Seeds, sleepers and stars to watch
The cheat sheet for this week's NCAA softball regionals continues with the final eight seeds.
Which teams are in it: No. 9 Arizona State (44-10-1) vs. Dartmouth (31-17), Michigan (42-12) vs. San Diego State (39-17).
Clash of past champions: Regional pairings of past national champions are not rare. Last season saw Arizona and Texas A&M grouped together, as well as Michigan and California. The host in that case, Michigan, now heads to Arizona State. And even if it isn't unprecedented, it still adds spice to the proceedings when two of the sport's biggest names meet with only one place available in a super regional, let alone the Women's College World Series. Out of seven such meetings since 2007, only once did the road team advance, when California beat No. 16 Fresno State in a 2008 regional final.
Sierra Romero vs. Dallas Escobedo: There were three sets of teammates among the 10 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that this is the only regional in which two finalists go head to head. Michigan's shortstop batting against Arizona State's ace should be worth the price of admission. Romero's slap-like .500 batting average notwithstanding, she is as pure a power hitter as there is this side of Lauren Chamberlain. And as many All-Americans as Escobedo's rise ball has made look foolish, it always carries with it the possibility of leaving the park.
Pitching questions for Michigan: It was a story of two seasons for the Wolverines, who started out 34-6 but limped to an 8-6 finish that included sharing the Big Ten regular-season title and losing the conference tournament final. No one facet shoulders responsibility alone, but Michigan allowed 48 runs in those 14 games at the end of the regular season, compared to 71 runs allowed in the first 40 games. Pitching should be a strength with three arms, and three different looks, like Haylie Wagner, Sara Driesenga and talented freshman Megan Betsa. But right now, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
Aztecs know their surroundings: Dartmouth is a first-time entrant in the NCAA tournament (leaving Yale as the only softball-playing Ivy League team that hasn't qualified), but the other team in Tempe is a postseason veteran making its seventh consecutive regional appearance. And for all the attention players like Escobedo, Romero and Arizona State's tandem of catcher Amber Freeman and shortstop Cheyenne Coyle deserve, San Diego State's Patrice Jackson isn't an afterthought, not with a .764 slugging percentage and .543 on-base percentage.
Which teams are in it: Tennessee (42-10) vs. Charleston Southern (27-31-1), Lipscomb (39-13) vs. Virginia Tech (35-21).
Tennessee awaits Renfroe redux: After a brilliant start to the season, Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe hit some bumps in the road with five losses and a 3.08 ERA in conference play. It's possible workload became an issue, the demands on the ace greater without sister Ivy Renfroe around this season, but we've seen a similar scenario play out before. And it didn't go well for Ellen's opponents in the NCAA tournament that time. She had a 3.00 ERA in SEC games a season ago, then threw a four-hit 11-inning shutout in her postseason opener and posted a 1.49 ERA in more than 50 tournament innings.
Unlucky No. 10: The Lady Vols will need some help in the Norman regional if they hope to play games in Knoxville beyond this weekend. In theory a No. 10 seed beating a No. 7 seed in a super regional shouldn't qualify as much of a surprise. After all, a No. 11 seed has defeated a No. 6 seed to get to Oklahoma City. The same goes for a No. 12 seed beating a No. 5 seed. But since the field expanded to include super regionals and 16 seeds in 2005, the only instances in which a No. 10 seed reached the World Series came when the No. 7 seed ostensibly in the way was eliminated in regionals.
Virginia Tech is proven challenger: This is the third consecutive tournament appearance for the Hokies, one shy of the run they made with Angela Tincher in the circle. And while they haven't returned to the heights they reached with Tincher (now in her first season as pitching coach), they came within a run of a super regional in each of the past two seasons, including two seasons ago in Knoxville. That's a record a lot of programs would take in a heartbeat.
Lipscomb carries Atlantic Sun banner: Assessing a conference on the postseason performance of a handful of its teams is an iffy practice, but the Atlantic Sun has to live with it. The league received two at-large bids this season, a remarkable showing given its short history and small footprint. Not that Lipscomb lacks a resume. It beat Baylor on the road in a game that team's ace (Whitney Canion) started, as well as UAB twice and Virginia Tech. With A-Sun prestige on the line, it's interesting that while Ashley Anderson had the best pitching numbers on the season, Tanner Sanders went the distance against both Baylor and Virginia Tech.
