko, each of the first seven Arizona hitters has either double-digit home runs or double-digit doubles. And though no Arizona hitter has cracked the program's top 20 in single-season home runs since 2003, Laine Roth and Stacie Chambers are just one away from joining that list -- and Jenae Leles and Balko are within two of doing the same. Keep an eye on: Stacie Chambers. In a lineup of hitters with tape-measure capabilities, Chambers may have the most mesmerizing power. For that matter, the sophomore may have the most power-hitting potential of any player in the country. Her recovery from a serious facial injury and related brain injury has been well chronicled (and chronicled well by Patrick Finely in the Arizona Star). Chambers is once again a story for what she can do on the field. If she keeps producing like she did in the Hempstead Regional, where she collected four hits, four RBIs and two walks in eight plate appearances, the Wildcats will be that much more difficult for Oklahoma pitchers to contain.
No. 10 OklahomaIn the circle: It's not often that diminutive Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt casts just as long a shadow in the circle as her pitching counterpart. It's almost as rare that the opponent isn't lost in Mowatt's figurative shadow. Enter 5-foot-6 D.J. Mathis. Perhaps no returning pitcher in the nation made bigger strides than Mathis this season. She finished last season with a 2.60 ERA and made only an unsuccessful cameo appearance in relief of Lauren Eckermann during Oklahoma's super regional loss against DePaul. But finally healthy this spring after battling shoulder trouble as a sophomore, Mathis seized the role of ace (with performances such as a three-hit shutout against UCLA) and never looked back. At the plate: Not surprisingly given their proximity in seeding, the Sooners and Wildcats look quite a bit alike. Patty Gasso may not have quite as much top-to-bottom power in her lineup as the Wildcats do in their lineup, but Samantha Ricketts, Amber Flores, Susan Ogden and Savannah Long all enter the weekend with double-digit home runs. To put that in some context, only three of the other 14 teams in action this weekend have as many as four hitters with double-digit home runs. The Sooners are also one of the more patient teams remaining in the field, having drawn an average of 3.8 walks per game. Keep an eye on: Krystle Huey. Arizona State and Northwestern at times employ sluggers Kaitlin Cochran and Tammy Williams, respectively, as unconventional leadoff hitters. Oklahoma often does the same with Amber Flores. Considering Flores boasts a .516 on-base percentage and decent speed on the bases, it's easy to understand why. But Huey has been a key in recent weeks as a much more conventional No. 2 hitter. Huey picked up five hits, three runs and a stolen base in the Norman Regional and has 10 of her 22 total hits this season in the team's seven most recent games. The freshman has shored up one of the only weaknesses in Oklahoma's lineup with her short-game skills.
No. 4 MichiganIn the circle: Freshman Jordan Taylor is doing her best to provide coach Carol Hutchins with a philosophical conundrum, but Michigan remains likely to make use of two starting pitchers. The Wolverines won a national championship with Jennie Ritter working almost all the innings in Oklahoma City, but Hutchins prefers having options. With Taylor and sophomore Nikki Nemitz, the Wolverines are well equipped to split duties this season, but Taylor may yet prove to be that talent rare enough to run the table. Nemitz (21-3 with a 0.97 ERA) started the opening game of the Ann Arbor Regional last weekend, but Taylor picked up all three of the team's wins after coming on in relief against Wright State and going to the distance to shut out Notre Dame and Kent State. Taylor may not be a pure power pitcher, but she doesn't beat herself (32 walks and eight home runs allowed in 210 innings) and uses her 6-foot-1 frame to get on top of hitters with a varied array of perfectly controlled pitches. At the plate: The Wolverines have balance on offense, reaching the 50-50-200 milestone in home runs, stolen bases and walks in fewer than 60 games. Enjoying her most productive season since her memorable freshman campaign, senior Samantha Findlay provides a hefty percentage of the power with 21 home runs. Freshman Dorian Shaw hasn't received quite as much attention as classmate Taylor, but she encapsulated a productive first season by driving in all five runs in the clincher against Kent State in the Ann Arbor Regional. Even if balls aren't otherwise flying out of the park, eight players have at least five doubles. The Wolverines can clear the bases from anywhere in the batting order -- a critical attribute for a team that has six players with on-base percentages of .400 or better. Keep an eye on: Teddi Ewing. A starter at shortstop since the day she arrived -- which meant having the unenviable task of replacing Jessica Merchant -- Ewing has quietly gone about maturing into a dangerous offensive player who is hitting .348 with a team-high 18 stolen bases. Regularly batting ninth, Ewing resets the order and provides another RBI opportunity for Findlay and others the second or third time through the lineup.
