A new home and big homers headline Week 7 in NCAA softball
What went down in the seventh week of college softball? The aim each week is to bring you five stories that defined the week in college softball or help navigate the long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
1. Oregon cuts the ribbon, Cheridan Hawkins pulls the string
During a week in which Oregon opened a facility that should help it remain among the elite for decades to come, fans in Jane Sanders Stadium saw a reminder of why the Ducks still hope to add national championship accoutrements to the decor.
The venue was clearly the star in Eugene this week. The new stadium is a West Coast version of the gleaming facilities that either popped up or emerged enhanced out of older bases across the SEC in recent years. It's a better experience for fans on game day, with capacity for 2,500 once center field bleachers are complete this week. But the training and team space also create a better experience for recruits. As coach Mike White said in the preseason, you hope people choose colleges for reasons other than the bells and whistles of a facility. But at the same time, those things are nice to have when it comes to making a good impression on future Ducks.
Yet with UCLA coming to town for an important series this coming weekend (Saturday's game airs on ESPNU at 10:30 p.m. ET for those interested in checking out the digs), it was also good to see a current Duck take to the new surroundings. In two starts, senior Cheridan Hawkins worked 12 shutout innings, allowed four hits and struck out 22 batters.
The NCAA Division I active leader in career wins, Hawkins nonetheless entered the weekend's Stanford series with a 3.30 ERA. That mark is well above a career 1.79 ERA that ranks fourth among active Division I seniors. In fact, the outings marked just the third time this season that she registered back-to-back shutout appearances.
The weekend's unfortunate coda came when Oregon infielder Jenna Lilley was hit in the face by a pitch during Saturday's series finale and had to be taken to an area hospital. There is no word yet on how much time the talented sophomore will miss, but she tweeted a message Sunday thanking fans for their well wishes.
2. What Florida has in common with Connecticut
Dan Shaughnessy hasn't started tweeting complaints yet, but it's difficult to follow both the softball season and the NCAA basketball tournament and not see similarities between the two-time defending softball champions and three-time defending hoops champions.
Granted, No. 1 Florida isn't routing all comers on the diamond to the extent Connecticut is on the basketball court. There have been close calls (and correspondingly thrilling viewing). Just this past weekend, for instance, Florida was one-hit for eight innings by sixth-ranked LSU's Allie Walljasper. Only when Nicole DeWitt's two-out home run followed Kirsti Merritt's two-out single with a runner already on base in the ninth inning did the Gators get the runs needed for a 3-0 win.
But the Gators didn't just win once. Florida became the first team to sweep a series in Baton Rouge since 2011. And they did it with pitching -- Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio combined to allow two runs for the second weekend and second SEC sweep in a row (those runs unearned this week). Florida went to Baton Rouge to face a top-10 team with a top-10 offense and lowered its season ERA from 0.87 to 0.78. It goes without saying that the Gators lead the nation in ERA. Or it should go without saying because we don't see sub-1.00 ERAs anymore.
Just twice in the past seven years did a team finish the season with an ERA better than 1.00.
In the seven seasons that preceded that, seven teams had ERAs better than 1.00.
One of the two recent examples was Florida in 2009, Stacey Nelson and Stephanie Brombacher splitting the innings. The other came a season ago when UCF co-aces Mackenzie Audas and Shelby Turnier helped the Knights lead the nation in ERA by nearly half a run. But to do what these Gators are doing with three essentially equal parts and against its schedule is, well, a UConn-like level of excellence.
Meanwhile, the top eight teams in the SEC standings square off as follows this weekend:
No. 8 Alabama at No. 1 Florida
No. 3 Auburn at No. 12 Kentucky
No. 6 LSU at No. 12 Georgia
No 19 Tennessee at No. 15 Missouri
(Saturday includes Tennessee-Missouri on ESPNU at Noon ET and Alabama at Florida on ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. ET).
