Commentary

Breaking down the softball regionals

Originally Published: May 13, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Gainesville Regional

Florida Seed: No. 1 Florida
Florida has played a total of 347 innings this season; it has trailed after just 17 of those innings. The Gators have two quality pitchers (sophomore Stephanie Brombacher has yet to lose in two college seasons), but while the Gators have many different branches of success, they all share a common source in Stacey Nelson. The senior cut her walk rate from 2.3 per seven innings last season to 1.3 this season. Considering she gives up an extra-base hit about every other game (13.5 innings per extra-base hit this season), that's how someone ends up with a 0.43 ERA.

Dangerous: The other three teams are all long shots opposite the No. 1 seed.

Long shots: Lehigh, Florida A&M, Texas A&M
A potential rematch of last year's World Series between Florida and Texas A&M will get all the attention, but Lehigh wouldn't mind reprising its memorable wins against Texas A&M in the 2006 Amherst regional. In Lisa Sweeney, the Patriot League champs have the best pitcher among the three would-be challengers in Gainesville. Sweeney is 22-8 with 230 strikeouts, including a three-hit, eight-strikeout shutout against South Florida this season.

When it comes to Texas A&M, you know what you're going to get with a Jo Evans team. The Aggies are good in the field, manufacture runs and wait for their pitches. If an opponent with more talent doesn't play well, Texas A&M will win. But unlike last season, the Aggies don't appear to have quite enough firepower to take games on their own against top teams.

Florida A&M played six games against NCAA tournament teams in the regular season and a host of other games against bubble teams, so this stage shouldn't awe them. Pitcher Amanda Reyes led the MEAC in wins (21) and strikeouts (192).

Tallahassee Regional

Florida State Seed: No. 16 Florida State
The Seminoles are one of three teams with two pitchers ranked in the top 20 nationally in ERA (Florida and North Carolina are the others). Both Sarah Hamilton and Terese Gober have terrific control, particularly Hamilton, who had 105 strikeouts against 12 walks in conference play. That's meaningful considering the other three teams here all ranked near the bottom of their respective conference's NCAA tournament representatives in on-base percentage.

Dangerous: California, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State
The last weekend of the regular season offered a condensed version of California's season. At their best, the Bears got a seven-inning shutout from Marissa Drewrey and errorless defense behind her to beat Washington 1-0. A day later against the Huskies, the offense managed just two hits, the defense committed two errors and Drewrey and the pitching staff gave up 11 hits and three walks in four innings. If Drewrey and/or Valerie Arioto keep runners off base and get some help from the defense, Cal remains a team with super regional talent.

Mississippi State's Chelsea Bramlett enters the regional hitting .486 with 53 steals; the rest of her team enters hitting .253 with 44 steals. Talk about a key out. On the pitching side, no SEC staff gave up more home runs than the Bulldogs. Fortunately for them, among its three potential regional opponents, only California counts the long ball as a significant asset.

Oklahoma State struggled against teams ranked in the RPI top 50 and excelled against teams ranked between 51 and 100; every team here is in the top 40. If Mariah Gearhart (.927 OPS overall, .745 OPS in conference) and Alysia Hamilton (.900 OPS overall, .740 OPS in conference) get hot at the plate, this is a lineup that can cause problems. And for what it's worth, those two picked up nine hits in the team's final four games (9-of-18).

Long shots: With four top-50 RPI teams, there are no Cinderella candidates here.

Louisville Regional

Arizona Seed: No. 9 Arizona
The most prolific offense in the country finished strong in the regular season, scoring 22 runs in two games at Oregon State. But that outburst came on the heels of a mild cold spell at the plate (cold, at least, by desert standards). Prior to those final two games, the Wildcats had averaged just 3.9 runs in their previous eight games, coinciding with a 3-5 stretch that knocked them out of the Pac-10 title race. On the flip side, the current team ERA of 2.81 represents the best mark since early in conference play. Paced by Stacie Chambers and her 27 home runs, Mike Candrea's offense is too good to stay cool for long, so if Sarah Akamine and Jennifer Martinez can keep up their end of the bargain in the circle, Oklahoma City remains in play.

