- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The NCAA softball tournament's super regional round begins Thursday. Here's a breakdown of all eight matchups.
Gainesville Super Regional
No. 1 FLORIDA
In the Circle: As plentiful as Stacey Nelson's numbers are, they aren't even necessary in making her case. Just consider that through Stephanie Brombacher's first two seasons in Gainesville, she is 41-0, yet the sophomore is anything but a lock to see the light of day in this super regional. That's because Nelson has given up two home runs in her last 335 2/3 innings -- one to Holly Tankersley and one to Charlotte Morgan. So if you've got one of the game's best sluggers and don't mind waiting around for about 25 games, you might take her yard.
At the Plate: Settle in; they're going to be here for a bit. Tiffany DeFelice's memorable marathon at-bat in the 2008 Women's College World Series was an extreme example, but the Gators get the most out of their time at the plate. They wait for the pitch they want, seem collectively adept at fouling off anything close, and take walks if you give them. They can run (led by Aja Paculba's 27 thefts), but with power from top to bottom, their idea of playing for one run is more along the lines of a one-run double off the wall.
X factor: Kelsey Bruder
The SEC leader in home runs during conference play wasn't Morgan, Francesca Enea or Alisa Goler. It was Bruder, with nine in 81 at-bats. After biding her time in part-time duty as a freshman, Bruder isn't likely to surrender her lineup spot until early summer, in 2011. Next year she'll be a candidate for player of the year; this year, she's just playing like one.
In the Circle: At 6-foot-3, Marissa Drewrey gets the ball to the circle in a hurry. More and more over the last two seasons, getting it headed the other direction has been a tougher task for hitters. Despite pitching through some physical ailments that limited her innings, Drewrey held her own in a Pac-10 conference loaded with offense. A propensity for walks remains a bugaboo -- she's not enough of a strikeout pitcher to get herself out of every jam, and the defense behind her creates some jams of its own -- but she remains a pitcher whose good days are good enough to get a team to Oklahoma City.
At the Plate: Speed is one big difference between the Cal team that lost to Florida in last season's super regional and this year's team. Freshmen twin sisters Jamia and Elia Reid and Texas transfer Shannon Thomas have combined to steal 105 bases. That alone represents a net gain of 32 steals over last season, and those three aren't the only ones running. At the same time, Cal's power also has jumped by more than 20 home runs this season.
X factor: Valerie Arioto
If there's something Valerie Arioto can't do on the softball field, those wicked-smart Berkeley kids will figure it out. But for now, she's on the short list of the sport's most versatile players. She's second on the team with 10 home runs, fourth with 15 steals, first with 40 walks and a .466 on-base percentage, owns a 2.45 ERA in the circle and hasn't committed an error against 64 assists in the field. Other than that
Los Angeles Super Regional
No. 2 UCLA
In the Circle: Megan Langenfeld remains the pitcher of choice when the game is on the line in late innings. Unlike much of last season, she's also the choice when the game begins. Shifting from relieving to starting around midseason, Langenfeld helped fuel the team's 18-1 streak entering the super regional against Missouri. She's not a strikeout threat -- that's more No. 2 Donna Kerr's territory -- but she'll pick the inches of the plate she wants and work them like Sugar Ray Leonard working the body.
At the Plate: There are 29 players in the Pac-10 slugging at least .500 this season. Eight of them play for UCLA (as mentioned entering regionals, for all its success, no UCLA team ever has finished a season with more than five regulars slugging .500 or better). There are no chances to take a breath with this lineup, especially when it gets going with a leadoff hitter in Katie Schroeder, who has a .525 on-base percentage and 14 home runs.
X factor: Kaila Shull
One of the remarkable things about the power spread throughout UCLA's lineup is that it lost one of its most promising sluggers, Samantha Camuso, to a season-ending injury before it played a game. Shull's resurgence as a junior (.679 slugging percentage, team-leading 57 RBIs) is one reason the Bruins just kept on knocking the ball all over the yard.
