Super regionals feature super storylines
Nearly 300 teams began the season hoping for one of 64 spots in the NCAA tournament. After 96 losses in the span of four days in double-elimination regional play, 48 of those supposedly fortunate few are wondering what hit them. For the 16 who remain, survival truly is "super." So how did we get to these super regionals?
Biggest regional statement: Arizona StateThe top seed tried to get in on the action by the end of the weekend, but Arizona State's heart wasn't really in it. It's too early for drama for the favorite.
In an opening weekend otherwise marked by twists and turns -- with No. 3 Texas, No. 10 Michigan and No. 14 Tennessee crashing out of the tournament, and others, like No. 5 Missouri and No. 9 Oklahoma, escaping similar fates only after some frantic days -- the Sun Devils tried to play along. After cruising to a pair of run-rule wins in the minimum five innings against North Dakota State and Long Beach State to open the Tempe regional, Arizona State went the distance against San Diego State in Sunday's finale, even allowing the Aztecs to close to within a run in the sixth (they needed to beat the Sun Devils twice to advance). But fun is fun, and with four runs in the top of the seventh to extend the lead to 6-1, the Sun Devils extinguished any thought of an upset and breezed into the super regionals.
It was a weekend of survival for many. For Arizona State, Sunday's dalliance aside, it was a statement of intent.
Freshman ace Dallas Escobedo looked unbothered by the postseason setting, allowing just nine hits in 17 innings while improving to 29-3. All-American shortstop Katelyn Boyd continued to look like one of the toughest outs in the sport, going 6-for-9 with two home runs, two stolen bases, six RBIs and six runs scored. And cleanup hitter Annie Lockwood pleaded for attention of her own with three home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs on the weekend.
True, Arizona State wasn't the only contender to quietly take care of business amidst all the craziness. Among the top eight seeds, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and California also advanced in the minimum three games, and with relatively few scares in those games. But only one team started at the top, and the Pac-10 champion did little during regionals to suggest anything but that it's growing increasingly comfortable with the role of favorite in a crowded race.
Biggest regional surprise: Stillwater super regionalIt isn't stunning that Oklahoma State made it to a super regional, even against a stacked field in Knoxville that included SEC tournament champion and host Tennessee and ACC regular-season champion Georgia Tech. The Cowgirls beat Georgia on a neutral field early in the season and hung around the Big 12 race all season with a veteran lineup and a big-game pitcher in Kat Espinosa. It isn't a complete surprise to see Houston, co-champion in the regular season in a five-bid Conference USA, escape a regional in Austin hosted by Texas after getting dominant pitching and timely hitting. But something about the sum total of a super regional between unseeded teams in Stillwater, with the only orange remaining being that of the Cowgirls, is shocking.
Best individual performances
Whitney Canion, P, Baylor
Who is the best pitcher remaining in the tournament? There is no answer irrefutable enough to avoid an argument, but you can say unequivocally that the debate can't take place without Whitney Canion. Baylor's ace allowed five hits all weekend in the College Park regional, following up a pair of two-hitters against Lehigh and East Carolina with a one-hitter in a rematch against the latter in Sunday's finale. She struck out 30 and walked just six in 21 innings, and best of all for a pitcher who has a checkered health history, she didn't need more than 109 pitches in any of her three outings.
Amber Garza 3B, Texas A&M
How good was the Big 12 this season? It kept Amber Garza in check, something pitchers the likes of Jenna Caira and Brittany Mack couldn't do over the weekend. After hitting just .214 in conference play, Garza took out any frustrations on the College Station regional. She was prolific in the first two games, hitting a pair of home runs and driving in nine runs against Syracuse and Sacred Heart, but she saved the best for last. Her lone hit in the finale against LSU drove in the eventual winning run in the top of the ninth inning. She hit .455 with 10 RBIs for the weekend.
Jolene Henderson, P, California
Oklahoma State and Kentucky earned the headlines for doing it, and deservedly so as unseeded underdogs, but there were other teams to beat a host twice on its own field in regionals. In fact, California ace Jolene Henderson was one of only two pitchers, along with East Carolina's Toni Paisley, to go the distance in two wins against a home team. Henderson beat Louisville twice and Jacksonville State once, striking out 26, walking just one and allowing two earned runs in 21 innings.
Kaitlin Inglesby, P, Washington
Washington freshman Kaitlin Inglesby is going to hear four years' worth of comparisons to Danielle Lawrie, the two-time USA Softball Player of the Year she essentially replaced on the roster, but she might hear less of that talk if her performances weren't so, well, Lawrie-like. Inglesby was a one-woman wrecking crew in the Seattle regional, pitching three complete games for the Huskies and driving in five runs with a nearly perfect .857 batting average (6-of-7).
