- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Coach: Sue Enquist
Road/Neutral record: 24-3
Pac-10 record: 15-5
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 1 overall seed)
vs. Missouri State, 11-2 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. Long Beach State, 6-3 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. San Diego State, 4-2 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. South Florida, 2-0 (Los Angeles Super Regional)
vs. South Florida, 3-1 (Los Angeles Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Fresno State (2), Long Beach State, LSU, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio State, San Diego State, Texas A&M
Notable nonconference losses: Long Beach State, Northwestern
Getting to know the Bruins
If you aren't familiar with the Bruins, you may need an introduction to college softball. It's a wonderful game, with lots of excitement and plenty of passionate fans. And these UCLA kids? They're pretty good.
After narrowly missing out on a third consecutive national title last season, the Bruins brought back everyone from what had been a young team and spent the regular season asserting their will on the rest of the nation. Sue Enquist doesn't turn out one-dimensional teams, but any analysis of the Bruins might as well start with Anjelica Selden in the circle. Just a sophomore, Selden has as much big-game experience as any pitcher and ensures that the Bruins won't have to worry about outslugging opponents.
Not that hitting their way to a win would necessarily be a problem. UCLA's lineup is composed almost entirely of juniors and seniors, with speed at the top and bottom of the order and plenty of power spread throughout. And between shortstop Jodie Legaspi and third baseman Andrea Duran, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, no team has a better left side of the infield.
Player to Watch: Anjelica Selden, P
Selden has lived a full softball lifetime in about 18 months. All the right-hander known as "Jelly" did as a freshman was step in for graduated ace Keira Goerl and persevere through an up-and-down regular season, by UCLA's lofty standards, that saw the team lose 20 games after winning back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004. But instead of faltering in the postseason for a flawed team, yielding either to inexperience or fatigue, Selden continued leading the Bruins from the circle as they erased memories of all the losses and advanced to the best-of-three national championship series against Michigan.
Of course, as softball fans well remember, Selden wasn't through battling adversity, as a misplaced pitch to Samantha Findlay in the third game of the final series handed Michigan the title (Selden ultimately gave up just four earned runs in 24 innings against Michigan).
Given all of that drama in such a brief span of time, it's perhaps surprising just how quietly the ace has gone about her business for the nation's No. 1 team this season. Last year, Selden averaged 10.4 strikeouts per seven innings with a 1.10 ERA. As a sophomore, she's averaging 10.4 strikeouts per seven innings with a 0.97 ERA. The most noticeable shifts in Selden's numbers come in somewhat contradictory fashion, as she's already won two more games than all of last season despite allowing considerably more runners per seven innings, both via hits and walks.
In some ways, Selden carried UCLA last season until the rest of the team found itself in the postseason. Perhaps, as good as she's been so far, she'll return the favor on the way to a title this season.
Coach: Mike Candrea
Road/Neutral record: 19-7
Pac-10 record: 15-6
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 2 overall seed)
vs. Marist, 9-0 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Ohio State, 6-3 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. Auburn, 4-2 W (Tucson Regional)
vs. LSU, 5-0 W (Tucson Super Regional)
vs. LSU, 3-2 L (Tucson Super Regional)
vs. LSU, 14-5 W (Tucson Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Northwestern, Texas, Texas A&M (2), Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette (3), Baylor (3), South Florida, Ohio State
Notable nonconference losses: Texas (2), Texas A&M
Lineup note: Since midseason, Mowatt has been a regular as the DP when Hollowell pitches. When Mowatt is in the circle, Sam Banister generally fills the role of DP.
Getting to know the Wildcats
Hollowell is one of the most decorated pitchers in the college game, and Lowe is the engine that drives a very young Wildcats team on offense, making it all the more impressive that Arizona is taking its accustomed place in Oklahoma City after losing both for extended periods of time this season.
Ranked No. 1 for much of the early season, the team faltered in late March and early April without the two stars and appeared to be searching for an identity. Sophomore pitcher Taryne Mowatt picked up the slack in the circle, winning 20 games this season to emerge as Hollowell's eventual successor, but an inexperienced lineup scored just 15 runs in Arizona's first eight conference games. But with the experience gained by young players under adverse conditions, and with Lowe and Hollowell back in action, the Wildcats are once again playing typical Arizona softball. Never was the growth more evident than when they exploded for 14 runs against LSU, led by Kristie Fox's eight RBI, to clinch a spot in Oklahoma City.
Candrea has shown a willingness to stick with Mowatt in the postseason, giving the Wildcats either the luxury of a second option in Oklahoma City or a well-rested Hollowell (she's on pace to pitch the fewest innings of her career, thanks in part to the time on the shelf) if they stick exclusively with the senior.