In the circle: Stacey Delaney has started one more game than Chelsea Thomas in the closest thing top-tier softball has to a four-pitcher starting rotation (Delaney leads Thomas 21-20, while Jana Hainey and Kristin Nottelmann each have eight starts). But in a more conventional postseason style, the Tigers have leaned more heavily on one pitcher of late. Since she ended the team's late four-game losing streak with a three-hit shutout against Nebraska, Thomas has started five of seven games. And it's no wonder, considering she has allowed just 19 hits and one earned run in 32 innings during that span.
At the Plate: The Tigers' multidimensional offense suffered a substantial drop in productivity during Big 12 play. And even with a 10-run outburst against Oklahoma State in the conference tournament and a seven-game winning streak overall, that hasn't necessarily abated. The Tigers have scored 29 runs during the winning streak, still more than two runs per game less than they're averaging over the span of the whole season. That's not impossible to explain, given the quality of pitching in the postseason.
X factor: Andee Allen
Andee Allen's batting average slipped nearly 100 points in conference play, but she remained an offensive asset. One of the team's four seniors, she was second on the team in walks and third in runs scored during Big 12 play. And when the team needed a big hit late in a scoreless game against Baylor in the conference tourney, she came up with a triple and eventually scored the game's only run. The Columbia Regional wasn't quite as kind, but she has the skills to be a difference-maker.
Atlanta Super Regional
No. 3 Washington
In the Circle: The math is simple, and if you're about to step into the box against Danielle Lawrie, it's disconcerting. Washington's ace gives up 4.9 runners per seven innings by way of hit, walk or hit by pitch, including 0.78 extra-base hits per seven innings (despite three balls leaving the park against her in the Amherst Regional). She also strikes out 10.8 batters per seven innings. So if you try to play small ball against her, you're running an extremely high risk of giving up an out only to see the next hitter go down without making contact. But if you don't try to scratch together a run or two, you're gambling on the equally long odds of being able to bunch up that handful of hits into one burst.
At the Plate: In terms of winning a national championship, Washington still has something to prove in relation to teams such as Florida, UCLA and Alabama. Judging by elite standards, the Huskies don't hit for a lot of power, aren't especially patient and strike out a lot. What they have are individual offensive talents, particularly Ashley Charters (1.164 OPS, 35 steals), who can create runs almost exclusively on their own.
X factor: Ashlyn Watson
It's no coincidence that Washington's offense bogged down against Brandice Balschmiter when Watson lost her power and her plate coverage. Before extra innings in the regional finale against Massachusetts, Watson was 0-for-8 with three strikeouts against Balschmiter, after striking out just seven times in her first 49 games. It's also no coincidence that her single was the opening salvo in the eventual winning rally.
No. 14 GEORGIA TECH
In the Circle: It's not nearly the one-woman show that Washington offers at this point, but even after throwing fewer than half of her team's innings (46 percent), Kristen Adkins is certainly front and center for Georgia Tech. She shut down Auburn with a four-hitter in regional play and didn't allow an earned run or a walk in 3 2/3 innings in the finale against Boston University. She's not a strikeout pitcher, but she doesn't give up a lot of extra-base hits and lets a good defense behind her do its thing.
At the Plate: You don't lose a .406 hitter and not feel it, especially when that hitter is also a defensive stalwart tough enough to play through a broken arm. But even without freshman Kelsi Weseman, who suffered her injury in the ACC final, the Yellow Jackets have a good core of patient hitters with the power to exploit mistakes. And while it's not necessarily easy to hit even if you know what's coming, it can't be discounted that Jen Yee (1.352 OPS, 15 HR) can offer up a pretty good scouting report on former Canadian Olympic teammate Danielle Lawrie (and Jenn Salling, for that matter).
X factor: Jessica Coan
The highly-touted freshman wasn't rushed into heavy duty, pitching primarily in relief during the regular season (17 relief appearances). But with Weseman's injury putting further stress on a lineup that includes Adkins and Johnson when they aren't pitching, Coan picked up two wins and struck out 17 batters in 10 1/3 innings in regional play.
