Category archive: Alabama Crimson Tide
Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 4 Alabama
Last season: 52-11, lost in Tuscaloosa super regional
Who returns: Alabama returns 84 percent of its starts from a team that swept the SEC regular season and conference tournament titles and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. That mark includes two players on the preseason watch list for national player-of-the-year honors: senior pitcher Kelsi Dunne and sophomore Kayla Braud, who will move from second base to left field this season after hitting .505 with 45 stolen bases in her debut.
Not enough? How about six more players who topped .900 in OPS for the Crimson Tide in 2010: Amanda Locke (1.125), Whitney Larsen (1.057), Cassie Reilly-Boccia (1.041), Courtney Conley (1.017), Jazlyn Lunceford (.970) and Jennifer Fenton (.935). With that kind of depth, it's understandable that Lauren Sewell didn't get much time as a freshman last season, but the sophomore could be a versatile role player as both a hitter with power and a pitcher with heat this time around.
Who departs: The lone Californian on the roster during her time in Tuscaloosa, Charlotte Morgan came to embody the ethos of Alabama softball as well as any local product ever has. She was one of the most feared hitters in college softball, a quality No. 2 pitcher who could eat up innings and an unchallenged leader in the clubhouse. Basically, there's a chance she might be missed.
Who arrives: A local hotel stationed a bed beyond the fence in center field as part of a promotion in Alabama's park last season, and Crimson Tide coach Pat Murphy isn't illuminating the "No vacancy" sign just yet. Prized recruit Jackie Traina is expected to contribute immediately as both a pitcher and a hitter, while Ryan Iamurri and Kaila Hunt are in the running for immediate time alongside Larsen in the middle infield. Not to be outdone, Jordan Patterson, daughter of the Alabama gymnastics coach, is already pushing established veterans Kendall Dawson and Olivia Gibson for time behind the plate.
Preseason question: How do you get over being the "other" team in an ESPY moment?
Libraries around the globe would pay good money for the kind of silence that fell over the stands in Tuscaloosa after Hawaii completed its comeback with a two-out, walk-off home run to eliminate the top seed in last season's super regional.
It was the kind of moment that could linger in a team's collective psyche, particularly a team with so many returning players who lived it in real time. If lest to fester, it might even prove an incurable impediment.
Or it might prove to be the point in time when the Crimson Tide found their leaders in players who suddenly found themselves seniors as they walked off the field after the loss.
In the circle when the home run sailed over the fence, Dunne didn't duck questions after the fact, the sunglasses covering her eyes her only apparent concession to the pain of the moment in the indoor press conference following the game. And while the way last season ended isn't a frequent topic of conversation for the team as a whole, either as rallying cry or nightmarish memory, it's fuel for the fire for a pitcher whose height belies a style built on the gambler's blend of guile and spin.
"She's probably the most resilient kid we've ever had," Murphy said. "And with a pitcher, in softball especially, you have to be. If you're not, you pretty much get buried quickly. She's been very resilient. She's had her share of heartbroken moments, and she's had her share of great moments. But I really think she's using it to her advantage.
"She's going to be like the horror-movie monster; she can't be killed. She keeps coming back for more."
Whitney Larsen was supposed to be the hero that day, the local kid whose three-run homer in the sixth inning gave Alabama a 4-3 lead. Now she and Dunne are the only seniors and expected to lead, arguably a tougher assignment than hero.
"She's just a totally different kid, on and off the field," Murphy said. "She's never given us an ounce of issues, but she's zoned in and she's really taken that leadership position to heart. She gave a really, really good speech at our welcome-back meeting in January. I think she's done some research on it; she's really done a great job. She's a kid that everybody looks toward for vocal leadership, but now she's doing both sides. She's walking the walk and talking the talk."
So how does Alabama move on and resume pursuit of the program's first national championship? By playing a little follow the leader.