Virginia TechIn the circle: There is a reason the series between the No. 4 seed and an unseeded visitor earned the most votes in an ESPN.com poll about the weekend's most intriguing pairing. Strikeout pitchers are still softball's crowd pleasers, and no pitcher is more likely to rope in casual fans than the senior who made headlines beyond the sport by no-hitting the United States Olympic team earlier this spring. So who is Angela Tincher? The most obvious stat that comes to mind is strikeouts per seven innings. In the college game's history, only Texas' Cat Osterman struck out more hitters per seven innings than Tincher. But equally telling is that Tincher is allowing just 2.5 hits and 1.6 walks per seven innings this season. She's allowing 0.5 extra-base hits per game. All of which means that in a typical start, an opponent is going to get four runners on base, and all of them will start from first base. Good luck with that. At the plate: In an ideal world, every team would hit the ball well all the time. In the postseason, hitting it at the right time sometimes is good enough. Virginia Tech entered the Knoxville Regional with 16 home runs in 56 games. Four games and four home runs later, the Hokies left Tennessee with their first regional title. The performance in Knoxville aside, the Hokies are built to put together runs one at a time. Leadoff hitter Jenna Rhodes ranks among national leaders with 41 stolen bases, while Charisse Mariconda, Erin Ota and Misty Hall have combined for 51 stolen bases in 54 attempts. Mariconda, Ota and senior Kelsey Hoffman also provide more reliable gap power in the top half of the lineup than the team's overall .336 slugging percentage might suggest. Keep an eye on: Misty Hall. Hall's emergence in the regional -- she hit a game-winning home run in a 1-0 win against Louisville and a grand slam in the 4-2 clincher against Tennessee -- was huge for the offense. A sophomore playing her first season of Division I softball after transferring from Louisburg College (where she drove in 42 runs with a 1.398 OPS), Hall is a tall, athletic player with speed, patience and power. All that has been missing to date is consistency.
No. 2 UCLAIn the circle: The Bruins have the conventional pitcher for a championship contender in the form of senior ace Anjelica Selden. They also have the unconventional. Not many college softball teams utilize a closer. Canisius' Mallory Aldred led the nation with 15 saves, eight more than any other player. (And the three players tied for second were all starters who threw more than 250 innings.) Then again, not many college softball teams have the depth in the circle UCLA possesses in Selden, Donna Kerr and Megan Langenfeld. And even though Langenfeld has only five saves this season, she has emerged as a master of relief. Selden has rebounded from a rocky junior season, regaining her strikeout touch (10.0 per seven innings) and her control (nine-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio). But when she did run into trouble in regionals, Langenfeld stepped in with 8.2 innings of shutout relief. At the plate: In its own way, it says something about just how good this young Bruins lineup is in that it's so easy to overlook the home run void that has been around Westwood this season. The Bruins enter play against Georgia with just 33 home runs, their fewest in any season since the 1998 team hit 22 en route to an 18-28 record. The current team has no such trouble winning without home runs or scoring without them. The Bruins average 4.9 runs per game, which is down a little from last season but enough to give them a better run differential when the team's improved pitching is factored in. How do they do it? In 21 Pac-10 games, the Bruins struck out 22 fewer times than any other team. And in both the Pac-10 and NCAA tournament, one extra ball in play per game isn't necessarily insignificant. Keep an eye on: Amanda Kamekona. The Fullerton transfer is doing her best to restore the home run trot. Kamekona is responsible for nearly 40 percent of the team's total home runs, including two in the Los Angeles Regional (the Bruins "exploded" for five home runs in those three games) and five in the team's last nine games. Along with freshman Monica Harrison, Kamekona also has helped shore up a leaky defense. Paired together in the middle of the infield, the two have committed just 12 errors.