Dangerous: Louisville
Home field wasn't enough for Louisville in the Big East tournament, but it's an advantage nonetheless for a team that was 26-1 there this season. And strange as it sounds to say, Arizona isn't a bad draw. Led by Melissa Roth (.431 batting average, .863 slugging percentage), the Cardinals are No. 23 in the nation in runs per game. Senior ace Kristen Wadwell gives them far and away the most proven pitcher in the regional.

Long shots: Purdue, Tennessee-Martin
Purdue has beaten UCLA, Northwestern and Ohio State, so overcoming this kind of competition isn't uncharted territory. The key will be how low sophomore ace Suzie Rzegocki can keep the scores for a team that loves to play small ball (94 stolen bases, 58 sacrifices).

UT-Martin pitcher Kara Martin (20-8, 1.70) allowed just one run in 10 innings to lead the Skyhawks to two wins against Southeast Missouri on the final day of the Ohio Valley tournament. She also pitched well against Georgia Tech earlier in the season.

Palo Alto Regional

Stanford Seed: No. 8 Stanford
There's no place like home for the Cardinal, who went 27-1 in Palo Alto this season, including 9-1 against NCAA tournament teams. As befits someone who is already part of the Pac-10's long history of great aces, Missy Penna keeps getting better in her final season. She's keeping the ball in the park better than ever before (0.38 home runs per seven innings), making it all the more difficult for opponents hitting just .175 against her overall. At the top of the order, no contender has a power/speed combo quite like Alissa Haber and Ashley Hansen. Combined, those two have hit 40 doubles, eight triples and 12 homers.

Dangerous: Nevada, Cal Poly
Judging by their earlier encounter this season, Nevada and Cal Poly may take too much out of each other for either to get past Stanford. That game went to Cal Poly by a 1-0 score early in March. Nevada has tremendous offensive balance. In addition to a .390 on-base percentage, it's also one of fewer than 20 teams with both 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases. It also has a true ace in Katie Holverson (27-9, 1.68 ERA).

Anna Cahn, the sophomore pitcher who outdueled Holverson in the 1-0 win, leads Cal Poly. Cahn also got two hits against Holverson, and her two-way play (.338 average, team-leading 40 RBIs) makes her one of the tournament's individual stars to watch. On a team without a lot of power, Krysten Cary's 14 home runs lead all players in the regional.

Long shot: Portland State
In another setting, Portland State would be a strong sleeper, but Palo Alto is one of the stronger regional sites. Then again, the Vikings thrived off being overlooked in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference.

Ann Arbor Regional

Michigan Seed: No. 5 Michigan
The Wolverines quietly steamrolled through the season, overcoming the occasional setback, surviving a ridiculously loaded schedule and winning the Big Ten. Perfect at home in a typically short home schedule (14-0), Carol Hutchins' team has the luxury of two aces in Nikki Nemitz and Jordan Taylor. And as brilliant as Nemitz has been (0.90 ERA, 277 strikeouts and a nearly 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 187.1 innings), the two have continued splitting assignments evenly. Keeping Maggie Viefhaus hot (.421 average, 22 RBIs in 20 Big Ten games) would be a big plus for an overshadowed lineup.

Dangerous: Notre Dame
Mental toughness won't be a problem. The Fighting Irish lost a shot at the Big East regular-season title when an easy pop fly that would have ended a game against Louisville dropped in. Not only did they win the second game of the doubleheader that day; they went to Louisville the next weekend and beat the host and DePaul to win the tournament. Christine Lux (1.175 OPS) leads an offense with an .875 team OPS, while Brittany Bargar has postseason experience in the circle.

Long shots: Miami University, Cleveland State
The Horizon League team with the best balance, finishing second in batting average and on-base percentage and second in ERA and fielding percentage, Cleveland State is in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

Colorado women's basketball has Brittany Spears; Miami softball has Jessica Simpson. The Redhawks freshman ace with the familiar name is 22-11 with a 1.97 ERA and pitched well this season against the likes of Purdue and Mississippi State.

