Questions loom as softball championship approaches
Which potential super regional is most intriguing? Which teams will pull upsets? ESPN.com's Graham Hays and Mary Buckheit debate.
ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit and Graham Hays take a look at the five biggest questions as we head into the NCAA softball championship.
1. What were the biggest surprises among the host sites for the regionals?
Buckheit: Surprisingly, Arizona State, the No. 6 seed overall, was denied a bid to play host to a regional in Tempe, Ariz. Having recently spent some time in the desert with the Sun Devils, I can tell you that they were certainly expecting to stick around the familiar confines of Farrington Stadium. It's a tough break for ASU, but that does not detract from my excitement over the selection of Hofstra as a regional host (Hempstead, N.Y.). The Pride gets to stay at home after years of packing up and shipping out -- most recently to Alabama, California, Nebraska and Louisiana. I expect a great turnout in Hempstead, a longtime hotbed of talent. The softball citizens of Strong Island will surely brave the L.I.E. for tickets to this treat.
Hays: There were some negative surprises in the distribution of hosting privileges for the regionals, especially for the likes of Arizona State (46-13), Stanford (38-15) and Cal (44-12), but it was nice to see programs like Northwestern (42-12) and Oregon State (38-13) rewarded for regular season success.
Last year, the Beavers were shipped across the country after claiming a share of the Pac-10 title, but ace Brianne McGowan's squad gets to stay in Corvallis this year, thanks in part to the success of nearby Portland State. With two tournament teams representing different conferences coming out of Oregon, awarding the regional to Oregon State was both practical and overdue. This will be the eighth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Beavers, but it's the first time they'll be playing at home.
Coach Kate Drohan's Northwestern program is turning more than a few heads. Not only did the Wildcats get the No. 4 seed after winning the Big Ten regular season title (and beating UCLA on the road), they get to play host to a regional for the first time. Although Sharon Drysdale Field in Evanston doesn't have lights, the field and softball staff both earned rave reviews for staging the Big Ten tournament under adverse weather conditions.
2. What upsets might lurk in the regional round?
Buckheit: We'll see how the young bunch from Arizona State handles the 2,686-mile trek to Hempstead, but my gut tells me it will be the hometown Hofstra Pride (36-18) who walk away from that regional. Hofstra coach Bill Edwards has four starters batting over .300 and a CAA-leading .286 team average, .382 on base percentage and .439 slugging percentage (that's the Isle of Long Balls, to you). If anyone is capable of pushing some runs across against ASU ace Katie Burkhart, it's the Pride. But what really tips the scale for me is Hofstra's dependable defense -- or rather, Arizona State's capacity for shoddy play in the field. Hofstra has committed only 51 errors all season and boasts a .967 fielding percentage. ASU has committed just three more errors (54) and has maintained a .965 fielding percentage -- but not all playing fields are created equal. Hofstra has not had the luxury of playing on the pristine infields and Augusta National-esque outfields of the Pac-10. That's just one intangible to keep in mind when comparing stats across conferences.
Arizona State is a well-coached team with some incredible talents, but I've witnessed the Sun Devils get rattled and lose their defensive composure at home. I have serious concerns about their stability in a very foreign environment. Hofstra is about put on a show for its fans; the Pride's winning mentality and maturity is best suited for success this time of year.
And speaking of teams built for the postseason, how 'bout those 10th-seeded Cal Bears (44-12)? While some folks might wonder how the Berkeley bunch will fare all the way in Iowa City, I can't smell an upset in this one, no matter how hard I try. I have no doubts that Kristina Thorson will toss her way to the super regional round, no matter how far away from home she's forced to toe the rubber.
Of course, home-field advantage doesn't mean much when your fans are kept busy chasing down the opposition's home runs. That's where pitching enters the equation, in the form of UMass' freshman ace, Brandice Balschmiter. An imposing presence in the circle, Balschmiter posted a 28-7 record with a 0.71 ERA and 266 strikeouts in 246.1 innings. Granted, much of that damage came against weaker opponents, but Balschmiter allowed just six hits in 7.1 innings against Cal on Feb. 12, striking out nine without allowing an earned run. No offense to Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson, but she might be the best pitcher in this regional.
3. What is the toughest regional site?
Hays: It's tough to understand how No. 15 seed LSU (51-12) got such a short end of the stick. The Tigers were clearly a better team than SEC rival Florida this season, but they enter the tournament just one slot better on the seed line than the Gators. And not only do the Tigers have a potential date with No. 2 seed Arizona in the super regionals, they also face what might be the toughest opening weekend for any seeded team.
In Louisiana-Lafayette (48-10), which spent all season in the top 20, and NC State (48-19), which swept the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles, Baton Rouge will play host to two quality sleepers (in addition to a respectable Princeton team out of the Ivy League). A showdown with the Ragin' Cajuns looms especially large on the horizon. Louisiana-Lafayette certainly will bring a vocal cheering section for the instate showdown, but more important, the Ragin' Cajuns will bring one of the most prodigious power lineups in the nation. And given LSU No. 2 starter Dani Hofer's recent up-and-down performances behind ace Emily Turner, that could spell trouble for a team that deserved much better.
Buckheit: Sending Cal to Iowa City with Illinois State, Iowa and Nebraska is the toughest route to the super regionals, but since I already stated that I'm confident Cal will be able to travel and conquer, I suppose that makes that pick moot. And that's why my pick for the toughest site for a seeded team to survive in is the Fresno Regional.
