Five questions for NCAA softball

The next three weeks will provide answers, but until the NCAA tournament begins Thursday, all we have are questions. Let's start with five about this year's bracket.

Which No. 1 team is really the favorite?

A season that began without a clear favorite offers similar confusion as the postseason arrives. Entering the final week of the regular season, Oregon was ranked No. 1 in both major polls, a position the Ducks claimed a little more than halfway through the regular season and held without incident en route to a second consecutive Pac-12 title. Yet Florida, which beat Oregon in the regular season, was No. 1 in the RPI when the final week began, one spot ahead of Alabama, which won a regular-season series against the Gators and the outright SEC championship.

AP Photo/The Gazette-Times, Andy Cripe

The pitching of Cheridan Hawkins is a big reason, but hardly the only reason, the Ducks are in the WCWS.

Then Georgia, which was No. 3 in the RPI but No. 14 in the USA Softball Top 25, beat both Florida and Alabama en route to winning the SEC tournament.

Confused yet?

We haven't even gotten to the likes of Arizona State and UCLA yet.

This isn't the tournament we had a season ago, when top-seeded Oklahoma was clearly the team to beat when the bracket was released.

Yet a bracket demands order, and the selection committee did well to look past RPI numbers that favored other teams and slot Oregon as the overall No. 1 seed.

The Ducks may be first among equals, but they deserve to be first.

Start with pitching. You need an ace to win a title. Oregon sophomore Cheridan Hawkins easily meets the criteria.

We've seen young pitchers make their mark in recent seasons. Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo won it all as a freshman in 2011. Alabama's Jaclyn Traina, a high-profile understudy when she was a freshman, took the ball and didn't let go of it until she traded it for a trophy a season later.

The latter is a model that suits Hawkins, who learned and ultimately lost alongside former ace Jessica Moore a season ago, and now should have the circle largely to herself in the tournament. A durable lefty and a master of spins, she isn't prone to either walks or home runs, two things that can create big innings for opponents and big problems for a pitcher in big games. She won't be perfect, but at points in the postseason, she should be able to win a game or two on her own.

That's all Oregon is likely to need because it has a championship-ready lineup. No team has a better top of the order than the trio of Courtney Ceo, Alyssa Gillespie and Janie Takeda. Ducks coach Mike White doesn't give away a lot of outs using the short game because of all the run production that follows Ceo, Gillespie and Takeda, but like Alabama with Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton or Arizona with Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion, they don't even have to make solid contact to create runs and drive defenses to distraction.

The path to Oklahoma City is favorable. There are a few similarities between potential super regional foe Minnesota this season and Nebraska a season ago, the latter the team that went to Eugene and stunned Oregon in a super regional, but the Gophers, if they advance out of a regional that also includes Auburn, have the least postseason experience of the 16 national seeds.

Which five pitchers could decide the title?

Ally Carda, No 3 UCLA: Every senior class until now at UCLA reached the Women's College World Series at least once. The current senior class is still trying to get out of a regional for the first time. Carda is only a junior, but it's her arm that is going to go a long way toward determining where this season's seniors play their final games. While the Bruins have more than enough offense to win a championship, much of it coming from Carda's bat and propensity for big hits in big moments, runs alone aren't enough. Her ERA more than doubled in conference play, but just about every pitcher's ERA suffered in that conference -- she still ranked third in ERA and went 14-3 against Pac-12 competition. As she goes, so goes UCLA.

Dallas Escobedo, No. 9 Arizona State/Jaclyn Traina, No. 2 Alabama: The seniors can be combined as a single entity. Each could become the first ace since UCLA's Keira Goerl a decade ago to win two national championships (Arizona's Taryne Mowatt won two but pitched sparingly in the first). Both Escobedo and Traina faced heightened expectations after winning championships, as well as tangible obstacles like Escobedo's home run rate and Traina's arm injury. But both are pitching as well as they ever have as seniors. Both are physically imposing in the circle, and whether it's the cause or effect of those championships, both are mentally resilient in those rare moments when things do go wrong.

