ESPN college softball analyst Jessica Mendoza takes a look at this year's NCAA regionals, where defending champion Arizona State is seeded third in the Tempe regional as it begins its quest for a third WCWS championship in five years.
North Carolina had a strong season coming out of the ACC, but when it walks into Bulldog country with the loud and intimidating fans in Athens, the Tar Heels will have their work cut out for them. Georgia's battery combo of pitcher Erin Arevalo and catcher Kristyn Sandberg is the best in the country. The trick for Georgia will be how to get by conference foe Tennessee to return to the WCWS.
Texas is as strong as it has ever been with drop-ball ace Blaire Luna and power hitter Lexy Bennett. The story for the Longhorns has been pressure. A team that easily should have been at the WCWS the past two years based on talent never made it out of the regionals. This reputation gives hope for teams like Auburn, which has two very effective left-handed pitchers, Houston, which can find ways to score runs in almost any situation, and Northwestern, which is coached by some of the best in twins Kate and Caryl Drohan. If Texas can find a way to handle the pressures of the postseason, it will win the regional. If not, it is anyone's for the taking.
This was the regional I was most excited to get news about. After 27 years, Cal is finally getting the chance to play a postseason softball game at home. It will do it big, with an All-American pitching combo in Jolene Henderson and Valerie Arioto. Arioto also leads the country in on-base percentage as one of the most feared hitters in the country. Cal should get through this regional unharmed.
College Station regional
This regional is another pitcher's duel, as Texas A&M's Mel Dumezich squares off against LSU's Rachel Fico and Brittany Mack. Behind the strength of their pitchers, both of these teams picked up big conference wins. A&M had wins against Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma. LSU upset top SEC teams in Alabama and Florida. Knowing fans will travel for Texas State, the huge fan base for LSU and that College Station is one of the toughest regionals to play in because of the rowdy Aggie supporters, the regional could come down to which team will handle the environment and pressures of postseason the best.
Arguably one of the most pitching-dominated regionals in the country with Mizzou's Chelsea Thomas, Massachusetts' Sara Plourde and DePaul's hitting pitcher Kirsten Verdun, who threw a three-hit shutout against UMass earlier this season. All eyes will be on Mizzou to see if it can make a fourth consecutive appearance in the WCWS behind the leadership of senior Ashley Fleming and the best drop ball and changeup in college softball in Chelsea Thomas.
Coming off of its third-place finish in the best softball conference in the country, Oregon will host a regional for the first time in its program's history. Pitcher Jessica Moore and outfielder Sam Pappas will lead the Ducks, with the biggest threat in this region coming from BYU and its WAC RBI leader Delaney Willard.
Florida is the team to beat, but two of the teams in this regional (South Florida and UCF) already have wins against the fifth-seeded Gators. USF quieted the Gator bats with the lefty spin of Sarah Nevins, who is one of the top pitchers in the country with a 1.06 ERA, and will look to do much of the same to try to advance the Bulls to a super regional. Florida has the talent to make a fifth consecutive return to the WCWS, but the Gators will be depending on the lone senior Michelle Moultrie and five freshmen, led by Lauren Haeger and Sami Fagan, to do it.
Tennessee should coast through this regional with the sister pitching duo of Ivy and Ellen Renfroe, one of the fastest players in the country in Raven Chavanne and the clutch hitting of Lauren Gibson and Madison Shipman. The Lady Volunteers still have a bitter taste in their mouth from being upset at home in last year's regional and they have made it their mission to get to the WCWS once again.
This is another strong regional site with some big names and strong conferences. Louisiana-Lafayette is led by the home run power of Christi Orgeron and playing at home will only help its chances. Stanford comes in with last year's NCAA player of the year in Ashley Hansen, plus the freshman Hanna Winter. Baylor made it all the way to the WCWS last year, and even though it does not have pitching ace Whitney Canion (torn ACL), the Bears' experience in the postseason will be their biggest asset.
Los Angeles regional
It is hard to not think of postseason success being synonymous with UCLA. The Bruins have the tradition of some of the biggest names in college softball (Lisa Fernandez, Dot Richardson, Sue Enquist and Stacey Nuveman to name a few) plus a record 11 national championships to bring intimidation in the strongest form to this regional. Ironically, Nuveman is the assistant coach for San Diego State and will know how to beat them better than anyone. A strong Florida State team, which has WCWS experience with seven total program appearances, will put up a fight as well. UCLA has one of the best offenses in the country, led by freshman phenom Stephany LaRosa. The biggest question will be whether UCLA's pitching can keep opposing teams from scoring more runs.
This is the most exciting and up-for-grabs regional in the entire tournament. And the regional I will be covering starting Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. You have three teams in this regional that could advance in almost any regional, and they are all together. Louisville has the best record in the tournament with only three losses. However, the Cardinals have yet to be challenged with teams from the stronger conferences (Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC). This will be the biggest challenge of the year for them as they face an SEC team in Kentucky that made it all the way to super regionals last year and a former national champion in Michigan. The first matchup between Kentucky and Michigan will be the most anticipated, as these teams faced off in last year's Ann Arbor regional with Kentucky walking away with the upset.
Keilani Ricketts is one of the biggest stars in this postseason, as she leads one of the best Oklahoma teams since its 2000 national championship squad. Big 12 home run champion freshman Lauren Chamberlain joins a healthy Jessica Shults to bolster the Sooners' lineup. Oregon State will be tough coming out of the Pac-12, especially with the help this year of the only four-time USA softball Olympian in assistant coach Laura Berg.
A No. 16 seed for the University of Washington was a huge surprise for many, considering how the Huskies ended their season. One of the hottest teams in the country early on (they were 32-1), they came crashing down, losing 14 of their last 17 games. They will have to find a way to win behind the arm of Kaitlin Inglesby. Texas Tech is also a team to watch out for in this regional. A team coming out of the very strong Big 12 conference, the Red Raiders have big wins against Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. If it stays hot and UW stays cold, Tech will advance.
Defending national champion Arizona State returns almost the complete team from its dominance a year ago, plus the rise of pitcher Hillary Bach and freshman Elizabeth Caporuscio only adds to this powerhouse. Syracuse has a chance to quiet the Sun Devil bats with senior Jenna Caira, who has one of the best changeups in the game. But at the end of the day, the only team that can beat ASU in this regional will be ASU. As long as the Sun Devils continue on to play as they have recently, this will be an easy weekend for them.
This is one of the most exciting regionals with the tradition of Arizona, the bats of Hawaii and the home run hitting of Notre Dame's Dani Miller and Amy Buntin. If you want to see a lot of fireworks, tune in to the games on ESPNU on Friday through Sunday. One of the best hitting coaches in the country in Arizona's Mike Candrea will face off against the best tandem pitching staff in the country in Hawaii's Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby.
Alabama is the clear favorite in this regional. It is firing on all cylinders coming off both the SEC tournament and regular-season championship. Led by the one of the biggest names in the tournament, Jackie Traina, aka "The J Train," has been strong for Alabama both in the pitching circle and the batting lineup. Also look out for table-setters Kayla Braud and Jen Fenton, the best first two batters in any lineup in the country, combining smart speed and a lot of runs. Wins over Georgia Tech and South Alabama, plus the support of the biggest crowds in the country (averaging more than 3,000 a game), should get the Crimson Tide through this regional unscathed.