When Florida and Alabama opened last season atop the polls, the question of the moment was whether the SEC had caught the Pac-10 as the sport's pre-eminent power base.
By the time Washington finished celebrating its first national championship on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, it was clear the softball arms race -- ironically in one of the kindest seasons to batters in recent memory -- was nowhere near such a neat and tidy resolution.
The SEC and others are moving ahead full steam, but they're chasing a moving target.
Washington opens this season poised to defend its title and ranked No. 1. The first Pac-10 team other than Arizona or UCLA to win a national championship when it did so in 2002, Cal appears back in position to challenge for a spot in the World Series and possibly even a second title. Stanford keeps adding talent and can make a strong case as the best team not to reach the World Series in the past five years. A season after making do without Katie Burkhart well enough to reach Oklahoma City, Arizona State must repeat the process without Katie Cochran. But the Sun Devils have more than enough talent to avoid falling off the pace set by their 2008 title team.
And those are just the contenders that didn't win 19 of the first 24 NCAA championships, loot divvied up between UCLA (10 titles and one vacated title) and Arizona (eight titles).
University of Washington Athletic Department If Washington makes it back to the WCWS, Danielle Lawrie will be a threat.
Is the rest of the country catching up to Arizona and UCLA? With as much talent as there is this season in Tucson and Westwood, it's undoubtedly so. It's just that to a greater degree than ever before, despite the Pac-10's long history of large World Series contingents, the rest of the country includes places like Tempe, Ariz.; Berkeley and Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle.
2. Is Washington the team to beat?
Even if you don't subscribe to the theory that the champions deserve that label until it's taken from them, the Huskies qualify strictly on the merits of the here and now.
That isn't to say coach Heather Tarr's team is unquestionably better than last season's version. It lost a huge tangible piece in All-American second baseman Ashley Charters and perhaps an equally noteworthy intangible piece in catcher Alicia Blake, Danielle Lawrie's catcher for three seasons. But the pieces the Huskies return -- and there are a lot -- should be better. Sophomores Kimi Pohlman and Niki Williams have a year of success to build on, while junior third baseman Morgan Stuart has a year of work at the hot corner to build on after shifting from shortstop. And senior Jennifer Salling, whose midseason arrival necessitated Stuart's shift, won't have to jump in midstream.
And there is, of course, Lawrie. After pitching through a stress fracture in her pitching arm for much of last season, she's healthy and without peer in the college ranks now that former Florida ace Stacey Nelson has moved on. Last year, Lawrie pitched through two road trips in regionals and super regionals, plus a long elimination day against Georgia in the World Series; in so doing, she proved she can overwhelm opponents when she's at her best and blink past when she's not.
3. Which player could alter the college softball landscape?
Matt Dunaway/LSU Athletics LSU's Rachele Fico has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
How's that for a buildup? But when you threw perfect games by the dozens in high school in Connecticut, helped a Florida travel ball team upset the softball establishment in knocking off the California powers to win the prestigious ASA Gold title, pitched against Team USA after your junior year in high school and earned space on "SportsCenter" and in The New York Times, lofty expectations get packed for school right along with the notebooks and clothes.
LSU freshman Rachele Fico is just one of several highly touted freshman pitchers dotting big-time rosters around the country, but she has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
All the accomplishments and experiences predating her arrival in Baton Rouge help, as does her place in a program with perhaps the richest softball tradition in the SEC but that, like the rest of the conference, is still looking for its first national championship. It also doesn't hurt that Fico has both the ability to blow pitches past batters and a sense of spin and control beyond her 18 years.
She even sounds like a seasoned vet in passing credit to her defense -- a defense that isn't likely to get a lot of work on days when she's on top of her game.
"I'm extremely comfortable with my team; I know I have a great defense behind me," Fico said a few days before her debut. "So I'm not scared to throw pitches and I know if they do get put into play my teammates are going to make the plays behind me."
