Historic home runs for Syracuse, Saint Francis eclipse a wild opening week in the SEC
What went down in the fifth week of NCAA 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.
Home run history
They share a bond as the sort of places that regularly produce winter storm warnings in the same week that clocks spring forward and green socks come out of the closet for St. Patrick's Day. The softball spotlight is decidedly less common ground for Syracuse, New York, and Loretto, Pennsylvania. Until this week.
Home games? Hard to come by for Division I programs based there. Home runs? Not so much.
Syracuse senior Sydney O'Hara entered the second game of Friday's doubleheader at NC State with one home run this season. She completed the day as the fifth player in Division I history to hit four home runs in a game. That former Connecticut basketball star Breanna Stewart is no longer the only Cicero-North (New York) High School alum with a prominent place in the NCAA record books should come in handy at a future homecoming. O'Hara drove in eight runs in an 11-5 win. Entering this season, only 33 players had driven in more in a single game.
Nor was she done. O'Hara hit a home run in her second at-bat of the series finale a day later.
It is unlikely anyone who watched O'Hara's record-tying performance will forget it. The same is true of those who watch Saint Francis junior Jordan Seneca swing the bat -- and not merely because the result is so often dynamic. Using a leg kick that would make Jose Bautista blush, Seneca hit home runs in three consecutive games this week. Her 12 home runs for the season tie Arkansas' Nicole Schroeder and Louisiana-Lafayette's DJ Sanders for the national lead.
Seneca hit just two home runs as a freshman, but her outburst this past weekend pushed her over the top in breaking the career record at Saint Francis with more than a year to spare (all of which earned a photo with a defeated but appreciative opposing coach at Liberty University, former Olympic gold medalist Dot Richardson). Seneca has 30 home runs in 86 games since the start of last season -- one more than Arizona's Katiyana Mauga in the same span.
Auburn has Kasey Cooper's back as SEC play begins
It goes some way toward explaining why the SEC is so compelling that Arkansas, a team that went 2-46 in the conference the past two seasons, entered its opening series at No. 9 Alabama ranked No. 24. Some team will finish last, but more than ever, it's hard to find a bad SEC team.
Which means it's difficult to find a dull series. Opening week didn't disappoint.
Alabama swept Arkansas, but only after it rallied for a walk-off win the second game and got 18 more strikeouts in 11 more shutout innings from Alexis Osorio in the other two games. On that theme of pitching dominance, No. 1 Florida clinched its series against Missouri with a game to spare because Kelly Barnhill and Delanie Gourley barely allowed any hits, let alone any runs.
No. 13 Tennessee and No. 5 Texas A&M dug out of holes after losing series openers against South Carolina and Mississippi State, respectively.
Even if the softball wasn't always perfect, No. 4 Auburn and No. 12 LSU played perhaps the most fascinating three-game set. While it lost two games on errors, including a walk-off miscue in the finale, LSU outscored Auburn 16-10 and outhit its host 24-15 on the weekend. So LSU heads home with some evidence it is no worse than the equal of last year's national finalist.
But the way Auburn scored runs in its wins, good fortune aside, is at least as encouraging. In her team's wins, Kasey Cooper walked six times and recorded just two official at-bats. The three hitters immediately behind her in the order, Haley Fagan, Kendall Veach and Courtney Shea, combined for seven hits and eight RBIs. None were in those roles a year ago. All thrived here.
The rest of the country did its best to keep pace, including No. 8 Washington welcoming back All-American Ali Aguilar from minor injury and sweeping two games at home against No. 7 Minnesota. But, as is the norm these days, center stage belonged to the SEC.
A thousand wins the hard way
A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but 1,000 wins tell quite a story for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville coach Sandy Montgomery. With a 4-2 win against Holy Cross on Friday, Montgomery became the 32nd coach in NCAA history (all divisions) to reach that milestone. It is select but not sparse company. Georgia's Lu Harris-Champer and Hawaii's Bob Coolen reached the same mark earlier this season, while Tennessee's Karen Weekly and Alabama's Patrick Murphy are on the cusp of doing the same (Ralph Weekly, Karen's husband and co-coach at Tennessee, last week moved into fifth place in career wins).
What sets Montgomery apart is where she is. Of the 13 active Division I coaches with at least 1,000 wins, she is the only one who first played and then spent her entire coaching career at the same school. Between playing and coaching, she has spent more years at SIU Edwardsville than the school, opened in 1957, has existed without her. She won a Division II national title in 2007 and kept winning upon moving to Division I.
This past week, taking advantage of spring break scheduling freedom, SIU Edwardsville went 8-0 in Florida. In three starts, Haley Chambers-Book struck out 31 batters and allowed just eight hits and one earned run. She even hit a home run at the plate. But the 2015 OVC pitcher of the year, who sat out last season, was absent for the final three games of the week because of what the school described as a family emergency. SIU Edwardsville played on behind impressive freshman pitcher Emily Ingles.
Whatever the level, whatever the challenge, the wins keep coming. And the coach keeps staying.
Two pitchers you don't want to face in May
Rachael Knapp, Central Michigan: This is becoming a habit for Central Michigan's ace. It was a little more than a year ago that Knapp silenced Arizona at the Mary Nutter Classic. None of her work this past week tops that, but the senior shut down both USC Upstate and South Florida, teams that have drawn considerably more Top 25 votes this season than the Chippewas. Take away rough outings the first two days of the season and Knapp has a 0.79 ERA in her other 14 appearances. She also ranks among the national leaders in strikeouts per seven innings.
Emily Watson, Tulsa: She shut out No. 19 California and Texas Tech over the weekend, striking out 21 batters in the process, but Watson's star turn came in a midweek loss at Oklahoma. She matched Sooners ace Paige Parker through nine scoreless innings, until Parker took matters into her own hands and hit a leadoff double in the 10th inning that set up Caleigh Clifton's walk-off single. Watson has 85 strikeouts in her most recent 52 1/3 innings as a starter, an Osorio-like 11.4 strikeouts per seven innings (although since it's always a small world in softball, she did give up a home run to Seneca in that span).
Remembering Danni Kemp
Sometimes you play because there is nothing you would rather do. It's why someone like Danni Kemp would pass up a leisurely summer to play for the Stratford Brakettes, the legendary amateur team based near her Milford, Connecticut, home. She wanted to be on a softball field.
So perhaps it also makes sense that even if it may have been the last place many players and coaches wanted to be Saturday and Sunday, Stony Brook played softball games against New Mexico and Santa Clara at a tournament in Albuquerque. They played after they learned Friday that the 19-year-old Kemp had died from cancer, an inoperable brain tumor that was diagnosed less than a year ago. Diagnosed only after she was hit by a pitch while playing for the Brakettes.
What Stony Brook did in its games this week doesn't matter. As much as this space celebrates the weekly flow of wins and losses, home runs and strikeouts, none of that matters. Not in this context. Not juxtaposed against a young woman dying almost a year to the day after she stood on second base after hitting a double for Stony Brook. A life lost matters.
And yet her life, both the passion that propelled her when she was healthy and the love she brought out in people when she was sick, is its own proof that the game isn't meaningless. She was proof.