Cheat sheet for NCAA softball regionals
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament could feature as many as 112 softball games spread across 16 sites. That's a lot to keep up with, so we're here to provide you with a cheat sheet for each regional.
Let's start with those regionals hosted by the tournament's top eight seeds.
Which teams are in it: No. 1 Oregon (49-7-1) vs. Utah Valley (18-40), Wisconsin (34-18) vs. Albany (33-11).
Ducks in a row: There was some sense that as much as Oregon lost with the graduation of pitcher Jessica Moore, Cheridan Hawkins was ready to take on an ace's burden as a sophomore. More surprising was how the Ducks didn't just withstand key lineup losses but improved. Oregon has a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage entering the NCAA tournament than it did as a contender a season ago. The top of the order is a small-ball fan's dream come true with Courtney Ceo, Alyssa Gillespie and Janie Takeda, while the four hitters who follow all have slugging percentages of .600 or better. It isn't just a good mix; it's the best mix yet at Oregon.
Same Badgers, new pitcher: Wisconsin won't need advice on where to eat in Eugene, its regional destination just one year ago. Cassandra Darrah, who was effective in a loss against Oregon in the regional final, is still a significant part of the pitching equation, but Taylor-Paige Stewart was also a key part of Wisconsin's late surge this season. She pitched just one inning in last season's regional but produced complete-game wins against Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska in the past six weeks alone. With better strikeout and walk rates than Darrah, she adds a new dimension.
Albany's secret weapon: As underdogs go, the Great Danes have more pedigree than the regional's other small school, Utah Valley (although it's worth noting that one of the latter team's 18 wins came against the former). This is the fifth tournament trip in the past decade for Albany. The current senior class was part of the most recent trip, a group that includes pitcher Brittany MacFawn, who ranks in the top 30 nationally in strikeouts per seven innings.
Oregon's speed trap: Oregon may end up having to face only one of the two, but both Albany and Wisconsin present a challenge on the bases. Albany ranks 14th nationally in stolen bases per game, while Wisconsin, not surprisingly given its coach is a DePaul product, ranks sixth in the same category. It's true that teams didn't run all that much on Oregon in the regular season, but it's also true that only Oregon State threw out fewer runners among Pac-12 teams. Other teams with speed will be watching to see how the Ducks deal with the challenge.
Which teams are in it: No. 2 Alabama (45-11) vs. SIU-Edwardsville (30-21), South Alabama (40-12) vs. USC Upstate (45-7).
First team to score wins: This seems like a good time to point out there is no international tiebreaker in the NCAA tournament. Find a comfortable place to watch because these could be some long games. Alabama has the SEC pitcher of the year in Jaclyn Traina and began last week ranked No. 30 in the nation in team ERA. Yet the Crimson Tide have the third-best pitching credentials in their own regional. USC Upstate and South Alabama gave up some runs in their respective conference tournaments, but they began last week ranked in the top two spots, respectively, in ERA. Even the fourth seed brings an ace to this high-stakes game. Haley Chambers has a 1.82 ERA and 235 strikeouts.
Alabama's advantage at the plate: There is a reason that amid all this pitching, the Crimson Tide are the No. 2 national seed and SEC regular-season champions. The Crimson Tide began last week ranked 13th nationally in on-base percentage, and while Kaila Hunt could use a few hits to fall her way, the emergence of sophomore Kallie Case in the No. 2 hole and Traina's power display in her return to the batting order only make the lineup better.
That's Upstate, not upstart: This is the second consecutive regional appearance for USC Upstate, but it has been winning games in bunches for some time. The program made the move to Division I in 2008 and is 272-91 since. Its pitching success this season is evidence of why it keeps winning. Neither freshman Lexi Shubert, for obvious reason, nor junior Anna Miller, who started just 10 times a season ago, were key parts of last season's success. Now Miller is among the national leaders in strikeouts per seven innings and Shubert shut out North Carolina on the road and pitched nearly five innings of no-hit relief for a win against Virginia Tech.
South Alabama needs its dynamic duo: At one point this season a strong contender for a second consecutive national seed of its own, South Alabama now finds itself in probably the last place it wants to be. Pitchers Farish Beard and Hannah Campbell still have gaudy numbers, but the Jaguars have allowed 27 runs in their most recent nine games, nearly a third of the runs they allowed in the entirety of the regular season and conference tournament. Beard got the start when they played at Alabama earlier this season and pitched well in a 3-0 loss, but both arms are needed now.