The sport is also evolving to give freshman pitchers a greater shot at success. While Connecticut high schoolers still throw from 40 feet, Fico's experience in travel ball and pitching for the elite Stratford Brakettes amateur team (alongside players like former LSU catcher Killian Roessner) means pitching from a consistent 43 feet in college is actually something of a relief, rather than a challenge to overcome.
"My biggest adjustment to 43 feet with pitching was probably my changeup," Fico said. "When I switched to 43 feet, I had to work on getting the ball to get there a little bit more. But it's really nice to have those extra three feet because it gives us so much time to make the ball spin and get a little bit more break on it."
4. Which team could make a surprise trip to Oklahoma City?
There is almost always at least one team that sneaks up on fans and pundits. Two seasons ago, Louisiana-Lafayette went from No. 20 in the preseason Top 25 to the World Series. Last season Missouri and Georgia rose from Nos. 23 and 19, respectively, to Oklahoma City.
Now it's about time No. 19 Florida State ends its World Series hiatus.
The Seminoles will need more consistent run production this season, no small task considering they lost their best hitter, Kaleigh Rafter. A team that slugged an anemic .366 in 2009 has some work to do, but senior outfielder Carly Wynn (.530 slugging, .409 on-base percentage) is a good place to begin building a lineup. The Seminoles should once again get a boost from the transfer market -- like they did with Rafter -- with the arrivals of Jen Lapicki from Tennessee and Tory Haddad from Ohio State, patient hitters with the ability to add to the team's extra-base hit totals.
The good news is Florida State doesn't need to set scoring records as long as Sarah Hamilton and Terese Gober are splitting innings in the circle. The two combined to go 44-16 with 519 strikeouts and just 87 walks in 421 1/3 innings, reminiscent in some ways of Northwestern's duo of Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster in that program's breakout 2006 campaign.
5. Who are three players who deserve a brighter spotlight?
Carly Normandin, OF, Massachusetts The Minutewomen might have been one of the best teams in the country last season. They just had the misfortune to play 22 innings against Danielle Lawrie on the final day of regionals. Ace Brandice Balschmiter is gone, which will make a repeat performance difficult, but Normandin was one of the toughest omissions from this season's ESPN.com All-America team. Her bat is streaky, but the end product (.727 slugging, .457 on-base percentage) is indisputably great. And what never wavers is her defense. It's tough to make declarative defensive statements without more widely available video and statistics, but I know this: I've never seen a better outfielder.
Kylie Reynolds, P, Kent State All she's done for the past three years is strike out batter and win games. A season ago, she finished sixth nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- and it was the first season in which she didn't win MAC Pitcher of the Year honors (Ball State's Elizabeth Milian ended her run). In 236 innings, Reynolds struck out 345 batters and limited opponents to a .190 batting average. And Reynolds isn't just a MAC phenomenon. Last season alone, she struck out 11 in a loss at Arizona State, didn't allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings in a loss against Iowa and shut out a good Texas State team for an upset win.
Melissa Roth, C, Louisville The Big East may not be the Pac-10 or SEC -- it may not even be the Big Ten or ACC -- but if you hit .444 with an .870 slugging percentage and .566 on-base percentage, you can get it done in any uniform. That includes the Team USA uniform Roth wore in the Pan American Games. Her only problem is she's caught, pun intended, at what's surprisingly one of the deepest positions when it comes to elite hitters, joining the likes of Sam Marder, Chelsea Bramlett and Stacie Chambers in fighting for recognition behind the plate.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
3 p.m. ET | ESPN
Pitching: Stacey Nelson was arguably the best pitcher in the country over the course of the regular season and first two weeks of the NCAA tournament (and it was strictly a two-pitcher argument between Nelson and Danielle Lawrie). So to say she's taken her game to another level at the Women's College World Series suggests exactly how difficult a task it will be for Alabama to win once, let alone twice, Sunday. Nelson has allowed just three hits in two starts in Oklahoma City, striking out 21 and walking just three without hitting a batter.