No. 15 GeorgiaIn the circle: Christie Hamilton picked a good time to hit her stride. The junior started four of the team's final seven games leading up to the NCAA tournament. But she also was just one part of a three-pitcher rotation with Sarah McCloud and Kate Gaskill that split innings almost equally during the regular season. She exited the Chapel Hill Regional with three more wins and a streak of 16 consecutive shutout innings. That effort marked just the second time all season she went at least three consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run. Hamilton didn't pitch in Georgia's 5-2 loss against UCLA earlier this season. The freshman McCloud blanked the Bruins for four innings in that game but eventually gave up seven hits, five walks and five earned runs in 5.2 innings. At the plate: Georgia has had some teams in recent years that posted impressive power numbers. This isn't one of those teams, but that doesn't mean the Bulldogs are offensively challenged. Senior Melissa Wood is the only consistent home run threat on a roster that slugs just .387, but the Bulldogs force the issue when they reach base. Four players have at least 17 stolen bases, led by Sojourner Moody and Taylor Schlopy with 21 each, and no team from the SEC has more sacrifices. The key is getting people on base with enough frequency to use the short game. Georgia was in the middle of the pack in on-base percentage during SEC play but hit better than .300 with 17 walks in three games in the regional. Keep an eye on: Megan Wiggins. Like their opponent in Westwood, the Bulldogs have a lot of reasons for future optimism with a freshman class that already is producing big numbers. Wiggins leads that group and leads the team in RBIs, runs, slugging percentage and batting average. She couldn't solve Jelly Selden in February, striking out three times, but a season's worth of experience should have her ready for the rematch.
No. 3 AlabamaIn the circle: When Alabama traveled to Washington for a super regional last season, one major question was, Who would step up in the circle? As the Tide prepare to host Missouri with a spot in Oklahoma City on the line this season, the only question is, Can freshman Kelsi Dunne keep it up? Dunne has been almost as statistically dominant in her first season as Michigan freshman Jordan Taylor and has fared well in her first taste of the NCAA tournament in the Tuscaloosa Regional. Even as a 6-footer who strikes out 9.3 batters per seven innings, Dunne's best traits may be her poise and polish at such a young age. Sophomore Charlotte Morgan took enough time out from emerging as one of the best power hitters in the country this season to post a 16-2 record with a 1.35 ERA in the circle. Dunne seems likely to get the ball in at least the first two games, if not all three, should the series go the distance. But Morgan is a reliable option behind her. At the plate: Another element of Dunne's success as a freshman is that she doesn't have to be perfect every time out with one of the nation's best offenses behind her. Of the nine players likely to find their way into coach Pat Murphy's batting order this weekend, eight boast on-base percentages of at least .400 (and with a .376 OBP and .534 slugging percentage, Whitney Larsen hardly offers much relief as the ninth hitter). One through nine, there aren't many "hero" swings in Alabama's lineup. If pitchers don't throw the ball in the zone, the Tide will take the walk and let the next batter take her shot. Separated by a foot in height, Morgan (71 RBIs, 1.324 OPS) and Kelly Montalvo (53 RBIs, 1.236 OPS) are closer to identical when it comes to producing runs. And with 55 stolen bases and a .502 on-base percentage, leadoff hitter Brittany Rogers makes it difficult for pitchers to concentrate on all those sluggers. Keep an eye on: Ashley Holcombe. With stars all over the diamond, it's easy to overlook the one crouched behind home plate and hidden behind the tools of ignorance. But Holcombe is another cog in the offensive juggernaut and a cornerstone of a defense that has become another plus for the Crimson Tide. She's been charged with just one passed ball all season and leads the SEC in pickoffs for the second straight season.