Los Angeles Regional
Which teams are in it: No. 3 UCLA (48-6) vs. Southern Utah (23-29), Long Beach State (38-17) vs. Notre Dame (39-11).
UCLA's All-American Swiss Army Knife: If you're going to point to a single player who demonstrates why this UCLA team can win a national championship, it's going to be Ally Carda, the uber-tough ace in the circle who also drives the ball out of the park on a regular basis. You could just as soon point to someone whose versatility shows up in another way, the catcher usually on the receiving end of Carda's pitches. An All-American infielder, Stephany LaRosa moved to catcher this season to fill a need. She's still a dynamic run producer, and she's still a work in progress behind the plate, but it's the willingness to do whatever is required that lends credibility to the program's resurgence.
History is the fourth opponent for Bruins: It was just four years ago that Megan Langenfeld was taking over Oklahoma City and UCLA was en route to yet another national title. But four years is a long time in college sports, and it's an eternity to wait for a super regional appearance in Westwood. Among the teams that have been to a super regional more recently than UCLA are Hofstra, Houston, Oklahoma State, South Florida and UAB. That will test nerves.
Notre Dame is heading home: It's a long trip to Los Angeles, but expect the Fighting Irish to have as much support as commuter Long Beach State. There are nine Californians on the Notre Dame roster, a group that includes ace Laura Winter (San Diego), All-American outfielder Emilee Koerner (Tustin) and freshman leadoff standout Karley Wester (Huntington Beach). One of the team's best results of the season was a 2-0 loss in nine innings against Oregon in a game played in Cathedral City, Calif. The team with the best batting average in the nation should travel just fine.
Long Beach State can hit the ball: UCLA began last week ranked first nationally in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage. Notre Dame led the nation in batting average. But it's not as if the Big West champions, who trail only nine schools in NCAA tournament appearances, are stuck in the bygone days of 1-0 scores. Ashlynn Booker is right there with LaRosa and Koerner when it comes to the best slugging percentages in the quartet of teams, and the 49ers already shattered the single-season program record for runs scored.
Which teams are in it: No. 4 Georgia (45-12) vs. Chattanooga (34-19), NC State (34-16) vs. UAB (31-25).
An ace is born in Georgia: All right, Chelsea Wilkinson was actually born in North Carolina, and some of her efforts this past week took place at the SEC tournament in South Carolina, but it's Georgia that stands to benefit if the sophomore has well and truly arrived as an elite pitcher. Wilkinson had a good freshman season and what qualified as a largely successful sophomore campaign by the time the final series of the regular season arrived. But it was the way she shut down Kentucky twice that weekend and then did the same to Florida, Alabama and Kentucky again in the SEC tournament that turned heads. If she is the poised master of spins and speed changes we saw, look out.
Don't dismiss the Lady Mocs: Chattanooga is the fourth seed in this regional, but there is more to recommend it than most such teams. Longtime coach Frank Reed is an NCAA tournament regular (although Stephanie Rieck is the lone holdover from the most recent appearance). More importantly, the Lady Mocs have pitching with Kentucky transfer Katie Henderson and Taylor Deason. It's why they held their own in losses against Oregon (6-4), Louisiana-Lafayette (6-2) and South Alabama (2-1) in the regular season and split a pair of games against Atlantic-10 champion Fordham.
UAB is battle tested: UAB didn't rest on its laurels the season after reaching a super regional for the first time. It instead played a grueling schedule that likely made the difference in securing an at-large bid despite some stumbles in conference. That schedule included a pair of games at Georgia the first weekend of March. To get the split, the Blazers hung nine hits and seven earned runs on Wilkinson in an 8-0 win and got a shutout from Leigh Streetman. With two senior pitchers and a lot of big-game experience, the Blazers aren't likely to be rattled.
Alex Hugo vs. Renada Davis is worth price of admission: There is a lot of pitching in this regional, but it is Georgia, after all, so we ought to talk hitting. In her first season with Georgia after transferring from Kansas, Hugo solidified her place as one of the nation's premier power hitters and most entertaining at-bats. But she has company this weekend in the form of NC State's Davis. In her first two seasons with coach Shawn Rychcik, Davis has hit 43 home runs, including 17 so far this season.