Tuscaloosa Super Regional
No. 4 ALABAMA
In the Circle: In addition to her exploits as one of the most feared hitters in the game, Charlotte Morgan is a reliable presence in the circle. She doesn't walk batters and doesn't give in. If her breaking balls are moving and the strike zone is favorable, she's tough to beat. But for Alabama to be its best, it probably needs Kelsi Dunne to have the ball in her hand. The sophomore ranks in the top 30 nationally in strikeouts per seven innings and can dominate even the best offenses when she's on. When her control falters, things slip.
At the Plate: For most programs, a .498 slugging percentage would be cause to update the media guide. For Alabama, it represents a bit of a power drain. But over the last quarter of the season, continuing through a regional in which they scored 29 runs and collected 10 extra-base hits in three games, the run production has re-emerged with a vengeance. Morgan (1.184 OPS) and Rogers (.453 on-base percentage, 46 steals) are cornerstones, but the whole lineup can hit.
X factor: Defense
Alabama set an NCAA record by turning five double plays in the final game of the Tuscaloosa Regional, including four 5-4-3 plays. The Tide ranked fifth in the SEC in fielding percentage (fourth in the slightly more useful defensive efficiency), but they have an array of defensive playmakers -- Montalvo, shortstop Kellie Eubanks, catcher Ashley Holcombe and centerfielder Brittany Rogers -- who can lift the defense to heights few teams can match.
In the Circle: It's nice to have an ace, but sometimes splitting the label works just as well. Jacksonville State needed to beat Tennessee twice in Knoxville to advance, and it did just that because of both Karla Pittman and Ashley Eliasson. Pittman keeps the ball on the ground more (15 extra-base hits in 1481 1/3 innings), while Eliasson has a higher risk-reward factor (134 strikeouts and 16 home runs in 147 2/3 innings). The similarity is that no matter how they get there, both have been effective throughout the season.
At the Plate: It's not a complicated formula, even if the scarcity of teams able to stick to it makes it seem that way. The Gamecocks are patient at the plate, hit for power and run without giving away outs on the bases. Nikki Prier, Allie Barker and Chrissy O'Neal all have double-digit home runs, on-base percentages of .450 or better and slugging percentages of .640 or better.
X factor: Jackie Jarman
Prier, Barker and O'Neal get things started. Courtney Underwood and Meredith Sellers follow with the gap power to drive them in, but also the patience to take a walk and avoid scuttling a potential big inning. That means plentiful RBI opportunities for hitters like Jarman in the bottom half of the order. Opportunities like the one she cashed in late in the final game in Knoxville for what turned out to be the regional-winning RBI.
Ann Arbor Super Regional
No. 5 MICHIGAN
In the Circle: Jordan Taylor is an impressive pitcher. Give just about any program in the country a pitcher with a 1.40 ERA, 262 strikeouts and a nearly 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 175 innings, and they'd dance a jig. Give her to Michigan, and she's looking up at 5-foot-7 Nikki Nemitz. With a 0.89 ERA, 287 strikeouts and a nearly 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Nemitz earns a mention alongside Danielle Lawrie, Stacey Nelson and Missy Penna as the most impressive performers of the season in the circle.
At the Plate: Replacing Samantha Findlay and Alessandra Giampaolo was going to take a collective effort, and that's what the Wolverines have done. Newcomers Amanda Chidester (.977 OPS) and Bree Evans have been key, but so have evolving veterans such as Roya St. Clair (.820 OPS this season, .575 OPS last season). And it doesn't hurt to have a few holdovers such as Maggie Viefhaus, whose next stop may be All-American status.
X factor: Dorian Shaw
Other than Arizona's Stacie Chambers, good luck finding anyone who hits the ball harder or longer than Dorian Shaw. Shaw also has a .404 on-base percentage, so a .241 average isn't the downer it might otherwise seem. But for a team with modest power by elite standards, if there was a way to find some middle ground that landed a few more balls in the gap, it could mean not only a win in Ann Arbor but a long stay in Oklahoma City.
In the Circle: Without a clear successor to Lisa Ferguson, who led the program to the World Series in 2007, Baylor struggled last season. They don't need to worry about repeating the search for a new ace for a few years. Freshman Whitney Canion came with big expectations and exceeded them. She's handled 73 percent of the team's innings with a 1.78 ERA and is sixth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings (sandwiched, coincidentally, between Michigan's Nemitz and Taylor).
