Power Rankings: Ducks the team to beat

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Senior All-American Alexa Peterson said Oregon used to be timid against longtime powers like UCLA and Arizona, but that has all changed.

There is a wide world waiting for Alexa Peterson, and it is increasingly clear that most of it is beyond the borders of her home state of Oregon.

After doing her part to keep the nation's No. 1 team rolling in a three-game sweep at Stanford -- a series in which the University of Oregon All-American senior contributed four hits and two RBIs -- she stayed behind while her teammates flew home. She had a job interview scheduled with a softball program not too far from the Bay Area that needs an assistant.

If all goes well, Peterson will play professionally for the Florida-based USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch the next two summers, coach college softball during the 2014-15 academic year, and enter the master's program for speech and language pathology at West Texas A&M in fall 2015.

Or, if softball proves too hard to shake, she might stick with it a little longer. She will see where the road takes her.

Courtesy of Oregon

Alexa Peterson is one of two native Oregonians on a Ducks roster dominated by Californians.

But Monday, interview completed, that road still led back to her home state. As unlikely as it might have seemed even five years ago, all roads in college softball run through Eugene at the moment. That includes both the one to the Pac-12 championship, and the one that leads to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.

Both Oregon and Arizona State have eyes on the latter, but settling the former is on the agenda when they meet for three games at Oregon's Howe Field this week (UCLA will also have a say in the discussion these next two weeks).

So the wide world can wait a little longer. Oregon is a pretty good place for a softball player to be right now.

"Growing up, I never would have guessed that I was going to be playing for the No. 1 team in the nation," Peterson said. "So for me it's a huge honor to be part of this program. Personally, I'm taking it as a blessing to be a part of this program every single day. I'm not taking it as something to be afraid of but something to embrace. I think that's something that our team is trying to focus on, not looking at the rankings and putting the pressure on ourselves to perform but just going out there and having fun because we know how to play softball and we know how to play it well."

Peterson is one of two Oregon products on a roster dominated by Californians. But even for someone who grew up in nearby Salem as part of a family that leaned heavily to the Ducks when it came to the in-state rivalry with Oregon State, Oregon wasn't exactly her dream softball destination. Both of the in-state schools recruited her, which seemed her best and only chance of playing in softball's most tradition-rich and championship-laden conference.

Only after she verbally committed to the Ducks did she learn that Washington and Stanford, programs with more histories of success, might have been interested, too.

"I was kind of bummed," Peterson admitted. "But it ended up working out really great."

She meant for her, although things worked out well for the Ducks, too, with a senior class that also includes Kailee Cuico and national player of the year finalist Courtney Ceo.

The season before Peterson arrived, the first under coach Mike White, Oregon broke into the Top 25 and upset Georgia Tech on the road to reach an NCAA tournament super regional. But even a year later, and even as it had some success against the best teams in the Pac-12 and again advanced to a super regional, Oregon remained an outsider.

"We were definitely scared to play teams," Peterson said of her first season. "Any team that was higher ranked or had a history of being successful, like UCLA or Arizona, we just didn't really believe in ourselves. We had this, I guess, timid behavior in the way that we play and the way that we presented ourselves.

"We didn't really believe that we belonged playing with them and were capable of actually hanging with them in games."

That script has flipped. Confidence growing among the players, they went on the road and won a super regional in 2012 to reach the World Series. Finally a favorite a season ago after winning the Pac-12 regular-season title, they ended up on the wrong side of an upset when Nebraska came to Eugene and won a super regional. Now the Ducks are the product of those experiences and the closest thing to a team to beat in a season that wasn't supposed to have one.

"I know that a lot of people weren't expecting us to be at the place we are now, just based on the senior class that graduated," Peterson said in reference to pitching ace Jessica Moore and lineup regulars Allie Burger, Kaylan Howard and Samantha Pappas. "The four of them were kind of the cornerstones of helping this program become what we are today. There was a lot of talk that we weren't going to be able to do that well this year, so I think we kind of took that and set that aside and thought, 'We are a new team this year.' We have a better approach from the stuff we learned last year. We've been able to just grow together as a team and our team chemistry came together really well."

They have a workhorse ace in Cheridan Hawkins and a lineup that entering play Tuesday had scored 95 runs in its past 10 games. Seven Ducks have slugging percentages of .500 or better. Eight regulars have on-base percentages of .400 or better. It is no longer a program that doubts, not one with any reason to.

"Deep down we all know that we are capable of hitting any pitcher in the nation," Peterson said.

Which is why the world can wait a few more weeks.

Now on to the rankings (Tuesday's results not included).

1. Oregon (44-5, 17-1 Pac-12)

After this week's series at home, Oregon closes the regular season with three games at Arizona.

2. UCLA (44-4, 15-3 Pac-12)

Wins against Long Beach State on Monday of the past week were included in the previous rankings, but sweeping all five games on the road against that team and California still made for a commendable seven-day stretch of softball for the Bruins. Ally Carda was effective in the circle, allowing just two earned runs in 16 2/3 innings. Three of those appearances came in relief, but whenever she ends up in the circle, she's going to be the key figure for the team in the postseason. It has been some time since a UCLA pitcher led the conference in ERA and innings pitched, positions she currently occupies with respect to Pac-12 games. Stanford visits this week for the final home series.