Things have not gone as smoothly for Kelsi Dunne, who presumably will get the start in the game Alabama needs to force a second game Sunday. But if Dunne hasn't been perfect, walking six and hitting one against Michigan in the opener and serving up a long home run to Arizona State's Katie Crabbe on Saturday, her imperfection has been revealing. A pitcher who sometimes struggles to push through squeezed strike zones, perceived or real, she took everything in stride against the Sun Devils and retired nine of the final 10 batters she faced after the Crimson Tide reclaimed the lead.
Florida handed Dunne one her worst losses of the season when the teams met in late March, piling up nine runs while managing to leave 11 runners on base. But she also bounced back the next day to beat the Gators, striking out 13. Dunne can occasionally hand out too many walks, and Florida is a team that loves to set the table for its power by taking free passes, so the size of the strike zone will be a key to the action.
Hitting: With a lineup that has power stretching from leadoff hitter Aja Paculba all the way down to Kim Waleszonia in the No. 9 hole, Florida has enough depth to pile up runs in a hurry. As it has proved in the World Series, it also has the depth to erase a lot of lean innings with one, quick swing of the bat. A lot of Gators have had success against the Crimson Tide -- they've scored 31 runs in four games against them -- but Kelsey Bruder, Aja Paculba and Francesca Enea have enjoyed particular success. There's not a long history of success against Nelson for Alabama to build on, but Charlotte Morgan's home run in the SEC tournament was the first Nelson allowed all season. Lauren Parker has also managed to pick up some hits against Florida's ace over the past two seasons.
Fielding: Nelson's dominance hasn't forced the Gators to work hard in the field -- half of the outs needed have come by way of strikeout. Alabama was uncharacteristically porous in its loss here against Michigan. It rebounded nicely Saturday but did commit four errors in four games this season against Florida.
Player to watch: Jazlyn Lunceford
The hero of Alabama's win Saturday against Arizona State, when her pinch hit grand slam gave the Crimson Tide a lead they wouldn't relinquish, Lunceford may get a chance at a few more at-bats. The positive vibes of the grand slam don't hurt, but Lunceford also has a history against Nelson. In Alabama's lone win against the Gators, the freshman had two hits, including a triple, and two RBIs.
9:30 p.m. ET | ESPN
Alabama couldn't escape the ghosts of past first-day failures in Thursday's loss against Michigan -- it has never won an opening game in six World Series trips. But after putting up a Women's College World Series record 14 runs in an afternoon elimination game against Arizona, the Crimson Tide get an opportunity to exorcise another boogeyman in a rematch of last season's controversial epic.
Alabama and Arizona State met twice in last year's event, but it's the first game people in Tuscaloosa still see in their nightmares. In that game, with two outs in the top of the seventh, an apparent foul ball was ruled to have nicked third baseman Kelley Montalvo's glove, giving Arizona State a two-run double and eventually the 3-1 win.
In a somewhat unusual twist for Saturday night at the World Series, this rematch will come in a game between two teams with rested aces. Alabama got a shutout from No. 2 starter Charlotte Morgan against Alabama, allowing it to hold back sophomore Kelsi Dunne for the team's second game of the day.
Just about all the Crimson Tide got in on the action against Arizona, but the top of the lineup was the most productive. Seniors Brittany Rogers, Lauren Parker and Montalvo, along with junior All-American Morgan, combined for 10 hits and seven RBIs. Given the team's uncharacteristic flat performance against Michigan two days earlier, that production was a positive sign, to put it mildly, that internal leadership took hold in the wake of Thursday's loss.
Player to Watch: Lesley Rogers
The Arizona State outfielder hasn't been a constant in the lineup this season -- few players are constants in Arizona State coach Clint Myers' rotation of regulars -- but she had three of her team's six hits in the two games between the teams last season.