Whitney Larsen, SS, Alabama
With her regional performance, Larsen looked a lot like Jessica Merchant, Kristie Fox, Ashley Charters (all right, not technically a shortstop). Alabama's senior slugger of a shortstop made a mockery of opposing pitching in the Tuscaloosa regional. Larsen hit .700 (7-of-10) with nine RBIs in wins against Jackson State, Memphis and Chattanooga, while playing error-free ball in the field. Some say the Crimson Tide need a little swagger, and Larsen may be their best bet to provide it.
Michelle Moultrie, OF, Florida
On the eve of the SEC tournament, Gators coach Tim Walton talked about how nice it was to be able to put a diversified offense on the field after playing a lot of Earl Weaver ball (waiting for the three-run home run) early in the season. Well, in eliminating defending national champion UCLA in the Gainesville regional, Florida got a .417 batting average, five stolen bases, four RBIs and four runs from its leadoff hitter.
Best super regional: Oklahoma at ArizonaPick a theme and you have a made-to-order super regional waiting to suit your whim. Enjoy the endless fights over conference supremacy? Get ready for a trio of Pac-10 versus SEC showdowns, as Alabama hosts Stanford, Florida hosts Oregon and unseeded Kentucky hosts No. 7 California (and even though the Bears didn't bid for a super regional, expect plenty of grumbling from the left side of the map about all three series taking place in SEC country).
Prefer some Cinderella softball? Houston travels to Oklahoma State in a battle of unseeded teams and an opportunity for the Cowgirls to get to the Women's College World Series a short drive down the road in Oklahoma City.
If a showdown of contrasting styles is more your cup of tea than soap-opera plots, nothing sets up quite as nicely as Baylor visiting Georgia. One of the nation's best pitchers, and someone used to pitching in uncomfortably warm weather, Canion gets a shot at one of the sport's most fearsome lineups on the home turf the Bulldogs have made a fortress.
Even Missouri and Washington has its plot, with Chelsea Thomas, arguably the nation's best pitcher, trying to lift the Tigers to a third consecutive World Series against the team many thought wasn't capable of competing at this level after losing Danielle Lawrie, the pitcher who previously occupied the unofficial title Thomas now seeks.
But with that as lengthy prelude, nothing on tap this weekend is quite as compelling as Oklahoma and Arizona dueling in the desert. For the Sooners, it's one more chance to get back to the World Series, so close to their home turf in Norman, Okla., for the first time since 2004. That quest is all the more compelling with Bedlam rival Oklahoma State on the verge of making its own trip to the World Series. And for the Wildcats, it's the annual opportunity to prove that no matter how much parity may creep across the landscape, any program with Mike Candrea remains near the front of the line for as long as he chooses to remain in the dugout.
It is Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts against Arizona's Kenzie Fowler in a battle of sophomore pitching aces set to fight over the championship each seems destined to win. And at times, it will literally be Ricketts against Fowler, with the Sooners star doubling as a power source at the plate. It's Arizona senior catcher Stacie Chambers chasing Stacey Nuveman's all-time NCAA home run record as her career closes, and dynamic Oklahoma freshmen Destinee Martinez and Brittany Williams getting their first taste of a super regional.
Best sleeper: KentuckyGranted, only very sound sleepers are still dozing on the Wildcats after they made use of a nationally televised spotlight to twice beat No. 10 Michigan in Ann Arbor and advance to the program's first super regional in dramatic fashion. But the Wildcats are unseeded as they prepare to host No. 7 California, and they may still reside a little closer to "nice story" than "championship contender" in the minds of a lot of outside observers. But take away the unfamiliarity of Kentucky colors playing over Memorial Day weekend, and this looks more like a team with the potential to still be playing a week after Memorial Day than a team lucky to be playing instead of barbecuing over the holiday.
Annie Rowlands' game-winning single in the clincher against Michigan might be an extreme example, given that the senior and newfound folkloric figure around Kentucky softball was hitting under .200 at the time, but there aren't many holes in the lineup. That's bad for opponents because there are definitely people worth pitching around. One of the best hitters remaining in the field, junior third baseman Brittany Cervantes, didn't see a lot of pitches to hit in Ann Arbor, walking six times in three games. But California may be more reluctant to pitch around her after seeing the rest of Kentucky's order make opponents pay over the weekend. In Cervantes, Meagan Aull, Megan Yocke, Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley, the Wildcats have way too many lead actors to be a one-weekend wonder. It's a tough draw against a Cal team with all the pieces in place to make its own run at a championship, including an ace every bit as good as Jordan Taylor in Henderson, but it's also a fair fight.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.