No. 3 Arizona
There may not be words to describe just how good Arizona's offense was last season. But there are numbers -- lots and lots of numbers.
Luke Adams/Arizona AthleticsBrittany Lastrapes keys Arizona's offense.
If you want to take the scenic route, consider the Wildcats reached the World Series despite finishing ranked No. 125 in team ERA, behind Quinnipiac, Saint Mary's, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Robert Morris, for the school of Nancy Evans, Jennie Finch, Alicia Hollowell and so many more aces of distinction.
As for the more direct approach, coach Mike Candrea's team averaged better than one run per game more than UCLA or Arizona State in conference play -- UCLA ranked third nationally in slugging percentage and ninth in runs per game; Arizona State ranked eighth and second, respectively.
Arizona operated in a different hitting stratosphere than the rest of the country for much of 2009.
Good thing the team from Tucson graduated the players who ranked third and seventh in OPS from that lineup (Jenae Leles and Sam Banister, respectively) or it might be unfair.
In truth, both players are significant subtractions from the lineup, particularly Leles, but the wealth of hitting talent that remains is remarkable. Stacie Chambers hit more home runs (31) and drove in more runs (96) than just about anybody in Arizona not named Mark Reynolds … and Chambers is almost without a doubt not the most valuable hitter on the team as long as Brittany Lastrapes is around.
So what happened in Oklahoma City, where the Wildcats went two-and-barbeque at the World Series and managed just seven hits in two shutout losses? Bad luck and good pitching are generally underrated explanations with that small a sample size, but it's easy to wonder if a team that spent all season feeling like no amount of runs were enough just hit a wall after falling behind in the first inning of each game.
If freshman pitcher Kenzie Fowler eliminates that, allowing Sarah Akamine to fill a No. 2 role that she's quietly grown entirely capable of filling, watch out. I can't help wondering if Fowler might be Candrea's version of Maya Moore, who joined a Connecticut team ready to make a leap with Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery.
No. 4 Florida
Florida would not be the first team to graduate an ace and still manage a trip to the World Series. Granted, the list is a lot longer on the other side, but reaching the WCWS isn't unprecedented.
After winning a national championship in 2006, Arizona turned things over to Taryne Mowatt and repeated. Arizona State couldn't defend its championship last season, but it did make a return trip to Oklahoma City, albeit with a bit of an assist from North Dakota State when the Bison stunned Oklahoma in regionals only to run out of gas against the Sun Devils the next week. Even within the SEC, Alabama bounced back from losing Stephanie VanBrakle after the 2006 season to push Washington to the limit in a thrilling super regional on the road in Seattle.
The point is there is life after Stacey Nelson, particularly if you return the core of a lineup that ranked fourth in the NCAA in slugging percentage, four regulars who got on base more than 40 percent of the time and a defense that was more than steady, if not always spectacular.
And if you believe Stephanie Brombacher is the real deal. Put me in that category.
Brombacher is the biggest reason the 2007 Arizona team may be the most apt comparison for the Gators. Like Arizona's Taryne Mowatt, Brombacher put up outstanding numbers as the team's No. 2 pitcher the season before she took over (in Mowatt's case, behind Alicia Hollowell). And like Mowatt, Brombacher was an afterthought in Oklahoma City, although she at least got the benefit of throwing four innings of relief for the Gators. The junior's undefeated record through her first two seasons shouldn't be dismissed, but the numbers that matter more are how she pitched through those wins -- she's not going to get herself in trouble with a lot of walks.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.