It's a perfect day in Oklahoma City, wedged between the surprisingly cool temperatures yesterday and the impending return to normalcy -- i.e., heat and insufferable humidity.
The line already forming outside the main gates an hour and a half before first pitch between Washington and Georgia looked promising. The first session is usually a good barometer of how attendance will go for the rest of the event. It's a weekday afternoon, so it's not likely to be standing room only, but when the main stands around the field filled up last year and people started trickling into the large temporary bleachers in the outfield, it was pretty clear a record-breaking total attendance was in the works.
But like anything these days, it'll be interesting to see if the economy takes a bite out of ticket sales.
The marquee games may be in the evening session, with self-proclaimed underdog No. 1 Florida taking on actual underdog No. 9 Arizona in an SEC-versus-Pac-10 showdown and a battle of top-five seeds between No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Michigan. But it's also a good afternoon to take a long lunch (or at least surreptitiously bring up ESPN360.com at work).
Washington vs. Georgia, 1 p.m. ET: No USA Softball Player of the Year has ever won a title in the same season in which she won the award. If Washington's Danielle Lawrie wants to end that streak, she and the Huskies can't afford to let this game slip away. More than any other team here, Washington relies on one pitcher. Lawrie certainly has shown an ability to throw a lot of innings in a short period of time (most recently logging 22 innings against Massachusetts on the final day of the regional in Amherst), but slipping into the loser's bracket here would make for a long road just to get to the championship series. (Watch this game: ESPN360.com)
Arizona State vs. Missouri, 3 p.m ET: Assuming Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine doesn't throw a curve and start Stacey Delaney, which isn't beyond the realm of possibility, a freshman pitcher will win a game at the World Series when Hillary Bach and Chelsea Thomas tangle. The Sun Devils are less likely to go to the bullpen, so it'll be interesting to see if the Tigers are able to make better adjustments as the game moves along. (Watch this game: ESPN360.com)
And as if to suggest it won't mind waiting out anything anyone wants to throw at it during the next three weeks, Florida seized control when Megan Bush lined the 15th pitch of her first-inning at-bat over the fence in left field for a grand slam and a 5-2 lead.
University of Florida Athletics Stacey Nelson struck out eight against Alabama.
Even Mother Nature has some work to do when it comes to slowing the Gators.
Bush's blast wasn't quite enough to provide the winning margin, but it set the day's theme early in forcing the Crimson Tide to play from behind. And when a late rally proved to be too little, too late for Alabama, Florida had an 8-5 win and its second consecutive sweep of the conference regular-season and tournament titles.
"I think Florida is by far the best team in the country," Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly said of the team that earlier eliminated the host Lady Vols by an 11-3 margin in the semifinals. "There's no question about it. It's kind of like playing the New York Yankees."
The championship game itself was anything but a classic, unless you enjoy watching an umpire handle the strike zone like a circus carny setting up the bottles on the ring toss -- no matter how wide the plate looked from the circle, it wasn't big enough to accommodate a softball. The first inning and a half took an hour to play, littered with four walks and three hit batters, as both pitchers tried to work the inside corner -- the only place anyone stood a remote chance of getting a pitch called a strike.
"I don't think I would have wanted to be a pitcher today," Alabama catcher Ashley Holcombe said. "Because sometimes you just feel like you don't know what you have to do to get a strike called. But we had the same situation the first inning -- we had bases loaded with one out. And they hit the grand slam and we didn't."
But if circumstances prevented an aesthetically pleasing show Sunday, the Gators spent their three days on the field in Knoxville shaking off any signs of competitive rust after clinching the regular-season conference title on April 18 (or such competitive rust as existed after winning their final seven regular-season games by a 60-1 margin).
Against Auburn in a quarterfinal, the Gators struck out seven times and walked just once in pulling out a 3-0 win. A day later in an 11-3 semifinal run-rule rout against host Tennessee, they walked five times and struck out once. And it's no coincidence that the one walk they drew against Auburn came to lead off the bottom of the first inning in what became a two-run frame against a quality pitcher in Anna Thompson.