MissouriIn the circle: With an offense averaging 5.8 runs per game, Missouri's pitchers haven't needed to be perfect this season. But keyed by the addition of Stacy Delaney, they've been better than at any time in coach Ehren Earleywine's tenure. A transfer from Michigan, Delaney led the Tigers with a 20-3 record and 1.85 ERA. In two starts against Iowa in the Iowa City Regional, she faced the best of one of the Big Ten's best in Brittany Weil. In fact, Delaney often proved up to top competition this season. In 26.2 innings against teams still in the NCAA tournament, Delaney posted a more-than-respectable 2.27 ERA. Jen Bruck, who doubles as one of the team's most dangerous sluggers, also got a start in Iowa City and remains a viable option to split time in the circle. At the plate: At first glance, and given its unseeded position, Missouri looks a little like a poor man's Alabama. Upon closer inspection, it may not need the qualifier. Alabama may be the only team to rank in the top 10 in both home runs and stolen bases per game, but Missouri is the only other team to rank in the top 20 in both categories. Freshman Rhea Taylor gives the Tigers the same sort of panic-inducing speed at the top of the order as Brittany Rogers does for the Crimson Tide. And the heart of Missouri's order is one of the most daunting gantlets in the country for opposing pitchers. Amanda Renth, Lindsey Ubrun and Bruck have 50 home runs among them, and each player is slugging at least .620. One point of concern may be that in seven games against those teams still alive in the NCAA tournament -- two each against Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech and one against UCLA -- the Tigers produced just 10 runs. Keep an eye on: Andee Allen. Missouri's diminutive second baseman doesn't steal bases with quite the same regularity as Taylor or hit home runs like the big three, but she's a key part of the top half of the batting order. Allen doesn't strike out, shares the team lead in triples with Taylor and has the doubles lead all to herself with 15.
No. 1 FloridaIn the circle: Stacey Nelson no longer has to win games on her own for Florida to be successful. That doesn't mean she can't. Nelson emerged as a breakout performer last season and led the surprising Gators to within a game of the College World Series. So though some of the credit for Nelson's gaudy 42-3 record goes to improved run support from her teammates, it's also a credit to a pitcher who is actually improving on an All-American performance by raising her strikeout rate while allowing a grand total of one home run in more than 300 innings. Florida lost a valuable arm when Stacey Stevens graduated, but freshman Stephanie Brombacher stepped up in the circle. Whether or not she is called on against California -- and it's certainly possible -- her success throughout the season spared Nelson from an even bigger workload. At the plate: Though Nelson could improve only by shades of grey on her successful sophomore season, the improvement in Florida's run production is black and white. The Gators are averaging 5.8 runs per game and showed off their true colors by rallying back after a shutout loss in regional play to run-rule Central Florida 10-0 in the clincher. Improvement from a number of returning players, including middle-of-the-order threats Ali Gardiner, Francesca Enea and Mary Ratliff has been one key. Another is a freshman class that rivals UCLA's when it comes to instant impact. The all-freshmen keystone combination of Aja Paculba and Megan Bush has been stellar in the field and at the plate, where they've combined for 80 runs and 74 RBIs thus far. And designated player Tiffany DeFelice has shown remarkable discipline for a newcomer with 30 walks and 13 strikeouts. Keep an eye on: Ali Gardiner. Eight players in the super regionals are slugging at least .600 with on-base percentages of at least .500. Gardiner is right there with Houston's Laurie Wagner as the most underrated of the bunch.
