Jordan Seneca, Braxton Burnside make grand entries in softball record book
What went down in the sixth 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.
A grand weekend for the long ball
What does poor Jordan Seneca have to do to get top billing all to herself?
On Friday, Seneca became just the 11th player in NCAA Division I history to hit two grand slams in the same game, thereby propelling Saint Francis to a 12-10 extra-inning win of no small significance against Texas Tech. You may remember the slugger with the memorable leg kick from this space a week ago. In that instance, Seneca claimed a share of the national home run lead by going over the fence in three consecutive games, only to share the spotlight with Syracuse's Sydney O'Hara, who hit four home runs in a single game against NC State.
Seneca didn't even get to stand alone for 24 hours this time. On Saturday, Missouri freshman Braxton Burnside became the 12th player in Division I history to hit two grand slams in one game. And Burnside added a triple and two more bonus RBIs for good measure against North Dakota State. Her 10 RBIs matched the SEC single-game record and came within one of matching the NCAA Division I single-game record. While it isn't a runaway, not with the likes of Arizona's Dejah Mulipola, Florida's Sophia Reynoso and Oregon's Maggie Balint around, the Missouri shortstop arguably vaulted to the front of the race for freshman of the year.
In a busy week for the Tigers, who swept a midweek doubleheader against Iowa in addition to winning four of five games at a weekend tournament in Florida, Burnside totaled 18 RBIs. She also carries a 12-game hitting streak into next weekend's SEC series at Texas A&M.
Arizona's very good week
The start of Pac-12 play was supposed to be the headline act this week, but No. 4 Arizona managed to upstage itself by virtue of a midweek win against No. 10 Oklahoma. As impressive as the Wildcats have been on all fronts this season, the win against Oklahoma matters because it was just their second against a team currently ranked in the USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25.
The formula was as expected, seven quality innings from ace Danielle O'Toole and a deep lineup that looked the part, in this case getting its first home run from Tamara Statman.
At least as good for the Wildcats might be what happened the rest of the week, which included a win against Long Beach State and a three-game sweep at Oregon State. In two starts, one against Long Beach and one against Oregon State, sophomore Taylor McQuillin struck out 25 batters without allowing an earned run in 14 innings. And when a save got away from McQuillin in the seventh inning of a relief appearance in the series finale against the Beavers, the bottom of the Wildcats lineup responded by sparking a three-run rally in the top of the eighth inning.
All signs suggest O'Toole will be the pitcher with the ball in her hand if Arizona makes it back to Oklahoma City. But every inning she doesn't need to pitch now is rest in the bank for later, and every strong outing from McQuillin is evidence of pitching depth missing in recent years in Tucson.
Pitchers aren't powerless
McQuillin and O'Toole aren't alone. For all the home run talk the past two weeks, pitchers still have a say in matters. Consider the evidence below.
Megan Betsa, Michigan: The senior threw a one-hit shutout and struck out 13 batters in a win against Kent State on Sunday. And that was the "B-side" of her performance this past week. A day earlier, Betsa was nearly perfect in more ways than one. She struck out 17 batters and threw a no-hitter against the same opponent in No. 17 Michigan's home opener. Only three pitchers -- Alabama's Alexis Osorio, Florida's Kelly Barnhill and Syracuse's O'Hara (yes, her again) rank ahead of Betsa in strikeouts per seven innings this season. Betsa's Sunday win, by the way, was the 1,501st win in Carol Hutchins' career. Already the winningest coach in NCAA softball history, Hutchins earlier Sunday became the first to reach 1,500 wins. She is 1,501-485-5 in her 33rd season at Michigan and 34th overall as a collegiate coach.
Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly: Arizona beat Oklahoma once. That's nice, but Hyland upped the degree of difficulty and beat the Sooners on back-to-back days at a tournament in Los Angeles. The Sooners hadn't lost on back-to-back days all season, let alone lost to the same pitcher. The last pitcher to beat them twice in consecutive starts was Alabama's Osorio in arguably the best NCAA tournament super regional yet played in 2015. That wasn't all for Hyland. She also struck out 16 batters in an extra-inning win against Northern Colorado and had eight hits at the plate for the week.
Emily Watson, Tulsa: Another repeat guest. Watson was good a week ago. She was even better -- and busier -- this past week. Tulsa's ace went 4-0 in four starts, including wins against No. 12 LSU and No. 25 Arkansas (the same Arkansas that then won a weekend series against No. 14 Tennessee). In March alone, she's beaten Arkansas, Cal and LSU and dueled Oklahoma into the 10th inning. For the week, she struck out 42 batters and walked just two in 25 innings.
Utah starts fast in Pac-12
Utah's first trip to UCLA as a member of the Pac-12 in 2012 ended in the same manner as the four conference series that preceded it. Utah played three games and lost three games.
Those days are long gone.
While Arizona's midweek wins made its week stand out and Oregon remained the only undefeated team in the nation, the headline of the Pac-12 weekend was No. 21 Utah sweeping its three-game series against No. 11 UCLA in Los Angeles. Arizona, Oregon and Washington all earned sweeps, bolstering the case that there is very much a class divide in the league this season. UCLA is still part of that upper class, but so, too, is Utah.
Little happens in the upper echelon of college softball without pitching, and it's a good place to start here. Using first Miranda Viramontes, then Katie Donovan, then one after the other in the finale, the Utes held the Bruins to three runs in 21 innings. Utah has allowed just eight runs in its past 50 innings. But as the team prepares for an important week, making a short drive to play rival BYU midweek before hosting Oregon next weekend, stop and savor Hannah Flippen. The reigning Pac-12 player of the year drove in six runs in the UCLA series. She had two doubles, a home run and reached base in more than half of her plate appearances.
Minnesota's very good answer
There comes a time each spring when a couple of subpar performances means the end of a season. But until we reach that point in the postseason, losses are opportunities for responses.
We hear you, Minnesota.
A program that generally shuns the early-season mega-tournaments that have their drawbacks but also their spotlights, No. 9 Minnesota's big showdown at No. 6 Washington a week ago fizzled. A 3-2 loss in the first meeting held no shame but a 9-0 run-rule loss in the rematch hurt.
The Gophers didn't dwell long. After playing two games at the mini-tournament in Seattle last Sunday, they were back in action the next day a few hours to the south at Oregon State (spring break back home affording them a full week of games out west). They won that 6-0, then gave themselves a whole day to get down to the Bay Area for a 10-0 win against No. 20 Cal. They closed the week with a doubleheader sweep at Pacific, outscoring the host 22-1. Final tally for the week: 38-1 on the scoreboard and nearly 1,000 miles of travel.
Sara Groenewegen was good in the circle and at the plate, as usual, but Sydney Dwyer and Kendyl Lindaman combined for 14 hits and 16 RBIs as part of a balanced lineup.
We're still waiting for the first RPI release in the next week, but Minnesota returns from the West Coast and begins Big Ten play with what should be the foundation of a very real case to potentially host not just a regional but a super regional come May.