Horns' identity will be forged against Sooners
Texas paid a brief visit to the No. 1 spot in the rankings last week. Do the Horns have enough offense behind ace Cat Osterman to claim the top spot at the end of the season?
It took the Texas Longhorns (40-4) almost the entire duration of pitcher Cat Osterman's four seasons in Austin to earn the No. 1 ranking in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 for the first time; it took just one week for them to demonstrate how difficult it is to linger long enough at the peak of the college game to take a few snapshots and pause for reflection on the world below.
After dropping a midweek home game against Big 12 rival Texas A&M on April 5, in front of the second-largest home crowd in the program's history, the Longhorns twice needed seventh-inning runs to sweep a two-game set with Missouri over the weekend. As a result, and thanks to UCLA's two-game sweep at Arizona, Texas slipped behind the Bruins in this week's poll.
The loss to Texas A&M, in front of a packed house as the nation's new top team, had to be disappointing. But it was hardly a monumental upset, considering the strength of the Aggies and the fact that Texas' Megan Denny -- and not Osterman -- was in the circle to start the game. More telling were the two wins against Missouri, when the Longhorns displayed both improvement at the plate -- which fans hope will produce different results in June -- and some of the same deficiencies that led to past postseason disappointments.
This has been Osterman's team since she arrived in Austin and won 36 games as a freshman. That hasn't changed this season. With no disrespect to Denny (16-3, 1.44 ERA), who appears as prepared as one can possibly be to capably replace a legend next season, the game against the Aggies was an example of why the Longhorns are national title contenders with Osterman in the circle and merely a very good team when she's not pitching.
But the first win against Missouri, a 4-3 comeback in which the Tigers touched up Osterman for six hits and three runs, was exactly the kind of game that so often plagued the Longhorns in the past.
During Osterman's first three seasons, there were no guarantees the team would score enough runs to protect their ace when she was on her game, let alone in those rare instances when she allowed more than a run. The Longhorns hit just .233 with 15 total home runs (or six fewer than Michigan's Samantha Findlay hit by herself) last season, posting a 2-7 record when opponents scored three or more runs. By comparison, Michigan and UCLA -- last year's finalists -- combined to win 11 games when their opponents scored three or more runs.
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Led by sophomore All-America candidate Desiree Williams, the Longhorns are hitting .270 with 36 home runs as a team this season. In addition to Williams' individual brilliance, newcomers like Shannon Thomas and Kacie Gaskin are contributing on a regular basis, and veterans Megan Willis, Amber Hall and Tina Boutelle are vastly more productive than in past seasons. It's still a far cry from the offensive juggernaut Osterman will try to shut down in Norman, Okla., -- the Sooners are hitting .318 and scoring nearly a run more per game than any other Big 12 team -- but it's progress.
That's the good news in the land of burnt orange.
The bad news is progress isn't always permanent, and the Longhorns hitters still have something to prove in two big games against a young and erratic Oklahoma staff led by freshmen D.J. Mathis and Morgan Hudsonpillar.
The late-inning heroics against Missouri aside (and Texas managed only a single run in support of Osterman's shutout in the second game), the Longhorns are averaging just 2.9 runs per game in their last 17 games, including nonconference games against national powers Washington, Louisiana-Lafayette, Michigan and Arizona. Although, to their credit, the Longhorns went 3-1 in those games against potential postseason foes, including a six-run outburst in a slugfest against the Ragin' Cajuns.
It was inevitable that individual stats would slide once the schedule moved beyond teams like Syracuse, Wisconsin and UT-San Antonio, but the next step for improved hitters like seniors Boutelle and Hall is to halt that regression while still in productive territory. Boutelle is hitting just .261 in the last 16 games, while Hall has slumped to .225 in the same span. Only Willis, who drove in the only run in a 1-0 shutout against Texas State on Wednesday night and is hitting .326 in the last 17 games, is providing Desiree Williams with consistent support.
Oklahoma has a lineup that features Kristin Vesely, Norrelle Dickson, Samantha Ricketts and Amber Spaulding, so the Sooners stand a good chance of scoring a few runs in at least one of the games this weekend. But against an Oklahoma pitching staff allowing opponents to hit .276, Texas hitters have an opportunity to prove that doesn't automatically spell doom in big games.