Waco Regional

Northwestern Seed: No. 12 Northwestern
You have to walk before you run, but Northwestern has to stop walking opponents if it's going to make a run at Oklahoma City. When she's at her best, Lauren Delaney is as tough to solve as just about any pitcher in the country. But the hard-throwing junior has battled control problems all season, walking 179 batters and hitting another 42 in 258 innings. At the plate, the triumvirate of Tammy Williams (1.378 OPS), Adrienne Monka (1.441 OPS) and Nicole Pauly (1.018 OPS) create runs at a pace that rivals the trio of Williams, Garland Cooper and Katie Logan on Northwestern's World Series finalist in 2006.

Dangerous: Louisiana-Lafayette, Baylor, Texas State
The Ragin' Cajuns won 19 of their final 20 games heading into the NCAA tournament. The lone loss was in the opening game of the double-elimination conference tournament, after which they outscored their next five opponents 36-7 to win the title. If Ashley Brignac is healthy and ready to contribute -- and she returned to the circle in the conference tournament to resume a long scoreless innings streak -- no team anywhere has more pitching depth than Brignac, workhorse Donna Bourgeois and Brittany Cuevas.

Because Delaney, Brignac and Bourgeois don't bring nearly enough strikeouts to Waco, Baylor freshman ace Whitney Canion will add some more. In fact, at fifth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings, she's the most prolific of them all. The key for Baylor will be generating runs after losing leading hitter Kayce Walker to a torn ACL late in April.

Texas State beat Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Houston this season, so it can handle this assignment. Freshman Chandler Hall (24-9, 1.03 ERA) leads the way in the circle and lends a big bat to the lineup.

Long shots: Texas State isn't overmatched, so there's no Cinderella team here.

Knoxville Regional

Tennessee Seed: No. 13 Tennessee
Tennessee was 3-11 against Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Northwestern, Oklahoma and Washington, all teams seeded ahead of it in the bracket (although it should be noted that includes a 2-0 record against Oklahoma). Against the rest of the nation, the Lady Vols went 35-5-1. Tiffany Huff and Jessica Spigner wield big bats, but Tennessee's best comes when the speed game sets things in motion. That makes Lillian Hammond and Ashley Andrews X factors after up-and-down conference seasons. In the circle, freshman Cat Hosfield has shouldered heavy innings and may need to find her second wind.

Dangerous: Nebraska, Jacksonville State
To some degree, Nebraska still rises and falls with senior ace Molly Hill's pitches, but it's a much better offensive team than in the last couple of seasons. The Cornhuskers' 31 home runs are two more than they hit in 2007 and 2008 combined, and their on-base percentage has climbed from .318 in 2007 to .343 last season and .381 this season. Amanda Duran (.999 OPS, 34 RBIs), Meghan Mullin (.437 OBP, 19 steals), Julie Brechtel (.958 OPS, 28 RBIs) and others may be able to give Hill some run support.

Jacksonville State livened up the Tuscaloosa regional a year ago by beating Florida State twice and should benefit from the experience. Between Karla Pittman (15-2, 1.30 ERA) and Ashley Eliasson (16-7, 1.55 ERA) in the circle and a lineup hitting .310, the Gamecocks bring a balanced attack to the plate. Defense may be the one area of concern.

Long shot: James Madison
James Madison should have momentum after closing the regular season with six consecutive wins and then outscoring opponents 14-1 in three wins in the conference tournament. The Dukes may be a long shot, but Meredith Felts (18-4, 1.42 ERA) has been pitching like an ace ready to make a run. She's allowed six hits in her last 21 innings.