Which teams are in it: No. 5 Florida (45-11) vs. Florida A&M (24-27), UCF (41-16) vs. Stetson (38-12).
Hannah Rogers just keeps winning: Jaclyn Traina and Dallas Escobedo have the championships. Ellen Renfroe excelled under the bright lights of the championship series stage. Whitney Canion and Aimee Creger stood in the circle for Team USA. But the fact remains no active pitcher in the country has more career wins than the Florida ace. Like her team, not coincidentally, she hit some rough spots this season, but Rogers is 23-8 with a 1.83 ERA. And it was Rogers who beat Florida State's Lacey Waldrop on April 9, arguably Florida's best win down the stretch.
Florida has the postseason touch: Excluding the 2012 postseason, when the dismissals of key players on the eve of the tournament created a mess the Gators surely hope will never be repeated, Tim Walton's program is 25-2 in the regional and super regional rounds since 2008. Even including the 2012 debacle, Florida still has fewer losses in those rounds during that span than Arizona State or Alabama. That said, Gainesville hasn't been impenetrable this season. One possible reason? The typically patient Gators draw more than an extra walk per game away from Gainesville this season. A few extra seventh-inning at-bats as the visitors isn't enough to explain that gap.
Rubber match for UCF and Stetson: The middle seeds in the regional won't need introductions, having played each other twice already this season. Each team won on the other team's home field, so it's only fitting to head to a neutral field to settle things. Both were pitching duels, although it's worth noting that Stetson has yet to see UCF's Shelby Turnier, who is 19-5 with a 1.32 ERA. UCF elected to start co-ace Mackenzie Audas in each of the first two meetings.
Stetson star wears two hats: It's presumably nothing more than a quirk, but most of the best pitchers in the state of Florida -- including Rogers, Audas, Turnier, Waldrop and South Florida's Sara Nevins -- don't often hit. That isn't true of Stetson's ace. In addition to her 26-7 record and 0.84 ERA in the circle, Meredith Owen is the team's best run producer with a .714 slugging percentage and .463 on-base percentage.
Which teams are in it: No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette (44-8-1) vs. Texas Southern (31-18), Mississippi State (38-19) vs Texas (33-21).
Christina Hamilton takes charge: Long the premier program outside the major conferences, Louisiana-Lafayette didn't come out of nowhere this season. It pushed Michigan to the brink in a super regional a season ago and began this season ranked No. 15. What's surprising is that it continued its climb even as it effectively changed aces. It was Jordan Wallace who did the heavy lifting in 2013, culminating in a tryout with the national team. But control issues (107 walks in 102 innings) slowed her progress this season. In stepped Hamilton, who is 24-2 with a 1.55 ERA after sitting out the 2012 season with an injury and pitching sparingly a season ago).
The Longhorns can still hit: That Texas enters the tournament unseeded a season after reaching the Women's College World Series speaks to the difficulty of replacing a workhorse ace like Blaire Luna, but the offense didn't go anywhere. Oklahoma had the best offense in the Big 12 when you look at the full spectrum of run production, but Texas led the league in batting average and finished second in both slugging percentage and stolen bases, a nice power-speed combination. Mississippi State is difficult to run on, but it does give up its share of long balls.
Fabulous freshmen: If you don't catch Haley Hayden, Caroline Seitz and Devon Tunning this time around, don't sweat it. You will have plenty of chances. Each team in this bracket has a freshman hitter who wasted little time adjusting to the college game. Louisiana-Lafayette's Hayden might be the best of the bunch, with a compact frame masking ample power. But given what she faced in the SEC, Mississippi State's Seitz can make her own case after hitting .350 and leading the Bulldogs with a .633 slugging percentage. Texas' Tunning hasn't shown that sort of power, but she has a .400 on-base percentage. Texas Southern comes from farther off the radar, but freshman Krystalani Yockman is second on the team with an 1.142 OPS and drove in 15 runs in her team's most recent eight games.
Home sweet home: Lamson Park has long been trumpeted as one of the best places in the country to catch a softball game, in part because it's a quality facility and in part because of the atmosphere a rabid fan base provides. So it's long overdue for the Ragin' Cajuns to get some home games. Always a postseason participant, Louisiana-Lafayette is nonetheless hosting a regional for just the second time since the addition of the super regional round in 2005.
