Fresh faces lead Florida offense
Rare is the NCAA tournament in which all 16 national seeds advance to the super regional round. With more than 90 games awaiting in regional play this week, espnW's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
Friday: Hampton at Florida; South Florida vs. Georgia Southern
The favorite: No. 2 Florida
Florida will likely start five players in its opener against Hampton who weren't even on the roster when it hosted a regional a season ago. That freshness has turned out to be this team's greatest strength. The familiar faces are integral -- junior Hannah Rogers is the cornerstone in the circle with a 29-5 record and sophomore Lauren Haeger's 1.150 OPS leads the team. But freshmen Kelsey Stewart, Kirsti Merritt, Taylor Schwarz, Aubree Munro and junior transfer Stephanie Tofft have combined for 224 hits (52 percent of the team's total), 181 runs (46 percent), 120 walks (41 percent), 83 extra-base hits (46 percent) and 35 stolen bases (35 percent).
What could get in the way: An old nemesis
There are SEC aces who face Florida less frequently than South Florida's Sara Nevins. She has a 1.63 ERA with 22 hits allowed and 28 strikeouts in 30 career innings against the Gators. The most memorable of those outings came in last season's regional final in Gainesville, a complete-game shutout with 12 strikeouts that sent the Bulls through to a super regional. Nevins has allowed just 14 extra-base hits in 201 innings this season and doesn't walk a lot of batters, possible trouble for a Florida team that is second in the SEC in extra-base hits, first by a mile in walks but middle of the pack in batting average.
Player to watch: Sarah Purvis, P, Georgia Southern
Is a pitcher from the Southern Conference out of her element against the SEC and Big East? Not necessarily. Back in February, Purvis tossed eight shutout innings against Alabama, until the defending national champion was finally able to push across two runs against her in the ninth inning and escape. A season ago, Purvis beat Kentucky, was the tough-luck loser in 1-0 losses at Georgia and Georgia Tech and in a 2-1 NCAA tournament loss against North Carolina.
Friday: IPFW at Louisville; UCLA vs. UAB
The favorite: No. 15 Louisville
Will it be the Louisville we saw early in the season, when it split two games at Oklahoma and beat Kentucky, LSU and Michigan, or the team that limped to the finish line with a loss in the return game against Kentucky, a loss at home against Georgetown, two losses at Notre Dame and a semifinal loss in the Big East tournament? You wouldn't expect it to be a big number, but the Cardinals scored just eight runs in those losses. The good news from their perspective is a team that struck out just 190 times in 57 games, one of the lowest rates in the tournament, was still putting the ball in play in those losses. Presumably, those balls can start falling for hits again for Alicja Wolny, Katie Keller and the rest.
What could get in the way: UCLA
The Bruins were the upset victim a season ego, eliminated at home in a regional won by Hofstra. They appear capable of returning the favor in Louisville this year. Any lineup with Stephany LaRosa, B.B. Bates and Ally Carda has potential to put up crooked numbers, even against UAB and Louisville pitching staffs that do a good job of keeping the ball in the yard (no Conference USA team allowed fewer home runs than UAB and only one Big East team allowed fewer than Louisville). A good late-season run for UCLA coincided with a tear for Bates (a .455 batting average in the last 14 games). She needs just two RBIs to have the second-best single-season total in UCLA history.
Player to watch: Lannah Campbell, P, UAB
UAB utilizes three pitchers almost equally, making for one of the most balanced pitching staffs in the tournament, but only one has a sister likely to be throwing pitches in another NCAA tournament game Friday. The twin sister of South Alabama ace and national ERA leader Hannah Campbell (the two squared off for three innings in a game earlier this season), Lannah leads the Blazers in innings and has appeared in 35 of the team's 52 games as either starter or reliever. She got the save with 2 2/3 shutout innings against Washington, a win that may have gotten UAB in the field.
Friday: Longwood at Tennessee; NC State vs. James Madison
The favorite: No. 7 Tennessee
If you're checking off components a contender should have, Tennessee keeps your pen busy. There is much more power than a season ago, with SEC player of the year Lauren Gibson leading a group of five regulars slugging at least .520. There is always speed at Tennessee, and Raven Chavanne's 39 steals in as many attempts lead four players with double-digit steals. The Lady Vols are solid in the field. And there are two pitchers in sisters Ellen and Ivy Renfroe who can keep the Lady Vols in any game and win one on their own if needed. But three losses in four recent games against Missouri leave open the question of whether or not Tennessee is as good as the sum of those parts.
What could get in the way: Lots and lots of home runs
Batting practice alone should be worth the price of admission in Knoxville. Neither Renfroe sister is particularly prone to giving up home runs, although Ellen has allowed them at a greater rate this season than her first two seasons. It will be a challenge to keep the ball in the park this weekend. The headliners are Longwood catcher Megan Baltzell, who leads the nation with 30 home runs, and NC State shortstop Renada Davis, who is tied for fourth with 24 home runs. But both of their teams have power beyond the two stars and join Tennessee in the top 20 nationally in slugging percentage (Not to be left out, James Madison checks in at No. 39 nationally in slugging percentage).
Player to watch: Jailyn Ford, James Madison
Tennessee has been here before. Just a season ago, the Lady Vols dropped the opening game of a regional against a stellar pitching performance from a mid-major ace, Jessica Simpson of Miami (Ohio). With 14 home runs, Ford is another of the big-time hitters in Knoxville, but it's the freshman's work in the circle that sets her apart in this context. Selected to the junior national team, a rarity for a CAA player, she's 23-5 with a 1.66 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 177 innings.
Friday: Jacksonville State at Alabama; Western Kentucky vs. USC-Upstate
The favorite: No. 10 Alabama
Ranked No. 5 in the final RPI, Alabama became just the fourth team since 2007 to be seeded five or more spots below its final RPI. That drop may be tied to the team's slow finish, but it won't please folks in Tuscaloosa. There is no doubt the Crimson Tide missed some opportunities for big hits in key moments en route to five more losses than they had all last season. But their offensive numbers (6.9 runs per game, .329 batting average, .505 slugging percentage and .424 on base percentage) are almost identical to those numbers a season ago (6.8 runs per game, .311 batting average, .541 slugging percentage, .425 on-base percentage). What isn't the same? For the first time since 1997, the Tide won't have a pitcher who throws at least 100 innings finish with an ERA under 2.00. Jackie Traina is a warrior, but if she isn't 100 percent, it's trouble for the Tide.
What could get in the way: Sun Belt
If the Sun Belt is as good as advertised, Alabama will have its hands full at home. Sun Belt Conference tournament champion South Alabama is the No. 13 overall seed, and familiar postseason foe Louisiana-Lafayette looks like the biggest threat to LSU in the Baton Rouge regional after another regular season spent piling up big numbers. But it was Western Kentucky that won the Sun Belt regular-season title after winning its series against South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Hilltoppers can play small ball around Olivia Watkins (36 stolen bases) and have a pitcher in Emily Rousseau who came up big in conference and threw a four-hit shutout on the road against Missouri.
Player to watch: Shellie Robinson, USC-Upstate
Make this a two-for-one deal with teammate Meredith Barnes, the two primary offensive engines for an Atlantic Sun champion that ranks 16th nationally in scoring. Just a sophomore, Robinson has put up double-digit home runs and stolen bases in each of her first two seasons, including 12 home runs and 15 stolen bases this season. That includes two home runs and a double in a game against Kentucky. In two seasons, she's struck out just 33 times in 313 at-bats.