Player to Watch: Callista Balko, C
Finding shade isn't always easy in the Arizona desert, but sophomore catcher Callista Balko has more options than most thanks to the large shadows cast by others in the program at the University of Arizona. Between Lowe's .400 average and outfield heroics, Hollowell's staggering strikeout totals and Candrea's national profile, the Wildcats have more national name recognition than many entire conferences. So it seems almost unfair that in Balko, they appear to have developed yet another emerging star.
Balko started 50 games as a freshman in 2005, gaining valuable experience on a team that went to the WCWS. But she also took her share of lumps at the plate (in addition to the lumps earned behind the plate while catching Hollowell's heat), hitting just .205 on the season and striking out 50 times. But with Candrea repeatedly flummoxed by his young lineup, and Lowe out for essentially 10 games this season (she didn't play in nine and pinch ran in a 10th), Balko was one of several young players, along with junior college transfer Chelsie Mesa, to finally step up in support of mainstays Kristie Fox and Autumn Champion.
Arizona heads to Oklahoma City having won 15 of 16 games, a run that began following an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of UCLA in Los Angeles on April 23 (a win that gave the Bruins a regular-season sweep of the Wildcats). Before a tough day against LSU in the super regionals, Balko had been hitting .431 with an astounding seven home runs and 21 RBI in the first 14 wins of the streak. With another dangerous bat added to a roster that already includes two great pitchers and some experienced run producers, the Wildcats may have all the pieces to seek revenge on UCLA -- and everyone else in Oklahoma City.
Coach: Connie Clark
Road/Neutral record: 25-6
Big 12 record: 15-2
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 3 overall seed)
vs. UT-San Antonio, 4-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Indiana, 3-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Utah, 3-0 W (Austin Regional)
vs. Washington, 1-0 W (Austin Super Regional)
vs. Washington, 9-1 W (Austin Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Arizona (2), Fresno State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford (2), Washington
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Michigan, Texas State
Note: Stats are through the games of May 26.
Getting to know the Longhorns
The Longhorns are more than just one player, but perhaps no team in college sports right now is more defined by a single name than Texas and Cat Osterman. Already a legend as her college career enters its final week, Osterman has allowed just 78 earned runs in four seasons and earned an Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004. What Osterman doesn't have is an NCAA championship, but with an offense that has more pop than in past seasons, the Longhorns head to Oklahoma City with arguably their best chance yet to win the first national title for a Big 12 school (current conference member Texas A&M won in 1983 and 1987 before the creation of the Big 12).
Osterman likely will keep things close, but the production of emerging star slugger Desiree Williams and middle-of-the-order hitters like Tina Boutelle, Megan Willis and Amber Hall may determine whether perhaps the best college pitcher of all time goes out on top. Texas batters ranked seventh in the Big 12 in batting average, although only Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas hit more home runs.
Player to Watch: Tina Boutelle, CF
Osterman is unquestionably the headliner for Texas, but while one-woman acts may play on Broadway, they don't cut it in Oklahoma City. Watching Osterman baffle overmatched hitters, it's tempting to think Texas can march to a title with a string of 1-0 wins. But the team's history in Oklahoma City suggests it's impossible to prevail with that small a margin of error.
Osterman will need support from the offense, and nobody knows that better than Boutelle and the three other senior position players who have been down this road twice before. And perhaps like never before, Boutelle is capable of making a major difference on the scoreboard.
New hitting coach Corrie Hill, who came to Austin this season after running a UT-San Antonio program that annually ranked among the nation's top-hitting teams, has been credited with instilling a new attitude and producing a more potent lineup. It hasn't been an unqualified success -- the Longhorns rank last among the eight teams in Oklahoma City in both batting average and OPS -- but the team is undeniably better at putting the ball over the fence with a school-record 42 home runs.
Seemingly no player has taken the new philosophy more to heart than Boutelle. A starter almost from the day she arrived in 2003 (she has started 59 games this season and 208 of 215 appearances in four seasons), Boutelle is the team's primary slugging sidekick to sophomore shortstop Williams, a candidate for USA Softball Player of the Year. After hitting just nine home runs in her first three seasons, Boutelle exceeded that total in one season when she hit her 10th home run of the year in the super regional against Washington. And the power hasn't come at the expense of her all-around game, as she's hitting .311 with 26 RBI and a team-leading 24 stolen bases.