Two wins and some runs on the road will answer questions and ensure the Longhorns maintain a one-game lead in the Big 12, no matter what Texas A&M does at Iowa State this weekend.
Anything less could leave people wondering just how different this year's Texas team really is.
As an injured Tennessee (38-6, 9-6) squad heads to Ole Miss after a sluggish start in SEC play, showdowns loom at the top of the Eastern and Western divisions. Alabama (37-4, 15-0) puts its spotless conference mark on the line when LSU (38-6, 12-3) comes to Tuscaloosa for three games, while Georgia (38-9, 18-3) could leave Florida (33-15, 12-6) with either an iron grip on the division or a dogfight with the Gators and Lady Vols down the stretch.
Perhaps because she's knocking out hits even when she's not pitching for the Crimson Tide, it sometimes feels like Alabama senior Stephanie VanBrakle has been around since Bear Bryant was prowling the campus. But VanBrakle, the second overall pick in the recent National Pro Fastpitch draft, appears to be gearing up for a big finish to a career already long on accolades. She earned SEC pitcher-of-the-week honors after blanking Ole Miss twice last weekend and hasn't allowed a run in her last four starts.
With VanBrakle and 6-foot sophomore Chrissy Owens in the circle and an offense that boasts an SEC-best 83 steals and nearly a .400 on-base percentage, the Tide have plenty of weapons. But against an LSU team with power and plate discipline (139 walks against just 114 strikeouts this season), it will take some gems from the veteran for the team to stay perfect in the SEC.
It wouldn't be a weekend of softball without battles in the Pac-10, where conference play is rigorous enough to push even a teetotalist mascot off the wagon. And while it's not quite as potent as last week's showdown between UCLA and Arizona, top-10 rankings are just a bonus when bitter rivals No. 5 Cal and No. 6 Stanford clash for three games (at Cal on Friday and two at Stanford on Saturday).
After cruising through a relatively easy nonconference schedule, the Bears have earned their ranking this month, splitting a pair of games at UCLA (winning a 10-3 rout) and sweeping up-and-coming Oregon State last week to send the No. 8 Beavers to the back of the conference pack. For their part, the Cardinal are still looking to make a statement in conference play after splitting with Oregon, the league's only unranked team, last weekend. Their pitchers must step up this weekend, having allowed eight or more runs in two of the team's last four games.
Freshly restored to the top of the rankings, the UCLA Bruins aren't short on star power. Andrea Duran, recently named USA Softball Player of the Week, leads the team in home runs and stolen bases. Seniors Caitlin Benyi and Emily Zaplatosch have almost as many awards to their credit as they have vowels in their names. And sophomore pitcher Anjelica Selden and junior shortstop Jodie Legaspi are finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year.
All of which makes it too easy to overlook junior Lisa Dodd's role in the success.
As the Bruins hit the road for the second weekend in a row, playing two games against the Washington Huskies in Seattle, Dodd has already pitched 24 more innings than she did all of last season. And these aren't all junk innings against Syracuse and Massachusetts. In the first game of last week's series against Arizona in Tucson, Dodd got the best of Wildcats ace Alicia Hollowell, allowing just three hits and one run in 5.2 innings to earn the win.
Whether or not Dodd continues splitting innings with Selden down the stretch, her effectiveness to this point in the season has helped lift the Bruins to the No. 1 ranking without burning out their sophomore ace.
Northwestern, which just over two weeks ago was basking in the glow of a nonconference win at UCLA, cannot afford a stumble against Indiana or Purdue in this weekend's final home stand. Ranked No. 17 nationally, the Wildcats are effectively in fourth place in the Big Ten after losing two games against Ohio State last week.
That means junior Eileen Canney and senior Courtney Foster are on the hot seat in the circle. Together, Canney and Foster form one of the more underrated pitching staffs in the country -- sort of the cold-weather version of what Cal had last season with Kristina Thorson and Kelly Anderson. Together, Canney and Foster have struck out 334 batters in 237 innings while pitching 11 shutouts (nine for Canney).
Facing upcoming trips to Michigan and Michigan State (6-0 in conference so far), the Wildcats need a big weekend to have even a shot at returning to Evanston for the Big Ten tournament (hosted by the regular-season champion).
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.