Tuscaloosa Regional

Alabama Seed: No. 4 Alabama
Like all of the top five seeds this season, Alabama excels in every key component -- power, patience, running, pitching and defense. As such, there's no one player that makes or breaks things, but you can obviously start any discussion with Kelsi Dunne and Charlotte Morgan. The ace in the circle, Dunne (24-3, 1.45 ERA, 218 strikeouts in 178.2 innings) can short-circuit an opponent's upset bid before it begins. When she's on, Alabama is on equal footing with Florida, UCLA and Washington on their best days. Morgan, who doubles as the No. 2 pitcher, hasn't posted quite the gaudy power numbers at the plate that she did last season, primarily because she doesn't see many pitches to drive. But a .414 average, .508 on-base percentage and 52 RBIs point to her value.

Dangerous: Texas
This is only the third season in the post-Cat Osterman era in Texas, but these Longhorns have completely flipped the script when it comes to how they win. Four Longhorns have hit at least eight home runs, led by Desiree Williams with 12 (she's also tied for the team lead with 16 steals). Through 54 games, the team has 56 home runs -- more than half of the total they hit during Osterman's four seasons in Austin. What kept them out of the mix for a Big 12 title or an NCAA tournament seed was so-so fielding and a 2.93 team ERA.

Long shots: Chattanooga, Mississippi Valley State
Chattanooga returns to Tuscaloosa for the second year in a row. The Mocs spread innings around in the circle and give teams different looks out of the bullpen as games progress. There's not a lot of power at the plate after Tiffany Baker (.368 average, 12 home runs).

Word is this may be the best Mississippi Valley State team ever, which isn't a small statement for a program that has dominated the SWAC and continues to grow under the tutelage of coach Lee Smith. It's still a big leap to NCAA tournament competitiveness.

Amherst Regional

Washington Seed: No. 3 Washington
Her hair may be a different color, but the hitters whiffing on Danielle Lawrie's pitches look the same as ever. Like Osterman, Washington's ace returned better than ever after an Olympic hiatus. Lawrie finished the regular season with 398 strikeouts in 260 innings and a 0.78 ERA and, the latter bettering by more than half a run her numbers as a sophomore. She has also walked 53 batters and hit 17, cutting that total nearly in half from 2007 in similar innings.

Jenn Salling's potential offensive impact is tantalizing, despite the former All-American's slow start after gaining eligibility as a transfer. But Ashlyn Watson's power and patience (10 home runs, 21 walks and just seven strikeouts) already added another layer to the attack alongside speed and gap power from Ashley Charters, Morgan Stuart and freshman Kimi Pohlman.

Dangerous: Massachusetts

Lawrie is fourth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings, but just a few spots down the list at No. 18 is Massachusetts ace Brandice Balschmiter. A power pitcher who keeps the ball low (just six home runs allowed in her last 497.1 innings), Balschmiter held her own in past battles against pitchers like Eileen Canney, Missy Penna, Taryne Mowatt and Nikki Nemitz. And the Minutewomen, who have already beaten Michigan, Arizona State and DePaul this season, are not just their pitcher. Center fielder Carly Normandin and third baseman Whitney Mollica lead a group of position players who are slugging .550 at the plate and playing excellent defense.

Long shots: Cornell, Sacred Heart
Granted, Cornell hasn't played a top-25 schedule, but there's something to be said for a team with a pitcher, Elizabeth Dalrymple, who is 16th nationally in ERA and an offense that ranks ninth nationally at 6.3 runs per game behind Jessy Berkey and Ashley Garvey.

Sacred Heart was outscored on the season, but behind quality innings from Jen Russell (18-14, 1.49 ERA) it earned the program's first NCAA tournament bid.

Atlanta Regional

Georgia Tech Seed: No. 14 Georgia Tech
Channeling the tenets of both Earl Weaver's three-run home runs and Joe Maddon's defense and baserunning might seem like as unlikely an offensive combination as Tolstoy and Twitter, but it does the trick for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are one of the nation's best power-hitting teams, ranking in the top 15 in runs per game, home runs per game and slugging percentage. Yet they also average better than a stolen base per game and are seventh in the nation in fielding percentage. The keystone combo of freshman Kelsi Weseman (.406 average, nine home runs, five steals, 105 assists) and Jen Yee (.410 average, 12 home runs, seven steals and 83 assists) leads the team on its unique way.

