Super regionals: Five burning questions

Nebraska Athletics

Hailey Decker's four home runs in two games against Missouri on Sunday powered Nebraska into the super regionals.

1. Did Hailey Decker have the greatest day in regional history?

It's probably impossible to prove the affirmative, but the burden of proof rests on anyone who argues otherwise.

Unseeded Nebraska beat No. 15 Missouri twice on Sunday, 11-4 and 8-1, to win the Columbia regional. For just the second time since the field shifted to four-team regionals in 2005, an unseeded team lost its first game in the double-elimination format and then won four games in a row, the final two in the same afternoon against a seeded team.

And that's in some ways the secondary accomplishment.

To get her team to Tuscaloosa for a super regional against No. 2 Alabama, Nebraska sophomore Hailey Decker went 5-for-8 with four home runs, eight RBIs and five runs in the doubleheader.

"I've had good days, I've felt good at the plate, I've seen the ball well," Decker said. "But I've never quite hit like I did this weekend. I don't really know that there was something specific I was focused on.

"I didn't put my pants on differently this morning or anything. I just came out and tried to hit line drives."

Imagine what she could have done with a good night of sleep.

AP Photo/Columbia Daily Tribune, Ryan Henriksen

After leading the Huskers to victory against Missouri earlier, Hailey Decker did it again in Game 7.

The schedule in the Columbia regional dictated that Saturday's final elimination game started at 8:30 p.m. local time, with the winner expected back for a noon start against Missouri the next day. By the time Decker, who also contributed an RBI double in a 2-1 win against Kansas in that late game, returned to the hotel, iced a weary body, packed for the bus ride back to Lincoln that awaited the next evening, win or lose, and put her head on the pillow, it was nearly 2 a.m. Still riding the adrenaline of the day, she estimated sleep didn't come for almost another hour.

That's the way postseason works. Missouri earned extra rest when it won its first two games. Nebraska players earned their exhausting road when they came out flat in the regional opener against Kansas, lost 3-1 -- their most anemic offensive showing in two months -- and found themselves on the wrong side of an angry coach.

Wins against Bradley and Kansas on Saturday earned them a chance at redemption.

"We were all physically and mentally tired, obviously from the intense game with Kansas the night before," Decker said of the mood Sunday morning. "But we just really focused on ourselves as a team and picking each other up and giving as much energy as possible to each other. Whether someone got out or hit a home run, giving energy and feeding off each other. That's what really kept us going."

Let's just say the home runs didn't hurt, either.

Opportunity, as it often does in sports, came partly in the form of another's misfortune. Without freshman ace Tori Finucane, sidelined throughout the regional by a thumb injury, Missouri had considerably less margin for error than its seed suggested. After a leadoff single by Alicia Armstrong in the first inning of Sunday's first game, Decker hit a two-run home run that made it that much easier for her teammates to believe the day could go their way.

Decker wasn't done. Anything Missouri threw, she hit.

A rise ball in the third inning exited in the same direction. A drop ball in the first inning of the second game vanished over the wall in center. Finally, a curveball in the seventh inning of the clincher sailed out of reach in right field.

"I'm not really used to hitting rise balls; I'm used to swinging and missing," Decker said. "So to hit a rise ball out was nice. And I had been struggling with the changeup previous games. As a hitter, I think that's one of my strengths, is being able to see the off-speed. I was getting pretty hard on myself, so I think I was most relieved about that one."

She could sleep well on the ride home.

1B. Did Michigan's comeback cap the greatest Sunday in regional history?

All right, we're getting into a lot of superlatives here. Let's just say the final day was mighty enjoyable.

While chalk ruled the bracket for the first two days, with seeded teams compiling a 33-1 record marred only by No. 4 Georgia's loss to NC State, there were clear signs all the normal mayhem awaited. Through those first two days (actually three days, with the Thursday-Saturday regional in Seattle included), there had been 30 games decided by one or two runs, only seven fewer than the entire regional round a season ago. Favorites were winning, but barely.

Then came Sunday, when teams on the brink of elimination forced seven winner-take-all final games, two more than in any other season with the current regional format. Ten games were decided by one or two runs and three games went to extra innings.

Going strictly by the clock, Georgia and NC State wrapped up the schedule, thanks to a long rain delay and a second game, but Michigan's twilight rally in Tempe supplied the finishing touch. Even after home runs from Sierra Lawrence and Taylor Hasselbach erased a deficit in the top of the seventh inning against Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo -- one of the college game's all-time winners who deserved a happier ending -- Michigan's victory was only secured when senior Lyndsay Doyle caught Amber Freeman's long drive at the lip of the outfield fence.

All after Haylie Wagner, the pitcher whom Michigan at times seemed desperate not to trust, worked 13⅓ innings across two games in 100-degree temperatures and allowed just four earned runs.

All across the softball map, it was that kind of Sunday.