Sure, Stanford is red-hot and comes streaking into the postseason completely capable of steamrolling through the competition, but the competition can't go without mention.
Yes, Fresno State (35-17) is a borderline bubble team which was given the privilege to play host largely because of its ability to pack the seats, and not because of the team's record or schedule strength. The Bulldogs, however, are definitely capable of providing some surprises. The Bulldogs dropped two close games to UCLA (2-0 and 1-0 in 10) early in the season at Easton Stadium, so we know they can rise to the occasion, and I think the Bulldogs can steal a win or three if they show up.
The same can be said about Cal State Fullerton. With wins against Fresno State, Syracuse, Cal, Utah State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Northwestern and Florida State, the Titans of the Big West have provided us with fair warning that they can match anyone in the country.
The Cardinal should be all right if their pitching holds and Catalina Morris, Lauren Lappin, Jackie Rinehart and Maddy Coon bring their big bats, but Fresno and Fullerton historically give Pac-10ers a run for their regional money. Anything can happen here.
4. Which potential super regional most intrigues you?
Buckheit: Michigan and Tennessee met twice last year. The first game went to the Lady Vols after a marathon 11 innings of scoreless back-and-forth ended with then freshman Tonya Callahan's walk-off blast. That was Jennie Ritter's and Michigan's first loss of the series. But Michigan bounced back, nabbing a 3-2 victory in the do-or-die Game 2 that featured a foreshadowing of World Series hero Samantha Findlay, who went 2-2 with an RBI in the fatal blow to Monica Abbott's run at the title.
This super-talented Super Regional has all of the makings of an old-fashioned grudge match.
I'm also looking forward to the potential Pac-10 punch of California vs. Oregon State. The Beavers and Bears have met three times this year; Thorson shut out Oregon State twice, but the Beavers made the necessary strides and swiped a 4-2 win the third time around at home in Corvallis. These teams are not strangers; they have no secret weapons to release. They will each need some scrappy strategy to advance.
Hays: There are titanic potential clashes in the super regionals other than Texas meeting No. 14 seed Washington, but there would be something oddly compelling about Cat Osterman's collegiate career possibly ending against a team that managed just six wins in the Pac-10. Despite spending much of the season near the top of the national rankings -- including a brief stint at No. 1 -- the Longhorns don't enter the postseason with a ton of momentum after going two-and-out at the Big 12 tournament.
After showing numerous signs of progress at the plate during nonconference play, the Longhorns struggled to score runs in support of Osterman during conference play. Apart from Chez Sievers, who hit a blistering .407 in her 37 conference at-bats, nobody stepped up on offense. Desiree Williams remains a dangerous bat (.304 in 46 conference at-bats), but even her power and run production slipped noticeably. In fact, for all of the early hype about their bats, the Longhorns hit worse in conference play this season (.219) than they did last season (.221).
The grand slam Osterman allowed against Texas A&M in the conference tourney earned headlines, but that's not going to happen very often (or ever again). The concern is what happens when Osterman gives up two runs against a team with a dominant ace of its own -- it's the same concern Texas has had in every postseason during Osterman's reign. And with Washington freshman Danielle Lawrie coming into her own (1.57 ERA, 348 strikeouts), the Huskies could be that team.
5A. Which eight teams will reach Oklahoma City?
Buckheit: UCLA, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas A&M, Texas, Georgia, Oregon State and Arizona.
Hays: UCLA, Michigan, Alabama, Northwestern, Texas, Georgia, Cal, and Arizona.
5B. Which team will win it all?
Buckheit: UCLA. The Bruins might be skidding into the tournament after two startling losses to Stanford, but that bitter taste will provide the perfect postseason impetus for a club that hates to lose and expects perfection.
The Bruins have all of the tools -- ace Anjelica Selden is the obvious advantage and No. 2 pitcher Lisa Dodd offers a consistent second arm. Not that UCLA will call on Dodd, considering Jelly threw every single pitch of postseason play last year, but theoretically, the idea of two pitchers is nice.
Supporting the star sophomore is a veteran lineup that offers the most complete mix of speed, sluggers and catalysts. To see an example of this blend, look no further than seniors Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran and Emily Zaplatosch. Shuffle them in with juniors like Kristen Dedmon, Tara Henry, Ashley Herrera, Whitney Holum and Jodie Legaspi, and I believe the Bruins' deck is stacked. UCLA is head and shoulders above anyone in the nation. The Bruins boast the most comprehensive team of talent, athleticism, focus and fire. My money is on coach Sue Enquist's bunch taking their 12th title home to Westwood this year.
Hays: Michigan. Rarely has sticking with last year's champs been such a dicey proposition, but after scuffling through parts of the regular season while dealing with a championship hangover, the Wolverines aren't just hitting their stride; they're pulling a Justin Gatlin down the stretch.
Jennie Ritter has been brilliant in the circle all season, arguably having a better season than she did while winning the title last year, but Michigan's bats might determine the team's ultimate fate. During the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines finally regained their offensive swagger. More than mere statistics, the middle of the order simply feels dangerous again. With Becky Marx and Samantha Findlay capable of going deep on any pitch, and supporting players like Tiffany Haas and Alessandra Giampaolo getting on base with more regularity, it's a potent mix of pitching and power.
The road is undeniably more difficult than last season. Even if the Wolverines survive a potential super regional showdown with Tennessee, an opening game against UCLA in Oklahoma City could put them in the precarious position of trying to survive the loser's bracket entirely on Ritter's arm. But negative thinking isn't what the Wolverines have been about for the last two weeks.
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