It's not that the Gators necessarily rely on walks (although they did lead the SEC in free passes per game), but when they're drawing them, it's an indication they aren't getting themselves out at the plate. And so far this season, they've had more success getting themselves out than all but a handful of pitchers have fared with the same challenge.
"I thought [in the quarterfinal against Auburn,] we were taking too many good pitches and then we'd go up there and maybe swing at a couple of bad pitches," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "[Against Tennessee,] I thought we did a good job laying off the tough pitches and swinging at the good pitches. You could tell by the walks and the number of hits we had, we did a good job; when they threw strikes over the plate, we were looking for them."
And when the walks were there for the taking early against Alabama, Florida took them and made them count when Bush's shot -- the only hit of the inning -- cleared the fence.
"The hand-eye coordination, that obviously you're born [with]," Walton said. "But I think more than anything, the approach is taught. And that's the approach of our team; we're looking for pitches. You very rarely see us swing at pitches out of the zone in good counts."
The flip side of the equation is the Gators can afford to be patient more than any other team. Among major-conference teams, Arizona and Arizona State average more runs per game than the Gators, but there may not be a more balanced lineup from top to bottom.
With the exception of No. 9 hitter Michelle Moultrie, the eight other hitters in Walton's lineup entered Saturday's game with on-base percentages between .380 and .493 (and seven of them were between .419 and .493). Six starters entered with slugging percentages of .548 or better and six starters entered hitting between .329 and .387.
On and on go the numbers, but in the land of Tennessee whiskey, the truth is easily distilled.
"We've got probably 11 of the toughest outs in the country," Walton said.
Now we can only wait and hope this was only the middle act of a three-act play between these two teams, regardless of what day and what scenario might await a rematch in Oklahoma City at the Women's College World Series. Because even as Florida showed off its offense, Alabama's production hinted that its midseason funk is gone for good.
"I thought it was the best offensively we've done against [Nelson] in two years," Alabama coach Pat Murphy said. "So they should take away a lot of positives from this game."
But like the SEC regular season before it, and likely the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament ahead of it, those positives don't include the tournament title.
With Florida in the picture, the Crimson Tide will have to wait their turn for those.
UCLA 10, Arizona State 4
Gathering the Pac-10's top four teams in the desert for six games seemed like a great way to create anticipation but an even better way to produce mixed results. The former was there in abundance, but the latter was decidedly absent after UCLA's loud statement.
The Bruins swept all three of their games, winning once at Arizona and twice at Arizona State, by holding the two most prolific offenses in the country to six runs. Megan Langenfeld earned all three wins, and there's more to come on her unique roles with this team later this week.
UCLA piled up 21 runs (including a pair of home runs from Langenfeld when she wasn't busy pitching). Compare that to the first time the Bruins played the Arizona schools, when they managed 21 hits and five runs in losing two of three games at home.
Now, 21 hits in three games is far from anemic, but the onslaught that produced 31 hits away from home this weekend may corroborate something both Langenfeld and coach Kelly Inouye-Perez talked about Thursday before heading out on the road. The Bruins are loaded with pure talent, but the focus this season is on the mental approach, making adjustments and knowing what to expect from the opposing pitcher ahead of time.
"There's no question on whether this group can hit," Inouye-Perez said Thursday. "They could hit before they got here, and they're even better, I believe, for working with [UCLA assistant] Lisa Fernandez. But when you talk about attention to detail, it gives you an edge as a hitter. So if there's something you can take, if there's a tendency you can notice, if there's a placement in the box that can help give you an advantage, then those are the things that can only help your game.
"So early in a ballgame, that's one of our goals. One of our goals is to be able to expose the weakness of our opponent so that we can score early and often."