2. Why is UCLA a welcome addition to super regionals?

If not for Gracie Goulder, who played in the tournament's second weekend as a freshman at Georgia before a move to UCLA, there would be just two teams in the field without any super regional experience among their rosters.

Don Liebig/ASUCLA

It's Women's College World Series or bust for UCLA's Alyssa Tiumalu.

Minnesota and UCLA.

And if that combination doesn't sound strange, seek a refresher on softball history.

Alyssa Tiumalu and Jessica Hall both started for UCLA in Sunday's regional final against Notre Dame, just as the two key contributors start most games. But after a flurry of moves shuffled the lineup during the game, the two seniors found themselves watching from the dugout as the Fighting Irish loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh with the Bruins in possession of a precarious 1-0 lead.

They hadn't spoken about the stakes before the game, unwilling to deviate from the code that demands players at least go through the motions of treating every game the same. But as the tension mounted in the seventh, they shared the moment. Three times they had been in regionals in the past. Three times those weekends ended seasons.

"We both had a lot of faith and confidence in our team, yet it was kind of anxious and scary just to kind of watch and see what's going on," Tiumalu said of the seventh inning. "The team made it interesting, and we tend to do that. It was the longest three outs of both of our lives.

"We've been waiting for this, and we're very excited and happy to be going to super regionals."

It's a place no Bruin, save for Goulder, have ever been.

It was a long road back, at least by Westwood standards. It is good to have softball royalty here.

As much as the current third-seeded team's championship aspirations revolve around junior pitcher/slugger Ally Carda, anchor of a staff that didn't allow a run in three regional games, the power of classmate Stephany LaRosa and sophomore Mysha Sataraka and the all-around talents of freshman standout Delaney Spaulding, it's the quest of the two seniors to meet impossible expectations that is in some ways the most compelling story --Tiumalu most of all.

Tiumalu had an impressive freshman season in 2011, the year after the program's most recent national championship, but the Bruins lost a regional final against Florida. Tiumalu tore her ACL during those games in Gainesville and struggled through a sophomore season that saw the team go two-and-out in a home regional. Early in her third season, she took a foul ball off the helmet while catching. The same thing happened a month later. When the headaches and blurred vision wouldn't go away, the concussions sidelined her for the season.

She could only watch as UCLA lost to UAB in a regional final.

She wasn't ready to walk away. The compromise this season was that she would no longer catch, part of a sequence that led to LaRosa, a shortstop, moving behind the plate to catch Carda.

It would seem that whatever happens this week against Kentucky -- for that matter, whatever happened against Notre Dame -- Tiumalu lived up to the ideal of what it means to be a Bruin. Even if she and Hall become the first senior class to play at UCLA without reaching the World Series, getting to this point says something.

But there is at least one dissenter who feels otherwise, who feels that reaching the World Series is a must.

"I personally do," Tiumalu said. "I want to be on the stage. I don't want to say that I came to the best program and not be there. I want to be a part of everything that every Bruin who has been through this program, I want to be a part of what they have been. So for me, it's a very big deal to get to OKC."

Some things never change in Westwood.

3. Which team made the biggest statement in regionals?

Florida didn't win the SEC regular-season title. It bowed out early in the SEC tournament.

But the fifth-seeded Gators won the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

This is the 10th season of four-team regionals, implemented in conjunction with the new super regional round in 2005, and Florida hosted a regional in each of those seasons. The Gators moved on to a super regional seven times and advanced to the World Series on four occasions.

In other words, Gainesville is not unfamiliar with dominant performances from the home team. It still hadn't seen anything like this past weekend, not statistically speaking. For just the second time in that decade of regionals, Florida pitched a shutout for the weekend. And it did so while scoring more runs than ever before. The final score after three games against Florida A&M, Stetson and UCF: 29-0.

Two things made it even more impressive than the margin of victory. First, as was the case for much of the first part of the season, Florida got quality pitching performances from all three of its pitchers, Hannah Rogers, Lauren Haeger and Delanie Gourley. That doesn't mean the Gators won't lean on Rogers from this point forward, but it's nice to have the options. And second, Haeger went 5-for-11 with three home runs and nine RBIs at the plate.

This was the Florida team that ascended to No. 1 earlier in the season.

The unsettling news for the Gators is the team that came closest to matching the rout in Gainesville is the team coming to town this week. Hosting in Seattle, No. 12 Washington ran over Iona, BYU and Northwestern by a combined 26-0 score in just 17 innings, two more than the minimum possible. Like the Gators, the Huskies cruised without taxing an ace. They didn't have a different pitcher for every game, but Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker both put up numbers to suggest they are in top form.

4. Who were the first weekend's most outstanding performers?

Decker and Haeger qualify, to be sure, but they weren't the only ones who deserve to take a bow.