Which teams are in it: No. 7 Oklahoma (45-10) vs. Bryant (32-20), Hofstra (33-13) vs. Texas A&M (35-20).
Lauren Chamberlain changes everything: Oklahoma's All-American first baseman sat out the regular-season finale after leaving the previous game following a slide at second base. The Norman Transcript reported she had a swollen knee and was scheduled for an MRI on Monday. Finding a way to win without her when she missed more than a month with a back injury was a big ingredient in Oklahoma's success this season. Others stepped up and anyone who paid attention saw yet again just how good Shelby Pendley is in her own right. But let's be clear here. Oklahoma is a title contender with Chamberlain. It is not without someone who in even limited time this season did nothing to hurt the case that she may be the best hitter in the history of the college game.
Hofstra has its own stat monster: Chamberlain will begin next season as the NCAA active leader in career home runs, but she won't be the only one in Norman this week who could top the charts. Hofstra junior pitcher Morgan Lashley may yet cede her lead to Florida State's Lacey Waldrop by the end of the postseason, but she's currently the active leader in career wins among all non-seniors in Division I. She and teammate Taylor Pirone have split innings almost equally for the Pride this season, and her home run rate is cause for some concern with the Sooners and Aggies around. Still, you don't win 79 games in three seasons by accident.
Texas A&M can't serve up souvenirs: The Aggies are back on the field after missing the SEC tournament despite spending most of the season ranked. Staying on the field may depend on keeping the ball in the park. Bryant, Hofstra and Oklahoma have allowed a combined 87 home runs. Texas A&M has allowed 61, as many as its own hitters have sent over the wall. Only one other team in the Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC allowed more home runs this season. And with all apologies to the folks in Ames, there aren't many lists a team wants to share with Iowa State this time of year.
A rookie with some history: This is the first trip to the NCAA tournament for Bryant, which only recently completed the reclassification process to Division I. It's also the first season as a head coach for 27-year-old Shayne Lotito, who took over at the Rhode Island school this past July. But there is some history for the team to call on. Just five years ago, Lotito was the leadoff hitter for a senior-laden Boston University team that went to a regional hosted by Georgia Tech, lost the first game to the host but then won two in a row to reach the regional final. A senior-laden Bryant team would like to do the same here behind a balanced lineup and sophomore ace Elle Madsen (25-10, 2.66 ERA).
Which teams are in it: No. 8 Florida State (50-6) vs. Fordham (36-18), South Florida (41-15) vs. South Carolina (35-20).
Florida State's dynamic duo: Writing in the names of the nation's best hitter and its best pitcher seems like a pretty good place to begin building a championship team. Shortstop Maddie O'Brien and ace Lacey Waldrop have plenty of competition when it comes to those designations, but Waldrop is the only pitcher from a major conference with at least 30 wins and an ERA of less than 1.00. And no hitter in any conference can match O'Brien's .994 slugging percentage. So at the very least, they're in the discussion. Which is why the Seminoles are in the title discussion.
O'Brien has company: Tallahassee is the only regional that features two players ranked among the top 10 in slugging percentage among teams in the field. O'Brien is the obvious half of the answer, but Fordham's Elise Fortier is the other half. The Atlantic-10 Player of the Year enters the regional slugging .841 with 19 home runs and 70 RBIs. Fortier went 7-for-33 at the plate this season against teams that made the NCAA tournament, but that included a good day against Oregon in a game the Rams nearly stole.
South Florida's busy schedule: Once done with the NCAA tournament, South Florida coach Ken Eriksen will trade hats and begin worrying about winning gold with Team USA in this summer's world championship. His current ace, Sara Nevins, may well be a part of the international effort, as she was last summer, but her final college run comes first. Her overall numbers this season remain stellar (27-8, 1.42 ERA), but she's still looking for a signature win.
South Carolina hoping two of a kind beats one ace: One of these things is not like the others. Waldrop was the ACC Pitcher of the Year. Nevins was the American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year. Fordham's Michele Daubman was named, you guessed it, the A-10 Pitcher of the Year (all right, co-pitcher of the year). South Carolina has to hope two pitchers with almost identical numbers, Julie Sarratt and Nicki Blue, can combine to match their efforts.