3. Going, going gone to an NCAA home run record
Pitchers walked Kent State's Holly Speers seven times this week. That wasn't nearly enough.
As discussed in this space before, the MAC has a knack for providing stories beyond what might be expected of a mid-major league, from the All-American power of former Ball State slugger Jennifer Gilbert to Central Michigan's upset win against Arizona earlier this season.
Often it's the very fact that MAC players and teams can match what their supposedly major counterparts do that makes them compelling stories. But in this case, what sets Speers apart is something that no player in Division I history, major, mid-major or otherwise, ever did.
The sophomore shortstop hit home runs in five consecutive official at-bats, breaking the record set in 2002 by Jill Iacano of Canisius.
We note official because it took Speers some time to assemble her streak. The home runs came across a span of four games. It started with a seventh-inning home run against UCF in a midweek loss. After a walk in her first plate appearance of a series against Central Michigan, Speers homered in her next two trips. The fourth home run came after two walks in the second game of the series. And after three more walks to begin the finale, Speers homered in walk-off fashion in her final plate appearance to set the NCAA record.
After hitting eight home runs in her first 65 career games, Speers now has a total of six home runs in her past five games.
She gets a chance to extend the record and possibly match another with two games against Robert Morris on Wednesday. With home runs in five consecutive games, Speers is two away from matching former Arizona State star Kaitlin Cochran's record of seven games in a row with a home run.
4. Ali Aguilar burnishes player of the year credentials
Sticking with the basketball theme, Washington shortstop Ali Aguilar had a Kelsey Plum-like weekend. Or maybe a Chantel Osahor-like weekend, in honor of another Huskies basketball standout named Most Outstanding Player of the Lexington regional.
Then again, Aguilar is having herself a player-of-the-year kind of season.
No. 10 Washington needed a bounce-back week on the softball diamond after getting swept at home by Oregon to open the Pac-12 schedule. The problem was that schedule had them on the road at No. 16 UCLA, a destination more likely to produce a free fall than a bounce back. Enter Aguilar. She had two hits and a walk, the total including a solo home run, in a 9-0 run-rule win that opened the series. The outcome in far more doubt in the second game, her two home runs powered the Huskies to a 6-5 win.
Finally, a day too late, UCLA walked her three times in the finale that denied the Huskies a road sweep.
Aguilar is now hitting .419 with 16 home runs, 49 RBIs and 1.606 OPS. The last three statistics lead the conference by comfortable margins. The value of program records vary from program to program, but when you're on pace to at least challenge the single-season home run and RBI records of Kristen Rivera and Jenny Topping, respectively, you are in special softball company.
It should also put her in some select company among the favorites for national honors.
5. Louisville unloads on NC State
It hasn't been the kind of March typically enjoyed in Louisville. Immersed in scandal, the men's basketball team took itself out of consideration for the NCAA basketball tournament. So good late in the season, the women's basketball team was upset at home in the second round.
And the Kentucky Derby is still more than a month away.
It is a town that needs some sporting freshness. May we suggest Ulmer Stadium, home to University of Louisville softball? Although fans shouldn't worry if they can't make it. They have four years to catch Lillie Goetz and Megan Hensley.
Partly through Notre Dame losing two of three games at Syracuse in ACC play but mostly through its own industry, Louisville's stock jumped as much as any team's this past week. Playing the role more often associated with offenses at Auburn or Louisiana-Lafayette, the Cardinals slugged their way to 41 runs in three games and a sweep against NC State.
In one weekend, they went from averaging 5.6 runs per game this season to 6.5 runs per game.
As might be expected, a lot of Cardinals had good weekends, but that's nothing new for Goetz and Hensley. The two freshmen combined to drive in 14 runs and score 10 runs in the series. They have been two of the team's three best run producers all season, giving junior Maryssa Becker much of the support she needs as both the team's most productive hitter and pitcher. Other incoming classes got more attention. Few, if any, have been more productive than one that has Louisville squarely in the ACC race.