Kelsey Stevens, No. 7 Oklahoma: The defending champions are rolling. Lauren Chamberlain has been healthy and hitting after an extended absence (although it's worth noting she left Saturday's game against Oklahoma State after a slide at second base and didn't play Sunday). Shelby Pendley is a star in her own right, and the lineup as a whole entered the final week of the regular season third nationally in scoring. Stevens is the load-bearing ace. She doesn't need to be the equal of the Keilani Ricketts-Michelle Gascoigne championship tandem because, frankly, there isn't a team out there that is nearly as good as Oklahoma was a season ago. If she can hold up, and she's pitched the most innings of any of these pitchers, Oklahoma is again a title contender.

AP Photo/, Vasha Hunt

Florida State's Lacey Waldrop may be the best pitcher in the country.

Lacey Waldrop, No. 8 Florida State: The last ACC team that reached the Women's College World Series had the best pitcher in the nation and an offense that wouldn't have gotten out of a regional without her. Waldrop may not be Angela Tincher, the ace of that 2008 Virginia Tech team, but she is arguably the best pitcher in the nation this season. And unlike Tincher, she has one of the nation's most prolific lineups to provide cover. Waldrop got a taste of the big stage when Florida State made a surprise super regional appearance a season ago. Now she's the face of a favorite.

Chelsea Wilkinson, No. 4 Georgia: In not much more than a week, Wilkinson forced her way onto this list. No pitcher in the country enters the tournament on more of a roll than Georgia's sophomore, and that's all the scarier for the rest of the field because her work comes in support of what was already one of the nation's best offenses. In five appearances in recent days against eventual seeded teams, three against Kentucky and one each against Alabama and Florida, Wilkinson allowed five earned runs and 16 hits in 33 2/3 innings and struck out 41 batters against just five walks. Whether it's a hot streak or the next step for a star, it will alter the title race if it lasts a few more weeks.

Where will we find the upsets?

Picking chalk is a good way to ensure you won't have a perfect bracket by the time the tournament gets to Oklahoma City. Since 2005, when the tournament added the super regional round and went from eight to 16 national seeds, there have been 72 spots available in the Women's College World Series. Almost a quarter of those went to teams that were either unseeded or double-digit seeds. Nebraska carried that banner a season ago, but which team in each category could shake things up this season?

Double-digit seed: No. 15 Missouri

The biggest thing Missouri has going against it at the moment is momentum. And momentum is a lot easier to fix than most deficiencies. Moreover, it's not like we have to look deep into the past to find a more upwardly mobile version of the Tigers. It was just two weeks ago that they went to Gainesville and took two of three games against Florida.

The regional the Tigers will host sets up well for them. Nebraska won't be an easy out, but with Kansas and Bradley also on hand, it isn't the deepest quartet in the field. Take care of business at home and it sets up a potential super regional trip to Alabama for a rematch of last week's controversial series in which Alabama's on-field celebration irked Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine and his players. Put that aside, and the fact remains that Missouri beat Alabama ace Jaclyn Traina in the series opener and was evenly matched throughout the weekend. Missouri freshman pitcher Tori Finucane has yet to look overmatched in big moments and recent woes aside, the lineup can score runs.

Unseeded: LSU

Tabbing another SEC team doesn't seem particularly creative, but the bracket gives what the bracket gives. LSU would presumably have to go through No. 11 Arizona and No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette to get to Oklahoma City. That's a tall order, but that's true for any team that follows this path. What the Tigers have is a lineup that has the speed, power and plate discipline to potentially keep up with the admittedly prolific Wildcats. Whichever team's pitchers better managed the control issues that plagued them might have the edge.

A super regional against the Ragin' Cajuns would be an old-fashioned feud likely surpassing the bad blood between Alabama and Missouri.

What are the best regionals?

AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha Hunt

Jaclyn Traina already has one title with Alabama. She and the Tide are after another.

Gold: Tuscaloosa. It's difficult for the stronger seeds to earn top billing when it comes to compelling softball in the first weekend of competition. Not impossible. Alabama is the No. 2 national seed, but it has its work cut out for it with South Alabama and USC Upstate coming to town, along with SIU-Edwardsville. This is one of only two regionals with three 40-win teams. The three top seeds were all in the top 28 of the last RPI release and the Top 25 in human polls. And USC Upstate and South Alabama ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in team ERA nationally entering the final week of the regular season. Even the fourth seed has an ace, Haley Chambers, who strikes out better than a batter per inning and ranks just outside the top 50 nationally in ERA.