Coach: Kate Drohan
Road/Neutral record: 30-11
Big Ten record: 16-3
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 4 overall seed)
vs. Southern Illinois, 4-0 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. Notre Dame, 9-0 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. Notre Dame, 7-4 W (Evanston Regional)
vs. Massachusetts, 1-0 L (Evanston Super Regional)
vs. Massachusetts, 4-2 W (Evanston Super Regional)
vs. Massachusetts, 9-0 W (Evanston Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Cal, Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, Kansas (2), Massachusetts, Oregon State, San Diego State, UCLA
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Louisville, Oregon State, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas
Getting to know the Wildcats
Just five outs away from being eliminated by upset-minded Massachusetts in the Evanston Super Regional, the Wildcats rallied to win two games in a row and advance to the program's first Women's College World Series in 20 years.
Like Michigan last season, Northwestern rode through the Big Ten with the help of an emerging junior ace in the circle and a potent middle of the order at the plate. Eileen Canney leads the team in wins, including one at UCLA and the clincher against Massachusetts, as the team heads to Oklahoma City, but the Wildcats also have depth in the form of senior Courtnay Foster. The latter won a start in both the regionals and super regionals, giving coach Kate Drohan another option in the circle. At the plate, assistant coach Caryl Drohan (Kate's twin sister) is a proponent of an aggressive approach, although Northwestern demonstrated a willingness to play small ball in advancing through the first two weekends of postseason play.
After a brutal nonconference schedule that included games against five Pac-10 teams, the Wildcats can't be expected to be overwhelmed by the surroundings in Oklahoma City. As the rally against the Minutewomen proved, they're tough to rattle even when things aren't going well.
Player to Watch: Garland Cooper, 1B
Who is Garland Cooper?
If conference player of the year winners were a category on "Jeopardy," the reigning two-time Big Ten award winner would be worth big money at the bottom of the board. Overshadowed on the national stage by sluggers in warmer climates, and Samantha Findlay and Becky Marx in her own conference, Cooper is a legitimate top-tier offensive star.
In addition to hitting .367 with eight home runs and 40 RBI in 60 games this season, perhaps Cooper's most valuable contribution has been in mentoring freshman shortstop Tammy Williams. Affectionately called "Mini-me" by Cooper, Williams filled a void left by the departure of Stephanie Churchwell and leads the team with a .379 average and 13 home runs this season.
Not that Cooper is purely a professor on the field. Already the school's all-time leader in RBI and total bases, the junior knows how to rise to the occasion. It was her home run against UCLA's Anjelica Selden that broke up a no-hitter and sparked Northwestern's comeback in Los Angeles.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Coach: Pat Murphy
Road/Neutral record: 24-5
SEC record: 25-4
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 5 overall seed)
vs. Miss. Valley State, 8-0 W (Tuscaloosa Regional)
vs. Georgia Tech, 8-5 W (Tuscaloosa Regional)
vs. Georgia Tech, 7-2 W (Tuscaloosa Regional)
vs. Stanford, W 4-1 (Tuscaloosa Super Regional)
vs. Stanford, W 8-7 (Tuscaloosa Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Fresno State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Utah
Notable nonconference losses: Arizona, Missouri State, Southern Miss
Lineup note: VanBrakle is a hitting pitcher, with Johnson often being replaced by the designated player in the batting order.
Getting to know the Crimson Tide
Regular-season champions in the SEC, the Crimson Tide are in Oklahoma City for the second year in a row and the third time in the last four years. They were eliminated last season after being shut out by Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott but also picked up the program's second WCWS victory with a win against DePaul.
Senior ace Stephanie VanBrakle has started four of the five WCWS games she's been around for in her career and posted a 28-5 record with a 1.03 ERA this season. But VanBrakle also has help in the circle in the form of sophomore Chrissy Owens. Owens didn't play in Oklahoma City last season but pitched key innings out of the bullpen in Alabama's 8-7 win against Stanford to reach the final eight this season.
Aside from the two pitchers, the Crimson Tide boast a balanced offensive attack, ranking fourth in the SEC in batting average, third in runs scored and first in stolen bases.
Player to Watch: Jordan Praytor, OF/DP
Along with leadoff hitter Brittany Rogers, Jordan Praytor's job is to set the table for a deep and talented Alabama lineup. And like any good Southern hosts, Rogers and Praytor rarely let anyone go away hungry.
Both Praytor and Rogers get on base better than 46 percent of the time, and between them, the top two hitters in the order have stolen 65 bases so far this season. The ability to drive both hitters and fielders to distraction with high-bouncing infield singles and then push them over the edge with aggressive running on the bases is an important part of offense in softball, especially against the kind of pitchers the Crimson Tide will face in Oklahoma City.
