Both Cats should provide plenty of WCWS title sparks
More similar than different, Northwestern and Arizona are well-coached squads with dominant pitching and lineups that provide offensive support.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 2006 Women's College World Series championship series has No. 2 overall seed Arizona facing No. 4 seed Northwestern (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
Here's a breakdown of the two championship series teams:
Strengths: Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly compared the Arizona Wildcats to the New York Yankees after his Lady Vols were eliminated by the Wildcats on Sunday in Oklahoma City. And while Mike Candrea's program undeniably has some dynastic qualities, winning six national titles since the coach took over in 1986, the on-field product looks a little more like last year's Chicago White Sox.
Tuesday, June 6
Monday, June 5
And like the White Sox, the Wildcats are strong and deep in the pitching rotation. Taryne Mowatt might be the best No. 2 pitcher in college softball, but she's unlikely to pitch any innings against Northwestern with senior Alicia Hollowell carrying the load in the circle. Knocked out of action by a line drive to the face earlier in the season, Hollowell has rebounded and capped a strong WCWS run with a two-hit shutout against Tennessee in Sunday's clincher.
When they're playing their best, as has been the case in all but one game thus far in Oklahoma City, the Wildcats are both fiery and entirely disciplined. They committed just 31 errors in the regular season, a remarkable figure even with the number of strikeouts posted by their pitchers.
Weaknesses: A young team -- Hollowell and Champion are the only senior starters -- the Wildcats were enigmatic in the regular season, slipping from the No. 1 ranking they held for much of season's early months and eventually finishing behind UCLA in the Pac-10 despite a late-season winning streak. When freshmen Jenae Leles and Laine Roth and junior-college transfer Chelsie Mesa aren't hitting well behind the top four hitters, the Wildcats have at times struggled to score runs.
Hollowell has been terrific in Oklahoma City, but she did post the highest regular-season ERA of her four years (albeit a still-stellar 1.00 mark). After pitching two complete games on Sunday to advance, it's possible she could be slow out of the gate against Northwestern in Monday's championship series opener.
Strengths: Don't make the mistake of labeling Northwestern as Cinderella. The Wildcats might be a feel-good story from a conference still fighting for softball legitimacy, and this team might have surprised a lot of people by reaching the championship series, but Cinderella teams aren't the No. 4 overall seed in a 64-team bracket.
Regular season champs in the Big Ten, these Wildcats might be as battle-tested a team as any conference (other than the Pac-10) has ever produced, having played a brutal nonconference schedule. The long road trips and tough opposition took an early toll -- including an 8-0 loss to Arizona on Feb. 10. The challenges, however, also forged a mind-set that eventually helped the Wildcats score some impressive wins, like one at UCLA in March, that preceded their success in Oklahoma City.
Mental toughness aside, Northwestern is simply a very talented and balanced team. Although not quite as prolific with the long ball as Michigan was last season, the Wildcats have the power to make pitchers pay a heavy price for the few mistakes that are made in games at this level. Freshman Tammy Williams and junior Garland Cooper provide the bulk of the home runs, but seniors Jamie Dotson and Kristen Amegin also provide middle-of-the-order run production, combining for nearly as many RBI as Williams and Cooper.
While not completely reluctant to manufacture runs, under associate head coach and hitting coach Caryl Drohan (twin sister of head coach Kate Drohan), the Wildcats are more likely to let their top hitters swing away than bunt.
In the circle, junior Eileen Canney has backed up a regular season effort that landed her Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors ahead of Michigan ace Jennie Ritter with two of her best performances in Oklahoma City. After a rough first start against Alabama, she kept both Tennessee and UCLA in check under intense pressure. Senior Courtnay Foster, like Arizona's Taryne Mowatt a 20-game winner as a No. 2 pitcher, offers reliable depth should Canney run into trouble.
Weaknesses: Northwestern is less consistent on defense than Arizona, compiling more than twice as many errors as its opponents in the championship series. And while players such as Erin Dyer and Darcy Sengewald came up with huge hits for the team in Oklahoma City, the bottom of the order includes some mediocre batting averages with only modest power. And with just nine hits all season from players who didn't start regularly, there aren't many options on the bench.
And while it's difficult to imagine this team succumbing to the pressure of the moment, it can't be discounted that it's the first trip to the Women's College World Series for both these players and their coaches (the program last reached the WCWS in 1986).
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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