At the Plate: Baylor lost a big weapon when leadoff hitter Kayce Walker went down with a season-ending injury late, but it still scored 15 runs in three games against very good pitching in the Waco Regional. It helped having Brette Reagan, who missed a chunk of the season after tearing an ACL that has yet to be repaired. And a team that wasn't especially patient during the regular season walked 10 times in its regional, maximizing the RBI chances for run produces such as Reagan, Alex Colyer and Courtney Oberg.
X factor: Tiffany Wesley and Bree Hanafin
Walker had a .457 on-base percentage at the top of the order. The Bears got through the first weekend despite Wesley and Hanafin going a combined 5-for-20 with one walk in the top two spots, but more production there will be key against the Wolverines.
Athens Super Regional
No. 6 GEORGIA
In the Circle: A workhorse her first two seasons at Georgia (and her freshman season at South Carolina, for that matter), Christie Hamilton still saved her best for last. She has nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks this season, a distinct improvement over 2008. Not a dominant strikeout pitcher to begin with, that's no small matter. Sophomore Sarah McCloud is a proven second option, having posted a 2.39 ERA in 23 starts.
At the Plate: The Bulldogs weren't quite the offensive juggernaut in conference play that they were out of conference, but they still outslugged almost all comers. Whoever the competition, Taylor Schlopy (.420 average, .567 on-base percentage) and Alisa Goler (.459 average, 1.000 slugging) thrived, and the lineup got a boost with the return of Megan Wiggins in regionals after she missed six weeks with a broken hand. More than almost any other team, the Bulldogs collectively put the ball in play. They're averaging just seven walks and strikeouts per game, the lowest number of any team in the SEC.
X factor: Kristin Schnake
The senior shortstop is another offensive asset, combining plate discipline (19 walks, 15 strikeouts and a .438 OBP) with judicious skills on the bases (15 steals in as many attempts). But she's also the embodiment of what might be the nation's best defensive team. Georgia fielders faced more balls in play than almost any other super regional team, and handled them with a .979 fielding percentage.
No. 11 OHIO STATE
In the Circle: Senior Kim Reeder further staked her claim to the role of postseason ace by not allowing an earned run in 17 regional innings. Not necessarily a strikeout pitcher, she nevertheless averages better than one per inning, and does it with a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Junior Lindsay Bodeker actually has a slightly better strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio and isn't likely to be invisible in the super regional.
At the Plate: Junior catcher Sam Marder (1.398 OPS) will always be the headliner, but Ohio State's climb has coincided with the rest of the lineup finding its own identity. Marder made her only hit in regionals count, hitting a two-run home run in the clincher against Kentucky, but the five walks she drew in the first two games better represent the treatment she usually gets from opponents. Last season, Marder slugged .842 and the team as a whole slugged .340. This season, Marder slugged .835 but the team as a whole slugged .475.
X factor: Alicia Herron
Marder's eventual exit after next season may not spell the end of Ohio State's run as a factor in the race for Big Ten Player of the Year. Herron took off in the second half of her freshman season, hitting seven of her 12 home runs and five of her six doubles in Big Ten play, and then adding on five more hits and three more RBIs in regional play.
Tempe Super Regional
No. 10 ARIZONA STATE
In the circle: There aren't many pitchers who can throw a softball like Katie Burkhart, but the Sun Devils appear to have landed someone who at least tosses it with the same competitive fire. Freshman Hillary Bach throws hard, even if she isn't going to strike out 400 batters a season (she has 151 in 232 2/3 innings this season). But first against a Pac-10 loaded with knee-buckling offenses and now into the postseason, she keeps taking the ball almost every game (21 starts in the team's last 28 games) and winning far more than she loses.
At the plate: The Sun Devils hit 10 home runs in one game earlier this season, and the opponent, UNLV, made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. That tells you something about the havoc this lineup can wreak. Several teams caught flak for intentionally walking Kaitlin Cochran in last year's World Series, but what's the difference if you pitch to her? She's averaging 0.92 bases per official at-bat this season.
