Power Rankings: IPFW's stock rising

Courtesy of IPFW

Miranda Kramer isn't the hardest thrower, but her 0.72 ERA shows she knows how to get batters out.

You won't see Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, the Summit League school more commonly known as IPFW, in the rankings below. But those teams that are listed should count themselves fortunate if they don't see Miranda Kramer and the aforementioned Mastondons in an NCAA tournament regional come May.

Just ask Kentucky, which barely escaped against Kramer this past weekend. Or ask Texas, which didn't.

Both IPFW and its 5-foot-6 ace played above their supposed stature at the Texas Classic in Austin. Kramer struck out 12 and didn't allow an earned run in an extra-inning win against a Longhorns team ranked No. 16, IPFW's first-ever win against a ranked opponent. Not much more than 12 hours after that game ended, she struck out 11 against Kentucky and held the SEC team scoreless until two late solo home runs put her on the wrong end of a 2-1 loss. Wrapping up a span of 48 hours in which she threw more than 400 pitches, she then started and won Sunday's third-place game.

All told, she struck out 35 batters and allowed three earned runs in 21 2/3 innings to improve to 5-1 with a 0.72 ERA.

This isn't even a new development. Kramer nearly beat Louisville in the NCAA tournament a season ago. Playing the nationally seeded Cardinals on their home field, she struck out nine batters and allowed just one earned run. Only an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth allowed the favorite to sneak away with a 2-1 win.

Former Texas A&M All-American pitcher Amanda Scarborough was part of the Longhorn Network broadcast team that called this past weekend's tournament in Austin, and she came away a believer.

"The most impressive thing is her movement she has with her curveball," Scarborough said. "She has a regular curveball that she can throw hard in to right-handed hitters, but then she also has a backdoor curveball that she throws a lot and it really has good movement on it. She has great spin. That backdoor is really tough for the lefties to hit because it looks like it's coming at them and then breaks over the inside corner. But what she throws aside, she has really good command of her pitches, so she knows exactly where the ball is going to go."

Softball fans in Austin are familiar with the model. There are pitchers who throw harder than former Longhorns All-American and current National Pro Fastpitch star Cat Osterman, but because of her command and spin, she is as good as any pitcher who's ever lived. Another lefty, albeit one eight inches shorter than Osterman, Kramer isn't playing on anything like that level, but the principle holds true. You don't need to blow away batters if you can baffle them.

Ask her about nerves, and Kramer will say she felt them far more in the Summit League final against North Dakota State a season ago than when she stood in the circle against Texas or Kentucky. There was everything to lose in the former, a season on the line, and only opportunity in the latter. But there was an extra sense of excitement as she counted down the days to this most recent tournament. Her Iowa roots aside, Kramer dreamed of playing for the Longhorns when she was young. Instead, by the time she closed out an all-state high school career, she had heard from IPFW, Northern Iowa and a community college near home in Burlington, Iowa. She sent out material to major programs across the Midwest but never heard back.

It wasn't validation she was after, but she proved she belonged on the field in Austin. And through her, so did IPFW.

"I take a lot of pride in being able to say that we can go out against some of the big teams, ranked teams, and hold them off," Kramer said. "I'm really proud of my team. They help me a lot. All of them know me like the back of my hand. They know when to talk to me and when not to talk to me. They know what to say to me.

"It's a very humbling opportunity to be able to go out against Texas."

Yet she was also fine making her way back to Fort Wayne when it was over, even if it rests on the fringes of the softball map. She was so homesick as a freshman that her parents regularly had to talk her out of coming home on the weekends, but it's where she is comfortable now. It's where she added the drop ball that completed a repertoire that even elite teams struggle to solve. It's where her friends are.

"I get to say that I play softball with them every day, something I love, and I get to share it with my 19 best friends," Kramer sad. "I got to spend Valentine's Day with 19 girls who absolutely love the game as much as I do.

"There's never a dull moment, and I promise, you'll laugh for hours if you're around us."

Now on to the rankings.

1. Arizona State (11-0)

How good is your best? It looked pretty good for Arizona State on Friday night. The Sun Devils admittedly aren't known for taxing themselves in February, but a game against Oklahoma during the Littlewood Classic offered a fair fight. Score it a knockout. Haley Steele continued to look comfortable in the cleanup spot for Arizona State, hitting a home run against the Sooners, and Dallas Escobedo did to the defending champions what Keilani Ricketts did to so many teams a season ago. Six more games at home this weekend shouldn't offer much resistance.