Silver: Tempe. As recently as a few weeks ago, Arizona State against Michigan sounded more like a game we would see in Oklahoma City than Tempe. And if it was going to take place in Tempe, it would at least be a super regional. Instead, the two teams share a regional, which isn't likely to please either party. Michigan slipped down the stretch, losing both its grip on the outright Big Ten regular-season title and the conference tournament, but the talent remains from a team that split with UCLA in Los Angeles, beat Arizona and Kentucky on neutral fields and took a series from Minnesota. And the Wolverines still have Sierra Romero, who can make a strong case she's the best hitter in the United States. There won't be any easing into the NCAA tournament for first-year Arizona State coach Craig Nicholson, whose team closed Pac-12 play with a 2-3-1 record over the final two weekends against Oregon and UCLA.

Bronze: Waco. This one is for all the pitchers out there because if No. 13 Baylor gets by Northwestern State and Tulsa does the same against Houston, it sets up at least one showdown between Whitney Canion and Aimee Creger. And, yes, this is the only regional that could feature two pitchers with Team USA experience going head to head.

What about the rest of the bracket?

The NCAA tournament is a drama played out over several acts. The characters will be thinned out soon enough, but we miss out on some of the best bits if we try and skip ahead to the final act.

The tournament is a richer story if we stop and savor North Dakota State's Krista Menke, who who threw 382 pitches across 20 innings to win three elimination games on Saturday, then woke up Sunday morning and threw another 133 pitches before lunch to clinch the Summit League championship.

It's a better story for knowing about Bradley, which made the field in large part because sophomore Kendall Duffy, who hit three home runs in her first 106 games, launched a grand slam to erase a deficit in the late innings of the Missouri Valley Conference championship game.

And it's better for including the ultimate rookie, a school that is making its first appearance in the tournament in only its second season of eligibility after a move from Division II -- and doing it under the direction of a first-time, first-year head coach who played the final game of her own college career all the way back in the 2009 NCAA tournament.

Bryant University is more than the fourth seed in the Norman regional with a date against the defending champions. It is part of the story.

For Shayne Lotito, Bryant was an opportunity to jump the queue in the coaching ranks. She didn't really expect a Division I program to take a chance on a then-26-year-old who had been a strength and conditioning coach at her alma mater and an assistant softball coach for three seasons between Babson College and Boston College. But she believed she was ready. So when she saw the vacancy last May, she applied.

She didn't hear anything until July. Within little more than a week after she did, she had her own program.

Not much older than her seniors, she set a goal that summed up the challenge of establishing her authority.

Don't smile before Christmas.

"I think she probably did stick to that goal," senior Aubrey Mable said. "She's extremely intense."

A four-year starter and a proven run producer, Mable is perhaps the best player in a large senior class that arrived in Smithfield, Rhode Island, knowing they wouldn't even be eligible to play in the conference tournament, let alone the NCAA version, for their first two seasons, as the school completed reclassification to Division I. Had those players resisted change this past summer and fall, perhaps believing they had earned more privilege than a new coach afforded them, their last chance to play in the postseason could have disappeared. Instead, while it was sometimes less than smooth sailing, they went along.

They found they were better conditioned and stronger after the fall. They were more competitive, if not always victorious, when they played quality competition out of conference this spring. And picked to finish fourth before the season, they won the NEC regular season title by two games.

Lotito still doesn't smile much. After dinner with a few family and friends Saturday night following the NEC championship game, and after a quick check on the Boston Bruins, she was back at work, figuring out preparations for an opponent she didn't yet know.

Which isn't to say she wasn't happy.

"As exciting as it was when I went through it, it's even more exciting to see my girls go through it," Lotito said. "Because I know how hard it is to do, and I know how much work it takes and how much you invest in it. And especially for the seniors, how much you want it because it is the last time you're going to get a shot at it."

A softball fan as much as a player, Mable always paid attention to the bracket and watched the tournament. Sunday night she saw her own team on the screen.

"I knew I would be able to play an instrumental role in a team that had a huge opportunity in front of them in that transition from D-II to D-I," Mable said of her decision to go to Bryant. "Being able to look back and say I made the right decision and that I am a part of the history that's been made here this spring is something that is very special to me and special to this entire team." 

There is no team quite like Bryant in the bracket, but there are 64 stories. All you have to do is stop looking ahead for a few minutes and look around.

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