CaliforniaIn the circle: Among a number of issues that placed California on the NCAA tournament bubble last season, none loomed larger than pitching woes that produced a 4.25 team ERA. But building from inside and out, the Bears have improved that ERA by more than two runs as they head to the Gainesville Super Regional. Freshman Valerie Arioto has played an important role in the revival, striking out 100 batters in 84.1 innings to this point in her debut season. But the central figure is Marissa Drewrey. The sophomore is still prone to giving away bases with alarming frequency -- 148 walks, 23 hit by pitches and 20 wild pitches in 301.2 innings -- but she's proved more than capable of getting herself out of the jams that often sunk her last season. Matched against two standout aces in San Diego State's Christina Ross and Fresno State's Morgan Melloh in the Fresno Regional, Drewrey started all four of her team's games and allowed just seven earned runs in 27.2 innings (1.77 ERA). At the plate: Playing 21 games in the Pac-10 doesn't do wonders for a team's overall offensive numbers, but the Bears have their share of weapons. Arioto might have been an even more valuable addition at the plate -- at least in her first season -- than she was as Drewrey's understudy. The freshman is one of two Bears who have on-base percentages of .400 or better, hitting .317 with 47 walks and 13 stolen bases. Arioto is an outfielder when she's not in the circle, and that's the heart of Cal's offense. Fueling the attack are fellow outfielders Gina Leomiti, the team leader in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and Erika Racklin, the leader in stolen bases. All told, Arioto, Leomiti and Racklin have scored 46 percent of the team's runs so far. Keep an eye on: Bernice Masaniai. A bright spot as a freshman, Masaniai largely has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Like most players, especially for a Cal team that hit .200 in conference play, her numbers slipped against Pac-10 pitching. But she did hit three home runs in conference play and is one of Cal's best hopes of driving the ball against Stacey Nelson, who is nearly impossible to take out of the yard.
No. 6 Arizona StateIn the circle: Katie Burkhart has been so good for so long that she's reached a point at which it's easy to take her success for granted. One of only seven pitchers in NCAA history with at least 1,500 career strikeouts, she was recently named Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year for the second year in a row. Even though she records a lot of strikeouts on pitches out of the zone, she's adept at making batters beat her. Since the beginning of last season, she has posted 950 strikeouts against 91 walks. Home runs remain her biggest bugaboo, but even on that count, she's allowing the fewest home runs per innings pitched in her career. Megan Elliott made strides in her sophomore season but is unlikely to see much time in the circle against Northwestern. At the plate: Like Stacey Nelson at Florida, Burkhart's winning percentage soared thanks in large part to improved run production around an already outstanding pitcher. The Sun Devils were docked in the NCAA tournament seeding process because of a weak nonconference schedule, but they proved in league play that their offensive improvement was no mirage. Arizona State led the conference with 94 runs, 30 home runs and 74 walks in 21 league games while also posting the second-fewest strikeouts. Whether hitting leadoff or second or third in the order, Kaitlin Cochran is living up her billing as arguably the best pure hitter in the country; she has a staggering .610 on-base percentage. But on a team with five players who have hit double-digit home runs -- the most of any team in the super regionals -- nobody is making a bigger statement than freshman Krista Donnenwirth. In her first season of college softball, Donnenwirth led the Pac-10 in batting average and tied for second in home runs during league play. Keep an eye on: Kristen Miller. Take your pick of veterans who stepped up for the Sun Devils -- Jackie Vasquez, Mindy Cowles and Caylyn Carlson certainly qualify. But Miller not only enters the super regional hitting a career-best .338 -- she also improved her average in the rough-and-tumble Pac-10 by hitting .344 with five home runs in conference play.