Dangerous: Iowa, Auburn
The Hawkeyes are a slightly more conventional softball success story, riding the arm of a proven ace in Brittany Weil (26-10, 1.06 ERA and 328 strikeouts) and an ability to manufacture all the runs she needs (78 stolen bases, 69 sacrifices). Not that there isn't some power here with Colleen McGlaughlin (.629 slugging percentage) and Liz Watkins (.617 slugging percentage). Like Georgia Tech, they don't hurt themselves in the field.

Auburn will have to come up with more offense than its .239 average for the season suggests, but a team with Anna Thompson in the circle can be dangerous on a given day. And it's not like the Tigers can't occasionally score runs against good pitching, having put up six runs against North Carolina and Cal State Fullerton, four runs against California and three in a losing effort against Louisville.

Long shot: Boston University
The opener against Georgia Tech will be just Boston University's third game this season against an NCAA tournament team, having beaten Lehigh and lost to Massachusetts earlier. But if experience isn't on their side, the Terriers do have speed (92 steals) and a healthy April Setterlund (1.121 OPS and team-high seven home runs).

Columbus Regional

Ohio State Seed: No. 11 Ohio State
Everyone looks forward to the NCAA tournament, but perhaps nobody is excited about it as Sam Marder. Maybe, just maybe, Ohio State's slugging catcher will see a pitch to hit after Big Ten teams walked her 34 times in 18 conference games (11 times intentionally). Marder, who still managed to hit 16 home runs and slug .834 on the regular season, merits careful treatment, but the Buckeyes are in this position because of their overall balance. Dee Dee Hillman's recent production (a .396 batting average in conference, compared to .241 out of conference) added another threat. Kim Reeder and Lindsay Bodeker aren't far behind pitching duos like Florida State's Terese Gober and Sarah Hamilton and Michigan's Nikki Nemitz and Jordan Taylor.

Dangerous: BYU, Kentucky
The Wildcats lost four in a row against Florida and Alabama in the middle of April, but they pushed both heavyweights along the way and came out of those games to reel off seven wins in their final 10 games. Freshman pitcher Rachel Riley, a two-time high school state champion in Kentucky, didn't start a game until April, then threw a one-hitter in a loss against Florida on April 11 and is now the de facto ace, while fellow freshman success Chanda Bell provides power despite having battled injuries in the second half.

All BYU did was produce the Mountain West Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and Coach of the Year en route to a conference title. Jessica Purcell earned the first award after hitting .394 with 17 home runs and 81 RBIs, while Christie Zinanti took pitching honors with a 20-7 record and 1.55 ERA. The Cougars annually post good numbers, but one new sign that a super regional might be in play is this season's 11-1 road record.

Long shot: Canisius
A mild surprise in winning the MAAC automatic bid, Canisius brings pitcher Mallory Aldred with it to Columbus. The NCAA's single-season saves leader, Aldred has spent more time starting this season, posting a 19-7 record with a 1.95 ERA.

Chapel Hill Regional

Georgia Seed: No. 6 Georgia
You know the ball is going to be put into play a lot when Georgia is involved. The problem, if you're an opponent, is that it then often exits play at a high rate of speed over the outfield fence when the Bulldogs are at the plate. An average Georgia game this season featured 8.3 strikeouts between both teams. By comparison, in a season when Arizona's pitching staff was hardly strikeout-happy, one of its average games included 9.8 strikeouts. Georgia whiffed an SEC-low 193 times, but its pitchers also fanned an SEC-low 210 batters. The team's success came through its ability to drive the balls it put in play (.587 slugging percentage) and field the balls its opponents put in play (.978 fielding percentage).

Dangerous: North Carolina
Understand the extent to which Danielle Spaulding dominated hitters this season. One half of North Carolina's primary pitching tandem, along with senior Lisa Norris, Spaulding led the nation with 14.5 strikeouts per seven innings. Albany's Leah McIntosh was second, 3.5 strikeouts per seven innings behind Spaulding. The gap between McIntosh and Hofstra's Kayleigh Lotti at No. 30 was just 3.4 strikeouts per seven innings. And if that's not enough, Spaulding led her team at the plate with a 1.012 OPS.