X factor: Kaylyn Castillo
A transfer from Louisville, Castillo basically forced her way onto the field, making it tough for even Clint Myers, the master of lineup machinations, to leave her name off the card. Far from fading in the Pac-10 after a hot start against the softer part of the schedule, she hit .333 with five doubles, three home runs and 19 RBIs in conference play.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE
In the circle: Effectively the No. 3 pitcher for most of her first three seasons, Andi Padilla is making up for lost time this season. She's not about overpowering hitters, instead working the corners and making the most of her changeup, according to coach Darren Mueller. But she limited Oklahoma and Tulsa to three runs in 25 innings in regional play.
At the plate: Remember the name Melissa Chmielewski, even if your spell-check won't. Last season's Summit League Player of the Year, Chmielewski led the Bison in batting average, slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs this season and came up with the pivotal double in the regional-clinching win against Tulsa. What she didn't do was repeat as the league's top player, thanks to teammate Kelly Cantrell. Cantrell showed off superior plate discipline in drawing 41 walks and posting a .453 on-base percentage.
X factor: Breanna Konz
If there's a noticeable flaw in Bach's game as a freshman, it's her propensity for giving up home runs. Trouble is, Chmielewski and Cantrell are about the only home run threats for the Bison, who have just 26 long balls all season. The one exception might be Konz, who hit four home runs and was the rare Bison with more flyouts than groundouts.
Palo Alto Super Regional
No. 8 STANFORD
In the Circle: A success from the beginning at Stanford, Missy Penna would like to finish what she started by leading the Cardinal back to the World Series for the first time during her stint at the school. And with 37 complete games in 41 starts this season, she knows how to follow through on that sort of thing. If you're flailing at her rise, it's probably all over for you, but Penna has matured into a complete pitcher during her four seasons and works every part of the zone with precision.
At the Plate: Stanford's 1-2 combination at the top of the order might be the best in the nation. Leadoff hitter Alissa Haber is a third baseman's worst fears come to life, with the speed to beat out anything that lingers in the infield and the line-drive power that has produced 24 doubles and eight home runs. Freshman Ashley Hansen is right on her heels, figuratively and in the batting order, and is more than living up to the hype this season with a 1.065 OPS and 53 RBIs.
X factor: Freshmen
There's a lot of experience in the first six spots in the order -- even Hansen, with her junior national team stint and senior national team tryout has as much experience as a freshman can. But production from at least one or two of the other freshmen regulars would go a long way in this super regional. Maya Burns, Jenna Becerra and Sarah Hassman have had their moments, but like normal, non-Hansen freshmen, it comes and goes.
No. 9 ARIZONA
In the Circle: Yes, this has been a different kind of season for a program familiar with the likes of Nancy Evans, Jennie Finch, Alicia Hollowell and Taryne Mowatt in the circle. But the facts sometimes get in the way of some good hyperbole. Sarah Akamine may not be rewriting the sport's history, but she was one of four Pac-10 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 in conference play. And nobody is listing the other three -- Danielle Lawrie, Missy Penna and Megan Langenfeld -- as potential postseason liabilities. Akamine competes, throws strikes and keeps getting more and more productive.
At the Plate: Any way you format it, Arizona is playing a different game than everyone else in the power department. The Wildcats enter their super regional with 131 home runs. Stanford, Washington and Cal -- three Pac-10 teams also in the super regional round -- combined to hit 134. And while the Wildcats do occasionally take some swings that would make Rob Deer blush, most of their sluggers are disciplined about their mashing. Only Arizona State had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio on offense among Pac-10 teams.
X factor: Jennifer Martinez
The only surprise in this series may be if it goes the minimum two games. And if we're talking about going the distance, would the Wildcats need to turn to their de facto No. 2 pitcher to handle some innings with Games 2 and 3 on the same day? Like Akamine, Martinez's numbers are quietly quite good, but it's a big stage for an unproven pitcher.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
From the advantages in the circle to the plate to the X factors in each matchup, we've got the breakdown of this week's eight NCAA softball super regionals.