With only one road game remaining, at Washington this Wednesday, and a series still to come at home against seventh-place Oregon State and last-place Oregon, the conference title -- and likely the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament -- is UCLA's to lose.
Hawaii 11, New Mexico State 3
This isn't shaping up as a year of major drama on the NCAA tournament bubble, but there is one glaring exception looming out in the Pacific Ocean. With an RPI buried in triple digits entering the weekend, Hawaii is fighting an uphill battle. But it shouldn't be.
Consider what the Rainbow Wahine have working in their favor.
Quality neutral-site wins out of conference against Oklahoma, Ohio State and fellow potential bubble candidate Oregon State (if the Beavers get to .500).
A 3-3 record against the top two teams in conference, Nevada and Fresno State, including a pair of road wins at Fresno State.
A strong closing kick that stands at 11-2 in the past 13 games, with only a home series against Boise State, in its first season of softball, remaining before the WAC tournament.
Quality losses are the evidence that the jury is instructed to ignore -- they don't count but there's no use pretending they don't exist. And if you're trying to do the eyeball test on Hawaii, one-run losses against Alabama and Tennessee help establish a team's pedigree.
If Hawaii takes care of its business against Boise State and avoids going two-and-out at the conference tournament, it deserves to be in the NCAA tournament. And if RPI is the best argument someone has to counter that, they need to find a better argument.
Georgia Tech 3, North Carolina 2
Jen Yee's walk-off blast against North Carolina on Sunday gave Georgia Tech a sweep of the weekend's three-game series (and they had the broom to prove it in the postgame celebration). From an ACC perspective, the sweep gives the Yellow Jackets control of the regular-season race; they need just two wins next weekend at Maryland.
But perhaps of equal importance in the long run, the wins represented an impressive turnaround for a team that took a beating in two midweek home games against Alabama.
Given that reality of the losses against Alabama, it's impressive that Sharon Perkins' team maintained its focus and not only swept a North Carolina team riding a 23-game winning streak but did it by overcoming a late game-tying home run by the Tar Heels in Sunday's finale.
UNLV 7, Colorado State 6
Will Ashli Holland's grand slam go down as the blast that saved UNLV's season?
Losers of eight of their past 10 entering a weekend trip to Colorado State and New Mexico, the Rebels found themselves trailing 6-1 entering the sixth inning of the opener against the Rams. A loss would have dropped them to 2-7 in the Mountain West, and even with a strong RPI and early wins against Cal Poly, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Long Beach State, that would have been a pretty glaring demerit against postseason play.
Holland's blast and two more wins against New Mexico eased those concerns.
Alabama 6, Auburn 0
And surprisingly enough, that score is not because of the no-hit, 14-strikeout gem thrown by Alabama's Kelsi Dunne. (Although, is there a better advertisement for the upcoming SEC tournament than Dunne and Florida's Stacey Nelson throwing no-hitters on the same afternoon?)
With three games left for each, Auburn has a one-game lead on Mississippi for eighth place in the SEC. Only the top eight teams go to Knoxville for the conference tournament. So would Auburn, with an RPI of 29 entering the Alabama series, receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, even if it misses the SEC tournament?
Other than, perhaps, showing that the SEC may be one group of Bulldogs deeper than anticipated.
Washington's Danielle Lawrie and Alabama's Kelsi Dunne both pitched shutouts against the other's team, which means, of course, they didn't get a chance to throw against each other in two games between the Huskies and Crimson Tide. Even against a lineup like Alabama's, Lawrie's four-hit shutout isn't entirely surprising. So perhaps the slight edge in "statements" goes to Dunne, who beat the Huskies with a two-hitter Friday and looks increasingly like a title-caliber ace.
Then again, should the teams meet again in a few months, Dunne will have to figure out what to do with Jenn Salling, who it turns out will be eligible for the Huskies shortly.