Whitney Canion, Baylor: You don't wait six years to let someone else decide your fate. Baylor's sixth-year ace, whose physical odyssey began when she was shut down with an arm injury in a super regional as a freshman, took the ball and kept it Sunday against Tulsa. She pitched 10 scoreless innings to begin the day, only to see Tulsa force a second game on Erica Sampson's walk-off home run in the 11th inning. Those 175 pitches gone for naught, Canion got a 30-minute rest, then threw 130 more in a 3-1 win that clinched the regional. Total tab: 17⅓ innings, 2 ER, 19 strikeouts.

AP Photo/, Vasha Hunt

Alabama's Haylie McCleney came up big in the outfield and at the plate.

Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota: Leave it to a freshman to lead the way to a first-ever super regional appearance for the Golden Gophers. Although the easy comparison is Danielle Lawrie because of their shared roots in British Columbia, the more apt one might be Jackie Traina, another pitcher with a big bat who came in and looked completely unafraid of big moments as a freshman. Groenewegen's best moment in the Minneapolis regional was probably 6⅓ innings of no-hit relief with 13 strikeouts in an extra-inning win against North Dakota State, but she was a presence at the plate and in the circle all weekend. She will be heard from again.

Kelsey Nunley, Kentucky: The sophomore ace just about pulled a Canion. Nunley did all she could in Sunday's first game against DePaul but was saddled with a 2-1 loss in 10 innings. She caught her breath and went back out for the second game. Perhaps aware they owed the pitcher who carried them not just Sunday but the first two days of the regional, her teammates scored enough to shorten the second game to five innings in a 10-1 win.

Haylie McCleney, Alabama: Well, there was this catch against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville in the regional opener. But she needs more? All right, how about going 6-for-10 with two walks at the plate in three games in Tuscaloosa, stealing five bases and driving in the key runs with a two-RBI triple in the regional final against South Alabama?

Lacey Waldrop, Florida State: If wins against Alabama and Florida in the regular season didn't convince you, Waldrop showed in the Tallahassee regional that great substance goes with her gaudy numbers (36-4, 0.90 ERA). South Florida blooped, slapped and bunted its way to a decent number of hits in two games against her, to its credit, but Waldrop remained in control. She never had much margin for error with the way South Florida's Sara Nevins shut down Florida State's lineup, but her ability to calmly work out of trouble in the seventh inning Sunday summed her up.

Hallie Wilson, Arizona: Of course there were home runs. This is Arizona, after all. But Wilson offered the full Rickey Henderson experience from the leadoff spot as the Wildcats survived an if-necessary game against LSU and earned a trip back to Louisiana to face No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette. Wilson hit two home runs in Saturday's winners bracket game against LSU, then set the tone in Sunday's winner-take-all finale with a home run to lead off the bottom of the first inning. One of the field's most versatile offensive players went 7-for-11 with five walks, nine RBIs and six runs scored.

Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon: Right down to waiting out a rain delay, the Eugene regional went according to script for the No. 1 overall seed. That meant a light workload for Hawkins, and an opportunity for No. 2 Karissa Hovinga to impress, but the ace still excelled with 19 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. Hawkins should be rested and ready when No. 16 Minnesota comes to town and tries to play spoiler, as its Big Ten compatriot Nebraska did a season ago against the Ducks in a super regional.

5. What are the super regionals you can't miss?

AP Photo/The Daily Times/Scott Keller

Annie Aldrete and Tennessee travel to the Norman Super Regional to take on Oklahoma in a rematch of last year's championship series, won by the Sooners.

The super regional in Norman, Oklahoma, between No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 10 Tennessee should be one of the rarest of things. A sequel worth watching. Both teams bear only passing resemblance to the lineups that played for a national championship in Oklahoma City a season ago, but both long ago proved there is softball life after legends -- Keilani Ricketts and Jessica Shults for the Sooners and Lauren Gibson and Raven Chavanne for the Lady Vols.

Those names are gone, but Oklahoma sluggers Lauren Chamberlain and Shelby Pendley remain, as do Tennessee ace Ellen Renfroe and USA Softball Player of the Year finalist Madison Shipman. And young players all around them have stepped to the forefront this season, whether it's Oklahoma sophomore pitcher Kelsey Stevens or Tennessee freshman catcher Annie Aldrete. Talent won't be in short supply.

If contrasts are more your thing, there is a good one brewing in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the bluest of softball blue bloods, No. 11 Arizona, comes to town to take on college softball's self-styled outsider, No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette. Arizona's pedigree is well established, but the only team remaining that plays its softball outside a major conference, Louisiana-Lafayette has been to the World Series on five occasions and has 63 all-time tournament wins, 11th most in history.

On the field, the current teams have more than a little in common. Namely, both can hit the daylights out of the ball. Louisiana-Lafayette doesn't have quite as much power, because no team has as much power as Arizona, but Arizona doesn't have a pitcher who has been as difficult to hit as Christina Hamilton.

The atmosphere will be great, the tailgating will be great and the softball shouldn't be bad, either.

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