2. Florida (11-0)

If only the football team in Gainesville could score at this rate. Florida piled up 59 runs in five wins this past weekend in Las Vegas and did it against entirely respectable competition. Through 11 games, the Gators have a .475 on-base percentage, which is just frightening. Not that the pitchers need much help. Coach Tim Walton continues to use a three-headed rotation with Delanie Gourley, Lauren Haeger and Hannah Rogers splitting starts. Gourley, who started against Michigan a week ago, again got prime assignments against Ohio State and Minnesota.

3. Washington (10-0)

Speaking of teams piling up runs. Washington outscored opponents 55-3 in cruising to five wins at the Littlewood Classic (not playing Pac-12 rival Arizona State for obvious reasons). And while it wasn't quite the one-hitter Escobedo threw against Oklahoma, Bryana Walker's performance was pretty much brilliant. Walker allowed just three hits and struck out 14 Sooners, the only run against her in a 3-1 win charged as unearned. LSU, Northwestern and Texas are among the challenges this weekend at the Mary Nutter Classic.

4. Georgia (9-0)

One of many teams affected by weather, Georgia played doubleheaders against Furman and Mercer, respectively, on Sunday and Monday. That admittedly isn't much to measure the Bulldogs on when it comes to the national elite, but save for a few late runs from Mercer in the finale, they generally did what a superior team should. Sophomore Chelsea Wilkinson has yet to allow a run through her first 29 2/3 innings. Games against NC State and South Alabama this weekend should test Georgia to a greater degree than any team has to this point.

5. Tennessee (9-0)

Tennessee passed its first serious test of the season with a true road win against South Florida. But while it beat the Bulls without having to call on Ellen Renfroe, getting strong relief innings from Rainey Gaffin, it also didn't face South Florida ace Sara Nevins. Speaking of Renfroe, she has been brilliant, with 39 strikeouts against two walks. The Lady Vols are regulars at the Mary Nutter Classic in California, and games against Nebraska and Stanford, among others, will give them ample opportunity to cement the plurality of No. 1 votes they are receiving across both major polls.

6. Stanford (11-0)

Stanford earned this ranking over the first two weeks, but it comes with a caveat. Carley Hoover, one half of the team's promising freshman duo, left Friday's start against Bradley after two innings and didn't pitch again the rest of the weekend. A softball team can go from a position of depth to one of peril in a hurry with pitchers. Five more games in three days await at the Mary Nutter Classic, including against Baylor, LSU and Tennessee.

7. Kentucky (10-0)

There were plenty of close calls in Texas. The Wildcats needed those late home runs to save the game against Kramer and IPFW but also needed a run in the top of the seventh inning of the finale against Texas to come away with a second win against the Longhorns. All of that said, Kentucky is unbeaten with two wins against Texas and a win against Oklahoma. Impressive stuff. Lauren Cumbess had a big home run in the championship game, and the team's start is all the more impressive considering it was just the proven run producer's second extra-base hit this year.

8. Arizona (9-0)

Welcome back to the championship picture. There is a lot of season left to play, but there is also a lot of reason for optimism in Tucson after a pair of wins against Alabama this past weekend. Of the 10 batters who have started games this season for Arizona, all but one are hitting at least .300. The lone exception? Chelsea Goodacre, whose .826 slugging percentage tells you all you need to know about what she's done with her six hits. A doubleheader Thursday in California against Texas A&M and Missouri kicks off a challenging weekend.

9. Alabama (8-2)

Alabama tumbles from third to ninth after its setbacks against Arizona. Going on the road and losing to another contender isn't a problem, but the Tide have to be disappointed at getting shut out in both losses. The lineup is still hitting .341 through 10 games, but Crimson Tide batters struck out 19 times in 12 innings against Arizona, compared with 29 strikeouts in eight other games this season. On a positive note, Haylie McCleney has a 1.951 OPS, so there is that. The home schedule begins this weekend with five games against UCF, Virginia Tech and McNeese State.

10. Michigan (7-2)

Two Pac-12 teams are knocking at the door to make this list the sole property of that conference and the SEC, but Michigan holds on after going 4-1 in Louisiana, including a split against host Louisiana-Lafayette. Responding to an 8-6 loss against the Ragin' Cajuns (that was 8-2 entering the final inning) with a 15-1 run-rule win is positive. Florida and Louisiana-Lafayette, who combined for 17 runs in wins against Michigan, are going to hit the ball against most teams, but it would be encouraging to see Sara Driesenga get the ball and flourish against Kentucky this week.

Next five: Oregon, UCLA, Florida State, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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