Salling's bat may be a welcome addition for Washington, whose offense this season falls closer to timely than prolific. I'd work out exactly how much closer, but the Huskies have disappointingly joined Oklahoma in going behind the veil of secrecy when it comes to posting statistics on their Web site. Suffice to say, take out some offensive explosions against lower-tier teams in Utah State, Portland State and Seattle University, and the Huskies are averaging 4.3 runs per game. That's still championship material, no mistake about it, but it's not quite the run-scoring juggernaut we saw with Arizona State last season (the Sun Devils topped that average in Pac-10 play alone last season).
Meanwhile, while Lawrie held serve in her turn against the Tide, she suffered her first loss of the season in a 2-0 setback against Georgia. That was the Bulldogs' second win against a dominant pitcher, as they handed Baylor freshman Whitney Canion a 9-0 run-rule loss (Canion lasted less than an inning) just a day after Canion battled Lawrie into extra innings in a 1-0 Washington win.
Since TideSports.com executive sports editor Tommy Deas was on hand in Tuscaloosa, check out what one of the best softball voices in the game had to report from his vantage point at the park for the entire event. There is also video available for all of Alabama's games in the event.
• At ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, the venue every team hopes to inhabit at the end of May, Northwestern, Oklahoma and Tennessee offered an early dress rehearsal.
Northwestern had the best weekend, and probably needed it the most, picking up a pair of wins against Tennessee and splitting a pair against Oklahoma. The Lady Vols couldn't solve the Wildcats but had no such trouble taking two from the Sooners, including one in Norman. As the math plays out, that means it wasn't a great weekend for the Big 12 favorite playing on or near its home turf.
More than the results, what stands out about the games in Oklahoma are the scores. Only once, in Northwestern's 1-0 win against Oklahoma on Sunday, did any of the teams register a shutout. The losing teams combined to score 15 runs in six games.
And it's not just those three teams. It seems that when college softball reconvenes at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, offense may matter more than ever.
Conference play kicked off in a number of leagues around the country, at least for those teams not otherwise engaged in tournaments.
Conference USA There's conversation every season about whether or not Oklahoma will make the short trip from Norman to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series, but how about an intrastate showdown at the college game's signature event? All right, we're a long way from penciling in Tulsa for a trip to the final eight, but the Golden Hurricane cemented a strong start to the season by sweeping three from Central Florida.
An at-large entrant in last season's NCAA tournament (they were swept out of a regional in Norman by Oregon and Arkansas), Tulsa returned both primary pitchers and seven of the nine players in its batting order during that postseason run. Sophomore Jordan Kinard starred Saturday, striking out 13 against just one walk in a 7-2 win. Perseverance might be the better description of junior Jackie Lawrence (an Indiana native, in what will be a theme this week) earning the win in an 11-inning 7-6 win to open the three-game series, but she's a proven workhorse in the circle.
And as the run totals suggest, it's not as if the Golden Hurricane need shutouts. The team totaled just 33 home runs in 58 games last season, 15 of which came off the bat of Lauren Lindsay. She's at it again with five this season, but her teammates have tacked on nine more through 21 games, halfway to their total in support of the slugger last season.
SEC Kentucky dropped its three-game series at LSU but did earn a road win Saturday. The Wildcats won only three conference games all of last season, and while all three came away from Lexington, taking a game in Baton Rouge is a notable way to continue a campaign that has already featured wins against Oregon, Hawaii, UNLV and San Diego State.
Freshman Chanda Bell earned the win in relief against LSU after she took the loss in the first game of the day's doubleheader despite 10 strikeouts. Home runs from Rachel Mitchell and Ashley Langoni provided all of LSU's runs in that opening 3-2 win, as homers have been a bugaboo for Bell (nine allowed in 59.1 innings). But with 79 strikeouts and a .182 batting-average against entering Sunday's finale, the native Hoosier seems to be further proof that Fresno State's Morgan Melloh isn't the only quality pitching export the state of Indiana has provided recently.