Long shots: Campbell, Radford
Campbell eliminated North Carolina in a regional in Chapel Hill last season, so the length of the shot may be debatable (although the Camels dropped a 6-1 decision to the Tar Heels this season). Karlie Love leads an offense that hit 78 home runs in 52 games.

Only one team ranked in the top 10 nationally in both home runs and stolen bases per game: Radford. Add as many grains of salt as you like given the fact that the team's numbers came in the Big South and not a power conference, but that's an impressive offense. Both Kristen Shifflett and Nichole Beall finished with double-digit home runs and stolen bases.

Norman Regional

Oklahoma Seed: No. 7 Oklahoma
Some of the names change, but Oklahoma's recipe for trying to get back to the Women's College World Series has remained largely unchanged in recent years. The Sooners have a lineup with big hitters -- most notably Amber Flores and Samantha Ricketts -- but also a lineup that can produce baserunners from top to bottom. They field the ball well. And they have pitchers who aren't likely to throw many shutouts but also aren't likely to give games away. All three pitchers -- D.J. Mathis, Andee Allen and Kirsten Allen -- pitched in the conference tournament, but if Mathis' arm is rested and ready, she'll presumably see a majority of innings.

Dangerous: Tulsa, Arkansas
The NCAA doesn't do conference rematches in regionals, but that doesn't mean teams are always unfamiliar with each other. Tulsa and Arkansas played a little more than a month ago, and the Razorbacks came away with a 9-5 road win. That launched a string of five losses in six games for the Hurricanes, but they bounced back with a 16-1 record and 6.1 runs per game down the stretch. Lauren Lindsay (1.139 OPS) leads that offense.

Slogging through the grind of SEC play took its toll on Arkansas' collective numbers, but not much slowed Whitney Cloer this season. The senior hit .296 and slugged .563 in conference play to finish at .331 and .592, respectively, overall in the regular season.

Long shot: North Dakota State
North Dakota State was the best defensive team among all the low-major conferences and ranked 11th overall in Division I. Ace Andi Padilla isn't a strikeout pitcher, but that kind of defensive support goes a long way to letting someone make any pitch they need to.

Tempe Regional

Arizona State Seed: No. 10 Arizona State
Arizona State's offensive numbers at the close of the regular season almost mirror last season's numbers. This year's team is hitting .323; last year's team hit .326. This year's team is slugging .561; last year's team slugged .549. This year's team has a .425 on-base percentage; last year's team had a .428 on-base percentage. Katie Cochran is still at it (1.597 OPS and a career-high 20 home runs) and Katelyn Boyd and Krista Donnenwirth make it difficult to pitch around her. But for all that firepower, the season just hasn't yielded a replacement for Katie Burkhart.

Dangerous: Cal State Fullerton, LSU, San Diego State
Fullerton always plays one of tougher schedules in the nation, but success in the postseason will depend on proving the team's offensive improvement in Big West play can be carried over to the competition on hand in Tempe. Frances Gonzales and Torrie Anderson are the primary power sources, but Lauren Lupinetti and K.C. Craddick make it a much deeper lineup when they're hitting as well as they did in league play.

Just getting here with a chance to compete is an accomplishment for LSU, which lost projected ace Dani Hofer before the season to a career-ending wrist condition and had to deal with physical concerns at times for replacements Cody Trahan and Brittany Mack. There's no single area of strength to point to, other than perhaps Kirsten Shortridge's game-changing presence at the top of the lineup, but LSU's perseverance is itself the team's best attribute.

Arguably more than any of its three competitors in Tempe, San Diego State is comfortable winning with pitching. That's understandable with Samantha Beasley (14-12, 1.98 ERA) and Mountain West Freshman of the Year Bailey Micetich (19-6, 1.45 ERA). But the difference between playing spoiler in Tempe and getting to a super regional could be the ability of the offense to hit like it did in scoring 51 runs in its final 10 games. It helps to have Erin Floros (.947 OPS) in the lineup.

