Favorites, snubs and players to watch
Who will win the national championship? We'll find out the answer in Oklahoma City in a few weeks. Until then, here are five other questions worth pondering.
1. Can anyone stop defending national champion Washington?
The Huskies, while seeded third, enter the NCAA tournament after a wire-to-wire run at No. 1 in the polls. The offense survived the graduation of All-American second baseman Ashley Charters thanks to the continued development of sophomores Kimi Pohlman (.435 OBP) and Niki Williams (.591 SLG), a full season from junior Jenn Salling, who took some time to get going at the plate last season after joining the team late following a transfer from Oregon, and freshman catcher Shawna Wright.
Most importantly, of course, there is Danielle Lawrie, the dominant ace in a sport in which the scales seem to be tilting away from the familiar primacy of the pitcher. Lawrie was the nation's best player last season, but the perfect game she opened this season with was the first of many signs that she intended to be better this time. She's walking just 0.93 batters per seven innings, down from 1.51 last season, making it more difficult to capitalize on what few hits she allows. She's also far more dangerous at the plate, where her 1.048 OPS trails only Salling.
But it's not just the walk rate or the slugging that puts Lawrie among the game's all-time greats. Like so many great athletes, it's also the blend of outward unflappability masking a competitive fury bordering on contempt for anyone who stands in her way or in the batter's box.
"It's hard to say if it's beyond a shade of gray, but I think she's just that much more confident in herself," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "And she knows the route to the end. Knowing the route to the end, it's kind of like you have some sort of a better perspective on everything. Somebody hits a home run off you, it's not the end of the world, whereas maybe last year it was like, 'Oh, crap.' And her ability to recover and respond to things that don't go our way or her way, she's handling those so much more maturely and confidently than she ever has and than she did last year."
No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Michigan are worthy top seeds. But Washington is the team to beat until someone does just that.
2. Will home runs rule the NCAA tournament?
Lawrie, who as a freshman lost a super regional against Cat Osterman and Texas, is also a link to what's fast becoming another era.
It was just four years ago when Alicia Hollowell led Arizona to a title with a pair of shutouts in the championship series against Northwestern. But for the sport of college softball, 2006 is starting to look a lot like 1968 did for Major League Baseball, when Bob Gibson led the National League with a 1.12 ERA and Denny McClain won 31 games for the Tigers.
Consider the lineup of pitchers that arrived in Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series four years ago: Monica Abbott, Katie Burkhart, Eileen Canney, Alicia Hollowell, Brianne McGowan, Cat Osterman, Anjelica Selden and Stephanie VanBrakle.
Seven of those de facto aces in 2006 struck out more than 10 batters per seven innings. Only 13 pitchers in this season's NCAA tournament match that mark. Only eight play in BCS conferences. And only four pitch for seeded teams: Washington's Lawrie, Alabama's Kelsi Dunne, Michigan's Jordan Taylor and Texas' Blaire Luna.
Most teams would happily trade a slugger for an ace, but this is no longer a pitcher's tournament.
Prior to the 2006 season, nine teams in NCAA history had averaged at least 1.4 home runs per game. As of last week, 11 teams were averaging that many this season alone. Arizona broke its own NCAA single-season home run record last season, a mark that had stood for most of a decade. Hawaii didn't let the new record stand even a single full season.
If you want to win this year, you better be able to put the ball over the fence.
3. Which teams have the biggest bracket gripes?
Tulsa and Nebraska played three times this season. Tulsa won all three games. Guess which one is in the field of 64 and which one isn't.
The selection committee clearly downgraded No. 10 Arizona's seeding over concerns about the availability of its pitchers. It apparently didn't do the same for Nebraska, which, quite unfortunately for all involved, lost the services of Robin Mackin recently after she was forced to give up the sport because of injuries.
Nebraska went 14-23 against teams ranked in the top 100 of last week's RPI, the last version publicly released, and 5-16 against teams ranked in the top 50. Tulsa went 17-11 against teams in the top 100 and 9-7 against teams ranked in the top 50 -- including, of course, those three wins against Nebraska.
Tulsa beat Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Nebraska was outscored 25-0 by those two.
You do the math.