But what separates Praytor from even her talented freshman teammate at the top of the order is the former's ability to dispatch the ball to the deepest parts of the outfield when the hitters at the bottom of the batting order set the table for her. Because in addition to hitting .411 with almost as many walks (16) as strikeouts (20) and 55 runs scored, Praytor is slugging .657 with 12 doubles, nine home runs and 34 RBI.
It's all a dramatic change for a player who hit .339 as a freshman in 2005 but matched a .413 on-base percentage with a more modest .439 slugging percentage and just one home run. But with nine hits, seven runs, three RBI, three steals and a home run in Alabama's first five NCAA Tournament games, it's clear that Praytor can do it all.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Coach: Clint Myers
Road/Neutral record: 32-8
Pac-10 record: 11-10
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 6 overall seed)
vs. Long Island, 6-0 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Hofstra, 2-0 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Penn State, 5-0 W (Hempstead Regional)
vs. Florida State, 6-1 W (Tempe Super Regional)
vs. Florida State, 5-1 W (Tempe Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Auburn, Baylor (2) Fresno State, Iowa (4), Louisiana-Lafayette, North Carolina, Portland State, Utah
Notable nonconference losses: Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Lineup note: Knabe and Miller have shared catching duties this season, with Knabe getting the start in four of five NCAA Tournament games.
Getting to know the Sun Devils
Coach Clint Myers knows a little something about domination, having compiled a 483-41 record at Central Arizona College before moving to Arizona State, but the Sun Devils appeared to be a long way from the top of the heap coming off a 4-17 record in the Pac-10 and an early postseason exit at the hands of Hofstra in 2005. But in his first season in Tempe, Myers has put all the pieces together to forge a championship contender.
Arizona State entered the NCAA Tournament as the sixth overall seed after winning 46 games in the regular season. Adding freshmen Kaitlin Cochran and Jessica Mapes to a young nucleus with talent beyond what last season's record might have suggested, including sophomore ace Katie Burkhart and senior pitcher Desiree Serrano, also produced a winning conference record.
Myers is a former baseball player and coach, and Arizona State's offensive numbers would make any "Moneyball" GM proud. The Sun Devils ranked seventh in the conference in batting average but second in home runs, first in walks and second in runs. The pitchers matched that hitting prowess by ranking second in the Pac-10 with a 1.17 team ERA. Defense was Arizona State's biggest weakness; only Oregon had more errors among conference teams.
Player to Watch: Kaitlin Cochran, CF
It's possible that she had a tough final exam or couldn't come up with the quarters for the washing machines in the dorms, but at least on the softball field, Cochran is still waiting for a challenge she can't meet.
Cochran tore through Arizona State's nonconference schedule, hitting .521 with 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases. But in the first year under Myers, and facing a typically grueling Pac-10 schedule, the Sun Devils didn't play the elite teams from the SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten in the early going. So surely, the giants of the league would expose Cochran's flaws and put the youngster in her place.
Cochran's numbers did slip to mere mortal excellence in conference play, but she proved herself one of the game's best hitters, regardless of experience, by leading the team with a .317 average and seven home runs in 21 games against the best competition in the college game. For the season, she is hitting .448, edging Arizona's Caitlin Lowe for the top mark in the Pac-10, and has 37 walks against just 21 strikeouts to go along with all that power.
Michigan's Samantha Findlay showed last season that power is sometimes a perfectly suitable alternative to experience in Oklahoma City. And while Cochran lacks experience on the game's biggest stage, everyone else lacks experience in getting her out.
Oregon State Beavers
Coach: Kirk Walker
Road/Neutral record: 26-8
Pac-10 record: 10-10
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 7 overall seed)
vs. Nevada, 2-1 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Baylor, 5-3 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Baylor, 3-1 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Cal, 2-1 L (Corvallis Super Regional)
vs. Cal, 3-0 W (Corvallis Super Regional)
vs. Cal, 1-0 W (Corvallis Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Baylor, Cal State Fullerton (2), LSU, Northwestern, Texas A&M, UC Santa Barbara
Notable nonconference losses: Nebraska, Northwestern, Portland State
Lineup note: Walker used six different batting orders in Oregon State's six postseason games leading up to the WCWS. McGowan hits for herself when pitching, while DeWall and Iapala share at-bats in the outfield and Ewing and Iapala share at-bats as the designated player (usually batting for second baseman Lowe or third baseman Galvan).