No. 11 NorthwesternIn the circle: Fresh off back-to-back trips to the World Series, Northwestern expanded the seating at Sharon J. Drysdale Field in Evanston to create a home park worthy of a national contender. No word on whether the Wildcats were tempted to install a few extra premium seats in the home team's bullpen. Simply put, this is Lauren Delaney's show from start to finish. The hard-throwing sophomore has thrown 87.3 percent of the team's innings this season (including 96 percent of the innings in conference play). That's a dramatic change from the past two seasons, when first Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster, and then Canney and Delaney, split chores in the regular season before largely turning things over to Canney in the postseason. Fatigue could be a concern for Delaney, but all that work likely has been more of a positive for a talent who continues to mature from a thrower into a pitcher. At the plate: The circle isn't the only place where the Wildcats look different this season. After the big three of Garland Cooper, Katie Logan and Tammy Williams were broken up by Cooper and Logan's graduations, Northwestern is spreading its run production throughout the lineup more this season. Williams remains in the debate with ASU's Katie Cochran and Tennessee's Tonya Callahan as the best pure hitters and flirted with a .500 batting average until the end of April. But four Wildcats are slugging at least .600 and five regulars boast on-base percentages of at least .380. Four freshmen start on a regular basis, and newcomers Michelle Batts, Robin Thompson, Kelly Quinn and Jordan Wheeler all seem to have picked up their pace rather than worn out as the season has progressed. Keep an eye on: Erin Dyer. Back behind the plate for the second year in a row after starting her college career in the outfield, Dyer has gone from a hitter who seemed to show up in key situations (including her home run against Alabama in the 2006 College World Series) to a run producer all the time. After striking out 65 times last season, she's fanned just 37 times in 54 games so far this season.
No. 5 Texas A&MIn the circle: Who has more shutouts than Angela Tincher, more wins than Katie Burkhart, more strikeouts than Anjelica Selden and a better ERA than Taryne Mowatt? Well, since this is about Texas A&M, you've probably guessed it's Megan Gibson. Expected to be half of the team's co-aces, Gibson instead thrived as the workhorse after fellow senior Amanda Scarborough went down with a season-ending injury. And talk about pitching to the moment: In 42 innings so far in May, Gibson has allowed one earned run. Even after Scarborough's injury, the Aggies weren't strictly a one-woman show in the circle, and that's a credit to freshman Rhiannon Kliesing. She may not pitch against Stanford, but she helped get Gibson to this point in one piece. At the plate: Second verse, same as the first. When she's not in the circle, Gibson leads the Aggies in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. (She's also 11-for-11 on stolen base attempts.) The Aggies aren't a home run-hitting machine beyond Gibson, although 10 players have at least two home runs. Instead, they get on base and make use of those runners with gap power. Among teams still playing, only Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA average more doubles per game than the Aggies. And despite Gibson's significant shadow, balance is key for coach Jo Evans' lineup. Gibson and Jamie Hinshaw have the most notable numbers, but six other players hit between .271 and .306. Keep an eye on: Rhiannon Kliesing. Like Gibson and Scarborough before her, Kliesing doesn't necessarily get a day off if she's not pitching. The leadoff spot has been an issue all season for the Aggies, who have struggled to replace departed speedster Sharonda McDonald. After not batting much during Big 12 play (just nine at-bats in 15 starts), Kliesing took over at the top of the order just before the Big 12 tournament and remained there through the College Station Regional. The results don't conjure images of Rickey Henderson, but she hit a home run against Texas and reached base in five of the last six games.
No. 12 StanfordIn the circle: The College Station Super Regional should offer the rare sight of two pitchers coming off no-hitters going head to head when Missy Penna takes the circle against Megan Gibson in the opener. And even though Penna took a loss during her stay at the Amherst Regional, her performance throughout the weekend underscored her place alongside Gibson and a handful of other pitchers capable of almost singlehandedly controlling a postseason run. Always possessing an elite rise ball, Penna now works both the other end of the vertical plane and the horizontal plane with her pitches. If her changeup, which remains a work in progress, is on, she's almost untouchable. Always a strikeout pitcher, she's now walking fewer batters and allowing fewer extra-base hits. At the plate: Other than Rosey Neill's prolific power numbers, little jumps off the page when it comes to Stanford's offense. But like their opponents in College Station, the Cardinal are almost all patient hitters with gap power who run the bases well. Although they fell well behind Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA in batting average among Pac-10 teams, they finished conference play with 72 walks, two behind the league-leading Sun Devils. Partly as a result of those extra runners, and despite middle-of-the-road totals, the Cardinal have been shut out just four times. Of course, with Neill in the lineup for a breakout sophomore season, the Cardinal also get their fair share of one-hit rallies. Keep an eye on: Alissa Haber. Neill is the slugging star and one of the best young hitters in the game, but her classmate ultimately may be the best bet to contend for the title of the Pac-10's best hitter once Katie Cochran graduates. A lefty leadoff hitter with speed, Haber is nevertheless anything but just a slapper. She was one of just 15 players to hit better than .300 in conference play, the second time in as many college seasons that she accomplished that feat.