Long shot: None

Columbia Regional

DePaul Seed: No. 15 DePaul
Congratulations on a national seed; now go play at Missouri to earn the right to play at UCLA. With rewards like that, who needs punishment? But it's not time to write the season eulogy for DePaul. Junior Becca Heteniak is right there with Charlotte Morgan, Danielle Spaulding, Megan Langenfeld and a handful of others as the best two-way threats in the game. The ace in the circle with a 24-7 record, 1.50 ERA and 224 strikeouts, she also led the team at the plate with 12 home runs, 49 RBIs and 38 walks. It doesn't hurt the RBI total to have someone like Amber Patton at the top of the order (.508 average, .554 on-base percentage).

Dangerous: Missouri
The Tigers actually fared better in road and neutral-site games (31-3) than at home (14-6), but don't expect to hear anyone complaining about playing on campus this weekend. The Tigers don't have a traditional No. 1 ace in the circle, but the four pitchers on the staff combined to walk just 83 batters and allow just 15 home runs in 354 innings. Freshman Chelsea Thomas enters the NCAA tournament with a streak of 19 consecutive scoreless innings. At the plate, Missouri is a power/speed team in the mold of Alabama. Its top three base stealers -- Rhea Taylor, Shana White and Andee Allen -- have been thrown out just seven times in 77 attempts.

Long shots: Bradley, Illinois
Illinois would probably take umbrage with this designation, but it already dropped a 6-2 decision at home to DePaul and will be squaring off against Missouri on the Big 12 tournament champion's home field. That said, Illinois showed why it can't be overlooked when it scored 19 runs to sweep two games from Northwestern in late April. Danielle Zymkowitz is the model of offensive efficiency; she has more walks than strikeouts, is a perfect 20-for-20 in stolen bases and is hitting .408 with 12 extra-base hits.

Bradley has what every long shot wants; an ace in the circle. Ashley Birdsong struck out 212 batters in 211 innings and enters the NCAA tournament with a 1.73 ERA. It was her shutout against Creighton in the conference tournament that got Bradley to this point. But with a .222 team batting average, the Braves will need more pitching gems.

Los Angeles Regional

UCLA Seed: No. 2 UCLA
Not unlike movie plots in Hollywood, there aren't many new softball feats left to discover in Westwood. Just about everything there is to do on a softball field, some player or some team at UCLA has already done. So do you know when the last time was that a UCLA team had at least six regulars slug .500 or better? It hasn't happened. Now consider that the current Bruins enter the postseason with eight regulars slugging at least .500. Katie Schroeder leads the way, as she does in most offensive statistical categories, but there isn't a hitter in the lineup who isn't capable of slamming a ball off the wall or over it against just about any pitching.

Dangerous: Fresno State
Morgan Melloh is at it again. Fresno State's ace was valuable as a freshman last season, going 42-9 and throwing 77 percent of her team's innings. But that was for a team that hit .298 and averaged 4.9 runs per game. As she enters the Los Angeles regional, she's again responsible for 77 percent of her team's innings, but now she's doing it for a team that's hitting .238 and averaging 3.6 runs per game. The offense will need to play above its means, but with Melloh, there's always a chance.

Long shots: Long Beach State, UNLV
Last season it was all about freshman phenomenon Brooke Turner. Her sophomore year has involved a few more ups and downs, but a 17-11 record and strong strikeout-to-walk ratio are assets. And now there's freshman Taylor Petty (15-4, 1.41 ERA), who came on strong down the stretch and gives the 49ers two essentially equal options to pair with a lineup that is neither a major liability nor an offensive juggernaut.

UNLV enters the NCAA tournament having lost 11 of 20 down the stretch and with a 4.04 team ERA. But for teams that had to sweat out the bubble, sometimes a fresh start is all they need. And with big bats like Jaci Hull (1.095 OPS, 50 RBIs) and a patient lineup that ranked second in the Mountain West in OBP, there's something to work with.

Graham Hays covers softball for 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.