Getting to know the Beavers
A year after sharing the Pac-10 title, Oregon State's emerging program took another leap forward by staging a dramatic rally to knock off Cal in the super regionals and advance to the team's first Women's College World Series. But don't label the Beavers -- who were the higher seed playing at home in Corvallis against Cal -- a Cinderella. Under coach Kirk Walker's direction, the team has spent years taking its lumps in the Pac-10 and gradually building toward this goal.
Ace Brianne McGowan, who is also tied for second on the team in home runs, made a statement about her place among the game's elite pitchers by beating Cal's Kristina Thorson twice in one day to clinch the spot in Oklahoma City. And McGowan has support at the plate, led by sophomore slugger Cambria Miranda, who hit .313 with seven home runs in 20 Pac-10 games this season. Ranking fifth in the conference in team batting and team pitching, and fourth in team fielding, the Beavers win with a balanced all-around approach.
Player to Watch: Mia Longfellow, SS
Hitting consistently in the Pac-10 is enough to get anyone down. It's a league where a road trip might begin with Anjelica Selden and end with Danielle Lawrie, or shift from Alicia Hollowell to Katie Burkhart in the heat of the Arizona desert. But against Cal in the super regionals, Mia Longfellow and the rest of the top of the order for Oregon State didn't let the past prevent them from prolonging the present.
Longfellow, a junior shortstop and three-year starter for the Beavers, led the team with a .335 average this season. But after hitting .389 in nonconference action, she saw her average tumble to just .200 in 20 Pac-10 games. Facing Cal (against whom she had just one hit in nine at-bats) with the season on the line after dropping the opening game of the super regional, a lesser player might have given in to pressure. But Longfellow's first-inning fireworks helped give McGowan the comfort of a lead in both games on Sunday, sending the Beavers to Oklahoma City. Oregon State has stars in McGowan and Miranda, but the contributions and toughness of the other regulars played just as big a role in the team's success.
Tennessee Lady Vols
Coach: Karen and Ralph Weekly
Road/Neutral record: 37-5
SEC record: 21-9
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 8 overall seed)
vs. Missouri State, 11-2 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. Long Beach State, 6-3 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. San Diego State, 4-2 W (Los Angeles Regional)
vs. Michigan, 5-3 W (Knoxville Super Regional)
vs. Michigan, 5-1 L (Knoxville Super Regional)
vs. Michigan, 1-0 W (Knoxville Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Florida State, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, NC State, Northwestern, Oregon, South Florida
Notable nonconference losses: None
Lineup note: With Durant back in the lineup, there was some shuffling against Michigan. The biggest conundrum came at third, where Jennifer Griffin and Kenora Posey split time.
Getting to know the Lady Vols
On paper, Tennessee sure looks a lot like "UCLA East" (or perhaps, "UCLA-Lite" to critics). The Lady Vols have a dominant ace in Monica Abbott, a junior who is likely to eventually break Cat Osterman's still-fresh record for career strikeouts. They have a lineup that produces runs and torments pitchers from all nine slots, and they have a reliable defense that led the nation in fielding percentage. But it's a long way from stat sheet to championship trophy, and the Lady Vols don't carry the same kind of experience and swagger to Oklahoma City that the Bruins (or Arizona and even Texas) own in abundance.
Tennessee advanced to the Women's College World Series for the second time in as many years (and the second time ever) by taking care of defending champion Michigan in the Knoxville Super Regional. Abbott wasn't perfect in the three-game set, lasting less than two innings in the second game, but she came up big with a shutout in the clincher. The tall ace made a name for herself in Oklahoma City last season, leading the team to three wins and a third-place finish. And the return of senior run producer Kristi Durant, who played against Michigan after missing over a month, should help bolster an already dangerous lineup.
Player to Watch: Sarah Fekete, CF
If hitting a round ball with a round bat is really the most difficult feat in sports, as the old saying suggests, then Tennessee's Sarah Fekete might want to move on to finding a cure for cancer or inventing a perpetual motion machine, because she can check off this challenge.
Good teams post winning percentages of .522; players don't hit .522, not even if they reside among the slap-hitting segment of softball society. But that's exactly what Fekete has done this season, collecting 107 hits in 205 at-bats. In Tennessee's final two games against Michigan in the super regionals, Fekete touched up Wolverines ace Jennie Ritter for three hits in six at-bats and saw her average drop. Talk about setting the bar high.
As the leadoff hitter for a team that has scored 429 runs in 68 games entering play at the WCWS, the senior outfielder -- who also boasts a .570 on-base percentage thanks to 19 walks -- gets the Lady Vols going. And unlike last season, when she was actually pinch hit for during Tennessee's run in Oklahoma City, she's unlikely to spend much time on the bench this year.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.