Which teams are in it: No. 11 Arizona (41-13) vs. Boston University (35-19), LSU (35-22) vs. Louisville (36-20).
Kenzie Fowler steps away: In a powerful moment overshadowed outside of Tucson amidst all the other softball taking place during the final weekend before the NCAA tournament, Arizona fifth-year senior Kenzie Fowler got the start in her team's home finale, threw one pitch and left the game as planned. The ace who led Arizona to the 2010 championship series as a true freshman, but who also battled injuries before and during her time with the Wildcats, had to call an end to her final comeback attempt. Fowler was second on the team with 11 starts this season, but Arizona still has four pitchers to call on in de facto No. 1 Estela Pinon, Shelby Babcock, Nancy Bowling and Michelle Floyd.
Arizona is playing its own power game: All four teams in this regional rank in the top 65 nationally in runs per game. And yet it's still Arizona and everyone else. Boston University, LSU and Louisville don't have a single hitter who has a .700 slugging percentage between them. Arizona has five of them: Katiyana Mauga (.924), Chelsea Goodacre (.853), Kellie Fox (.771), Hallie Wilson (.747) and Kelsey Rodriguez (.708). And the Wildcats are at their run-producing best in the confines of Hillenbrand Stadium, where they are 28-2 this season.
LSU pitching heating up: LSU doesn't have as much power in its lineup as the host, but fittingly at a time when assistant coach and hitting guru Howard Dobson was just named to the pool of coaches available to USA Softball, this is a retooled offense entirely unlike the no-hit wonders who made the World Series in 2012. The question mark now for LSU is pitching. But in recent weeks, beginning around the time of a three-hitter against South Alabama on April 23, both Baylee Corbello and Ashley Czechner have turned in outstanding efforts against quality lineups.
Cards are playing with house money: It's possible Louisville would have been part of the field of 64 teams even without winning the American Athletic Conference's automatic bid. It's also entirely possible that the bubble team would have missed out. The team has used three pitchers as part of a fairly balanced rotation over the course of the season, but with that season on the line, the ball ended up in Rachel LeCoq's hands a heck of a lot. She started only one of the three AAC tournament games, but she accounted for 16 of the 20 innings.
Which teams are in it: No. 12 Washington (33-13) vs. Iona (24-22), Northwestern (33-16) vs. BYU (33-21).
Kylee Lahners powers Washington: It's not that Washington is a one-woman team. Bryana Walker and Kaitlin Inglesby give coach Heather Tarr two experienced arms to choose from in the circle. Almost the entire batting order has on-base percentages of .400 or better, and Victoria Hayward and Hooch Fagaly are among the most productive offensive players in the Pac-12. But that only makes what Lahners is doing more impressive. With 17 home runs and 10 doubles, the junior has more than a quarter of the team's extra-base hits this season. You won't find many of her peers who can say that.
Catch Emily Allard while you can: Northwestern's fifth-year senior is the NCAA Division I active leader with 161 stolen bases, including 32 in 34 attempts this season. If she steals three bases in Seattle, she will claim sole possession of 11th place in NCAA Division I history. Kristen Wood has given the Wildcats important innings and intriguing strikeout potential in the circle after the team lost presumptive ace Amy Letourneau to injury, but this is still a group that heads to Washington needing to score runs to beat BYU and possibly duplicate the win it had against the Huskies in February. That effort starts with its leadoff hitter.
Iona looks to make third time the charm: Let's not get crazy and say the MAAC champion is out to win the regional, but the Gaels will hope to win their first NCAA tournament game as they make their fourth appearance in the past five seasons. Bowling Green and Northwestern State (which is in the field for a fifth time this season) are the only schools to date to make four NCAA tournament appearances without a win. Iona's chances likely depend on an offense led by Eileen McCann (.646 slugging percentage, .500 on-base percentage).
BYU rides momentum: How much can one win mean? BYU was 10-18 entering a game against Oregon on March 25. The Cougars pulled off one of the upsets of the season with a win against the Ducks and proceeded to close the regular season on a 23-3 run. Granted, Utah Valley was the only other NCAA tournament team BYU played in that stretch, while the first half of the schedule was loaded with more difficult opponents, but a hot streak is a hot streak.
Which teams are in it: No. 13 Baylor (42-13) vs. Northwestern State (30-20), Tulsa (50-7) vs. Houston (32-21).