No. 8 HoustonIn the circle: When your first name is Angel and you're leading a team that's favored to reach the World Series in just the program's eighth year of existence, get ready to hear the puns roll. But the guiding light of Houston's national ascent is more than just a good name. Shamblin nearly got Houston to a super regional a year ago, beating Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas A&M in the opening two games of the College Station Regional before the Aggies stormed back to win two on the final day of play to advance. Undaunted, she returned this season and actually improved on performances the past two seasons that had netted her two consecutive Conference USA Pitcher of the Year awards. No ace remaining in the field has a better walk rate than Shamblin, who has issued just 28 free passes in 255.2 innings (0.8 walks per seven innings), and she has a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the plate: There's no doubt Houston's offensive numbers must be placed in the context of the competition in which they were generated. Conference USA is not the Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC. The competition in those leagues is on a different level. But it's equally important to consider Houston's production wasn't just the best among Conference USA teams -- it was on a different level from those teams. One of six teams remaining in the field that are slugging at least .500 this season, Houston is averaging 5.8 runs per game. The Cougars may not continue producing at that level, but there's little reason to think a team that led Team USA 3-0 in a game earlier this spring will go completely silent at the plate. One concern is that with a 76 percent success rate on stolen bases, the Cougars are treading perilously close to the point at which many studies suggest teams begin to do more harm than good for their cause by running. Keep an eye on: Jessica Valis. The team's leading hitter returned to the lineup in regional play after missing seven games with an injury. She contributed three steals out of the leadoff spot.
Louisiana LafayetteIn the circle: Outside of perhaps Michigan, no team enters the super regionals with more of a pitching puzzle than Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin' Cajuns have two quality choices with exactly one week of NCAA tournament experience in freshmen Donna Bourgeois and Ashley Brignac. Bourgeois started two of the team's three wins in the Baton Rouge Regional, but Brignac finished out the clincher in relief and pitched seven innings of four-hit shutout softball in a win against Houston earlier this season. The more heralded of the two, Brignac, was the Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school and the ace of the national team that won the junior world championships last summer. In college ball, she hasn't disappointed. She's among national leaders in strikeouts per seven innings and has turned in quality performances against the likes of Houston and Texas A&M. But Bourgeois has been almost equally as impressive in her debut season. At the plate: Louisiana-Lafayette's lineup looks a little top-heavy at first glance, but as 15 runs in two wins against LSU last weekend suggests, the offense can be tough to shut down when things come together. Holly Tankersley is a known commodity as one of the most dangerous power hitters in the country -- hence the 12 intentional walks she's drawn -- but she's not alone in a lineup that also includes hitters like Vanessa Soto (.948 OPS, 62 RBIs), Karli Hubbard (.439 OBP, 15 SB) and Katie Smith (.455 OBP, 20 SB). One of the keys in Baton Rouge was how the rest of the lineup made LSU and East Carolina pay for pitching around the core. The trio of Lana Bowers, Brooke Brodhead and Gabrielle Bridges, hitting a combined .242 overall thus season, totaled nine hits and six RBIs. Keep an eye on: Melissa Verde. With a .998 OPS this season, it seems safe to suggest Verde is the most productive hitter with a torn ACL in the nation. The third baseman has been playing the past two months with a torn ACL in her left knee. (Having already used a redshirt season, Verde would have lost the year of eligibility had she shut down.) All she did during the Baton Rouge Regional was draw seven walks and hit a home run in three games.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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