3. Arizona State (42-7, 13-4 Pac-12)

Opponents have scored more than two runs against Arizona State pitching just three times in the past 11 games, and Washington needed 10 innings to get its third run in one of those encounters. So with Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue, at least the Sun Devils don't venture to Oregon unequipped for the week's series. But those two need their fielders to have their backs. Arizona State committed just one error in sweeping three games from Southern Miss this past weekend, but it ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with 18 errors in 17 conference games. A season ago, it committed just 12 errors in 24 games.

4. Florida State (47-6, 24-3 ACC)

The Seminoles don't play again until the ACC tournament next week in Maryland. In part because of how well other pitchers, namely Jessica Burroughs, have thrown, ace Lacey Waldrop should be well rested. Waldrop picked up two more wins this past week in a sweep of Georgia Tech, pushing her national-best total to 31 for the season, but she only needed 9 2/3 innings to get the results. That came a weekend after she threw 11 innings in a series against Syracuse. Waldrop's overall workload is sizable, but coach Lonni Alameda paced her well down the stretch.

5. Alabama (42-9, 17-4 SEC)

The Crimson Tide aren't unbeatable when Jaclyn Traina pitches, as they showed a couple of weeks ago against Mississippi State, but they are undeniably championship material as long as she's out there. One thing to watch for with Alabama, as is the case for many teams this time of year, is the academic calendar. Exams wrap up this week in Tuscaloosa, which leaves players the opportunity to focus solely on softball from here on out. It may not be unique to Alabama, but that has often corresponded with an uptick in the team's sharpness in past seasons. Also worth noting: Far from hitting the wall, freshmen Peyton Grantham and Marisa Runyon hit key home runs in last week's Georgia series.

6. Arizona (39-9, 12-6 Pac-12)

The Wildcats don't run; no Pac-12 team steals fewer bases in conference play. They aren't patient; only Oregon State walks fewer times per game. They just hit the heck out of the ball. The team's 74 extra-base hits in conference play lap the field -- even Oregon, for all of its run production, has only 55 such hits. And Mike Candrea's team was at its free-swinging best this past week against Utah. The bats make Arizona a threat to reach Oklahoma City. The next two weeks should reveal something about how much of a contender it could be once there. The Wildcats managed just 12 runs in six games this season against Arizona State and UCLA. Now they travel to Washington and host Oregon in their final two series, facing two more teams with Oklahoma City-caliber pitching.

7. Tennessee (39-9, 14-7 SEC)

Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said he made it clear to his team how important Sunday's rubber match was in the three-game series against Kentucky. Then the Lady Vols went out and fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first inning. Problem or opportunity? Tennessee roared back for a 9-2 win to take the series and remain mathematically alive for a share of the SEC title. Others carried the offense in that game, but freshman Annie Aldrete continued to play Robin to Madison Shipman's Batman with a pair of home runs in the series opener. Only Auburn's Kasey Cooper and Arizona's Katiyana Mauga have better slugging percentages among freshmen in major conferences.

8. Oklahoma (39-10, 11-2 Big 12)

No, it's not quite Keilani Ricketts when it comes to pulling double duty, but full credit to Shelby Pendley for continuing to do at least some of everything for this team. The All-American was her potent self at the plate this past week, driving in 11 runs in five games, all wins out of conference for the Sooners, but she also allowed just two earned runs in eight innings across four relief appearances as a pitcher. Lauren Chamberlain is back in the lineup and working her way back into full-time duty at first base, and Kelsey Stevens keeps rolling in the circle.

9. Michigan (39-9, 17-3 Big Ten)

What the heck happened? Michigan still controls its destiny in the Big Ten, but a midweek loss against Purdue and a weekend run-rule loss against cellar-dweller Illinois constitute unfamiliar territory for the Wolverines. In fact, the run-rule loss against the Illini marked the program's first such loss in Big Ten play since 2000. Even getting out of Illinois with a series win was dicey, Michigan holding on for a 6-5 win in the finale of the three-game set. This space sang the praises of pitchers Sara Driesenga and Megan Betsa as complements to Haylie Wagner a week ago, and before pushing any panic put, the team still ranks 10th nationally in ERA. But will any of those pitchers enter the postseason with momentum?

10. Missouri (38-13, 14-7 SEC)

Make it five consecutive series wins for Missouri in the SEC, three of them on the road. None was more impressive than winning two of three games at Florida. It would necessitate sweeping Alabama this week, but Missouri controls its own fate for a share of the conference title. Since pitching was the question mark without Chelsea Thomas this season, it's fitting that a pitcher played a big part in beating the Gators. Freshman Tori Finucane allowed just 11 hits and five earned runs in 14 innings against a team that had scored 36 runs in its previous three home games, two of them against likely NCAA tournament teams South Florida and NC State.

Next five: Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida, Washington, Tulsa, Kentucky.

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