Whitney Canion vs. Aimee Creger: There are no guarantees the two will go head to head, but the prospect of seeing Baylor's ace take on Tulsa's ace is enticing. Finally winding down a college tenure in its sixth season because of injuries, Baylor's Canion (26-9, 1.43 ERA, 244 strikeouts) has made up for any physical diminishment with the knowledge and patience gained by her experience. She has already been part of some special pitching duels this season against the likes of Missouri, Oklahoma and South Alabama. Like Canion an alum of Team USA, Creger (26-1, 1.29 ERA, 314 strikeouts) also had to overcome injury, in her case a back injury that forced her to pitch in a brace as a sophomore.
It's not all about the pitching: Should Baylor and Tulsa meet as the regional progresses, there will be some tough outs for the aces. Tulsa's Jill Barrett is the NCAA active leader in career hits with 312 and keeps adding to that total with a .452 batting average and .574 slugging percentage this season. Tulsa doesn't do short -- seven of its regulars slug at least .530. Speaking of which, a team that searched for years for its power game, Baylor slugs nearly .500 as a team this season (just two seasons ago it slugged .334). Glenn Moore's teams will always have speed and the short game, but Linsey Hays, Clare Hosack and the perennially underrated Kaitlyn Thumann lend it some pop, too.
Houston likes its opponents big: The best news for Houston is the presence of two elite teams in Baylor and Tulsa. It was the teams in the middle class that tripped up the Cougars all season. Despite a lack of momentum near the end of the season, including losses to Houston Baptist at home and Rutgers in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals, Houston secured an at-large bid because it beat Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M during the regular season, as well as a win against Michigan among teams not from the Lone Star State. The sister battery of Diedre and Haley Outon will get one more chance to pull an upset.
Northwestern State will bring its bats: If you're going to spend a weekend in the company of aces like Canion and Creger, and even giant killers like Houston's Outon and Julana Shrum, it is helpful to have offense. Northwestern State doesn't have any NCAA tournament wins in four previous trips, but it does have an offense. Led by Kellye Kincannon, three players slug .600 or better and the team slugs .509 as a whole, good for 20th nationally.
Which teams are in it: No. 14 Kentucky (44-15) vs. Ohio (32-24), James Madison (44-13) vs. DePaul (41-9).
Better bring your pitcher: The Tuscaloosa Regional may be the epicenter of pitching this weekend, but Lexington isn't all that far behind. Kentucky's Kelsey Nunley, James Madison's Jailyn Ford, DePaul's Kirsten Verdun and Ohio's Savannah Jo Dorsey are a combined 102-34 this season with a cumulative 1.86 ERA. And that isn't even fair to James Madison's Heather Kiefer, who is 20-7 with a 2.02 ERA as her team's No. 1B.
Kentucky seniors make it count: The Wildcats are a well-coached, cohesive bunch, which is to say they are a team that year after year wins games beyond what the statistics might suggest. Kentucky's 13-11 record in the toughest conference in the country this season came despite hitting .232 and being outscored in SEC play. Nunley is a big part of that, but give Lauren Cumbess and Emily Gaines credit, too. Both seniors, Cumbess a mainstay for most of her time in Lexington and Gaines a breakthrough performer in her final season, are key in the middle of the order.
DePaul's added dimension: While James Madison's Ford and Ohio's Dorsey show power as hitters and get regular plate appearances, DePaul's Verdun is in her own class as a two-way talent. The demise of the old Big East, which was already on the fringes of the softball elite, left the historically significant Blue Demons in the shadows in a patched together mid-major league, but that doesn't diminish Verdun. In addition to her 30-5 record in the circle, she posted a .970 OPS at the plate, third best on the team behind the similarly unheralded Mary Connolly (1.263 OPS) and Dylan Christensen (.991).
Colonial giant killers: Speaking of teams playing above their conference station, call James Madison a mid-major at your own risk. This is a team that beat Oregon on a neutral field. The Ducks didn't start ace Cheridan Hawkins in that game, but it was their regular lineup that produced just five hits and no runs against Ford. In addition to a win against DePaul in which Ford got the better of Verdun, the Dukes also shut out Louisiana-Lafayette behind their sophomore ace (it's presumably becoming clear why Ford was a part of the United States junior national team a summer ago).