As for the field itself, nothing is more puzzling than the seeding of Big 12 teams. Oklahoma and Texas didn't play in the regular season, when the Longhorns finished one game ahead of the Sooners in the Big 12 standings. Texas lost badly at home last week against Georgia, then bowed out of the Big 12 tournament in the semifinals. Oklahoma won the conference tournament, beating Missouri in the final to give the Sooners two wins and one loss against the Tigers this season.
In the last RPI release, Texas was No. 7, Missouri No. 10 and Oklahoma No. 11.
So the team that went on to win the conference tournament, Oklahoma, drops to No. 14 in the final bracket, while Texas earns the No. 7 seed and a potential chance to host a super regional, and Missouri slides in at No. 9.
4. Who are four players who could shape the tournament?
Kenzie Fowler, P, Arizona
The freshman lived up to the hype and gives the Wildcats the ace they lacked when last year's record-setting lineup looked worn down in Oklahoma City. But Fowler is battling an arm injury, and as Patrick Finley reported in the Arizona Daily Star, is a question mark going forward. But even healthy, can she beat history? Only once in the last 10 years has a team won the national title with a pitcher who entered the postseason with 100 or more walks. Fowler has 106. That's a title fans in Tucson remember, thanks to Taryne Mowatt, but Fowler would need to do it without the benefit of experience.
Megan Langenfeld, 1B/DP/P, UCLA
The Bruins have a lot of talent, as is the norm in Westwood, but they aren't going anywhere -- and that includes Oklahoma City -- without Langenfeld leading the way. If she hadn't missed 20 percent of the regular season with an elbow injury, she would presumably be in the discussion with Lawrie and Georgia Tech's Jen Yee for player-of-the-year honors. With a .510 batting average, 1.678 OPS and 1.29 ERA in the circle, she might be anyway.
Charlotte Morgan, 1B/DP/P, Alabama
The unquestioned leader of the No. 1 overall seed, Morgan was not one of the finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year because of a flaw in the selection process that locks in the candidate pool in early April. Yet she led the SEC in OPS in league play (finishing first in slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage). She also went 5-1 with a 3.31 ERA in the circle in SEC games. Coach Pat Murphy has routinely given her the ball in past postseasons, but no matter how much she pitches this time around, she's already added value by keeping Kelsi Dunne's arm fresh.
Kirsten Shortridge, OF, LSU
In an ocean of home runs, LSU is an island of pitching and defense. But on the offensive side, Shortridge isn't so much the variable in the equation as the constant. In the team's four most significant wins against conference foes -- two against Georgia and one each against Tennessee and Florida -- she went 7-for-16 with four stolen bases and a home run. And in the team's eight losses against those three teams and Alabama, she still went 11-for-27 with four stolen bases. She's Ichiro with creative eyeblack.
5. Which teams could emerge as sleepers?To stir up the World Series: California
There's no shame in being the best non-Canadian softball player in the college game this season, and Cal junior Valerie Arioto deserves a place at that table. The junior not only ranks second in the Pac-10 in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage at the plate but fourth in ERA and third in strikeouts in the circle. The Bears also have one of the season's many freshman pitching gems in Jolene Henderson, who struggled with walks in conference play but has all the tools to succeed.
Cal doesn't have excess power and isn't as patient as the overall numbers suggest (the team's .384 OBP is skewed by the 114 walks Arioto and Jace Williams drew between them), but it's still a plus offensive team -- assuming sophomore Jamia Reid is ready to go after battling a shoulder injury. Hitting the road for the Columbus regional and a potential super regional at Georgia won't be easy, but excluding a moderately successful 5-7 road mark in conference, Cal was 25-6 in other road/neutral games.
To stir up the first two weekends: Massachusetts
The Amherst Regional is fast becoming as much a spring tradition in Massachusetts as Patriots Day and David Ortiz's abysmal starts. Four years ago, it sent the home team to a super regional. A year ago, Lawrie and UMass' Brandice Balschmiter dueled deep into the night in an elimination game. And with sophomore Sara Plourde taking over for Balschmiter, and leading the nation in strikeouts, perhaps drama is again in order.
Arizona State was surprisingly good on the road in the Pac-10, but the Sun Devils played just 14 games away from home all season. Sun Devils shortstop Katelyn Boyd will be the best player in Amherst, but Massachusetts senior Sarah Reeves has been hitting as well as anyone in the country over the last few weeks. Win at home, and a likely trip to Florida offers another daunting challenge. But at the very least, the Gators have looked at least more mortal down the stretch than they ever did last season.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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