Which teams are in it: No. 15 Missouri (41-16) vs. Bradley (27-30), Nebraska (40-15) vs. Kansas (33-21).
Tori Finucane isn't likely to crack: No pitcher had a tougher challenge than Kelsey Stevens taking over for Keilani Ricketts this season at Oklahoma, but Stevens at least had a season of Pac-12 experience at Stanford under her belt before she attempted that feat as a transfer. What Finucane did as a freshman in stabilizing Missouri in the circle without Chelsea Thomas is at least similarly impressive. Only four pitchers in the SEC threw more innings this season, and Missouri's early exit in the SEC tournament aside, it was difficult to see any signs of Finucane wearing out mentally or physically. She isn't Thomas, any more than Stevens is Ricketts, but as in that case, what she is appears to be working just fine.
Missouri's defense matters: Defensive miscues played no small part in the recent swoon, mistakes that were largely uncharacteristic of a team that ranked solidly in the middle of the pack in the SEC in errors despite handling more chances than most of its peers. This isn't the Missouri of Thomas, where the ace might strike out 12 batters and leave her fielders to deal with the other nine outs. Finucane already looks like a special pitcher, but she may be one in the mold of Florida's Hannah Rogers, who wins without crossing the threshold of striking out a batter per inning.
Last run for Edwards sisters: Tatum and Taylor Edwards already exceeded the substantial hype that accompanied their arrival in Lincoln as prep stars from California. At the plate, they helped bring the program into the sport's slugging-happy present and teamed as a battery to guide the Huskers back to the Women's College World Series. This season alone they have combined for 31 home runs (as many as the entire team hit in 2009 and more than it hit in the 2007 and 2008 seasons combined) and the 22 wins credited to Tatum in the circle. Their legacies are secure, even as they seek another weekend.
Look out for Kelsey Kessler: Kansas was a bit of a curious inclusion as an at-large selection, given the selection committee's stated emphasis on momentum and the team's lack thereof, but that debate doesn't make it any easier to hit Kelsey Kessler. The sophomore had her ups and downs this season, but the key here is that the ups -- whether in a win against Baylor or competitive starts against Kentucky, Nebraska and Texas -- were up. All the more when you have the ability to hit double digits in strikeouts, as she does, any given day can be your day.
Which teams are in it: No. 16 Minnesota (41-9) vs. Green Bay (27-12), Auburn (39-17-1) vs. North Dakota State (35-16).
Pitching drives Minnesota: Considering Minnesota was able to play just 11 home games this season, its two-pitcher advantage may be more important than home-field advantage. In Sara Moulton and Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota has pitching options like few other seeded teams. A senior, Moulton keeps the ball on the ground and doesn't walk batters, important traits against an Auburn team that walks a lot and hits a lot of home runs. One thing to watch is that despite her good overall rate, she had seven walks in 10 innings against Arizona State and Florida, two teams with Auburn-style approaches at the plate, compared to 36 walks in her other 175 innings. She beat the Sun Devils in her team's most impressive win of the season, but free passes will feed what Auburn wants to do.
Auburn is becoming Arizona State: How much difference does a coach make? Auburn ranks second in the SEC in walks and third in on-base percentage this season. A season ago, eight teams had more walks than Auburn and nine teams had better on-base percentages. Auburn has committed 29 errors in 57 games this season. It committed 60 errors in 53 games a season ago. And this is before coach Clint Myers even gets his own players in the program. The same story that unfolded at Arizona State appears to be unfolding at Auburn.
Finally a bus trip for the Bison: Geography plays a role in shaping the softball tournament, with the committee looking to place as many teams as possible within driving distance of a host site. For their purposes, that distance is defined as 400 miles door to door. Look at a map and it becomes clear quickly that there just aren't a whole lot of options when it comes to North Dakota State. Pitcher Krista Menke should appreciate the shorter commute and a little extra rest. To get to the tournament, she threw 774 pitches in four days in the conference tournament, including 382 pitches on one day alone.
Division III invades Division I: One of the more remarkable stories in the tournament, as the sport grows bigger and more competitive by the year, is that Green Bay arrives in Minneapolis with a part-time coach. While Jean Rivett is a softball lifer and a veteran of the sport in the state of Wisconsin, she is also employed in an administrative role by St. Norbert College, a Division III school in De Pere, Wis., part of the Green Bay metro area.