Bulldogs and Razorbacks and Gamecocks? Is the SEC all-in for the NCAA tournament?
What went down in the 12th week of NCAA softball? The aim 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.
SEC-ond to none
Our weekly drop-in on arguably the most dominant softball conference in the sport's history finds that the group of 13 SEC teams is inching ever closer to a historic milestone: becoming the first conference since the Pac-12 in 2007 to get all of its teams into the NCAA softball tournament. To complete the quest, the conference needs the teams at the bottom of the standings, none of which reside outside of the RPI's top 32, to maintain their strength. And they succeeded this week.
Georgia (31-20, 4-17) sits in the cellar of the SEC, which vastly misrepresents its talent and is downright libelous when juxtaposed to its national top-25 ranking. The Bulldogs displayed a crisp Saturday effort in a 2-1 win over South Carolina (30-21, 6-14) before dropping the rubber game 6-2. With the SEC tournament only including the top 12 teams in the conference, it's quite possible Georgia could be the lone team left out but then make the NCAA tournament.
Arkansas (30-19, 6-15), just ahead of both Georgia and South Carolina in the standings, went on the road and out of conference this weekend to an always talented Notre Dame squad, throttling the Irish in Game 1 of a doubleheader on Saturday, 13-2 (5 innings), before getting edged, 6-5, in the second. Arkansas is scheduled to host Georgia for a three-game series this weekend in the regular-season finales for both teams.
Missouri (28-23, 6-14), which rounds out the bottom third of the SEC, played No. 18 LSU tight in the first two games of the series (3-2 and 3-1 losses) before upsetting the Tigers, 3-1, in the third.
The field of 64 teams will be announced May 14 (ESPNU, 10 p.m. ET).
One question remains as we inch closer to history: Why doesn't Vanderbilt, already with an elite baseball program, want to join the SEC softball party?
Masters of their domain
There are a handful of teams around the country that are going to great measures to squeeze into the conversation of national-title contenders but are being knocked for their "soft" schedules. Here's a quick whip-around:
No. 5 Minnesota: If you haven't already, now might be a good time to get to know the Gophers (48-3, 18-1). Coach Jessica Allister and company are preparing to play softball when the 2017 calendar turns to June. Minnesota's fifth consecutive Big Ten sweep featured a seemingly effortless disposal of Purdue. The combined three-game total was 29-3 in three run-rule victories. If senior ace Sara Groenewegen doesn't hurry up and graduate, Minnesota could soon be known as the land of 10,000 strikeouts.
No. 15 James Madison: After a breakthrough 2016 campaign, the Dukes (44-6, 15-2) are back for more in 2017, they just can't gain any more traction in the polls because of the softer schedule the Colonial Athletic Association dictates. Still, JMU proved it could hang with stiffer competition during the NCAA tournament last year, and has given the nation no indication of deterioration this season. The roll continued this weekend in a three-game drubbing of Drexel. Junior pitcher Megan Good notched her nation-leading 13th and 14th shutouts of the season during the series and homered twice during Saturday's doubleheader.
No. 16 Louisiana-Lafayette: Since a March 9 loss to Baylor, the Ragin' Cajuns have won 22 of their last 23, including a combined 30-4 three-game rout of Coastal Carolina over the weekend. Louisiana-Lafayette has won five of its last six in run-rule fashion, and will close out the Sun Belt regular season next week at Louisiana-Monroe, which has lost eight of its last nine.
No. 20 BYU: If you bought BYU stock after three straight late-March losses to ranked opponents (UCLA twice and Oregon once), you have accumulated a lucrative wad of capital. After those three losses, BYU has reeled off 15 straight wins, including this weekend's sweep of San Diego in Provo that featured a combined 30-1 bulge in three run-rule triumphs.
Combined, these four teams played 12 games this weekend. Eleven of them were run-rule victories. There might be such a thing as beating your opponents so soundly that people assume the opponents are weaker. But maybe this quartet is just that good.
Game 3, Florida at Tennessee
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Tiger Woods was busy building his legend, many believed that it wasn't purely Woods' game that was beating the other golfers. Woods' dominance, as well as the resulting media attention, had created an aura of invincibility about him, one that provided Woods with a tangible mental edge during the occasions he went eye-to-eye with a golfer down the stretch of a tournament.
Such is the case with the No. 1 Florida Gators. Or, perhaps we should say after Sunday's game against No. 8 Tennessee, was the case. That's what made Tennessee's 5-1 win so important. Not just for the Volunteers, but for the rest of the country.
Yes, Kelly Barnhill and her miniscule 0.16 ERA were not in the circle on Sunday in Knoxville (she went for seven shutout innings in Friday's opener). But an undefeated and sub-1.00-ERA Aleshia Ocasio still served as an obstacle. Also on the line was a streak of 37 consecutive innings an opponent had not scored on the Gators.
The game started out vintage Florida, with a solo home run in the second. But then the invincibility slowly started to break down. The first crack was the relief appearance of Tennessee's Caylan Arnold, who allowed one hit.
The next few cracks were a pair of seemingly innocent two-out singles from Tianna Batts and CJ McClain in the bottom half of the fifth inning. After a walk loaded the bases, senior Megan Geer turned on a hanging 1-2 pitch from Ocasio and crushed a grand slam off the light tower in left field, sealing a 5-1 win for Tennessee and reminding all WCWS contenders of a crucial concept: The Gators can be beaten.
Huskies heating up
The SEC has four teams in the top 12, but so does the Pac-12. And out west, No. 9 Washington has a serious case to stake claim as the left coast's hottest team. Starting with a win at No. 6 Oregon two weeks ago, the Huskies have won seven straight, including a weekend sweep of Cal.
The Huskies really opened eyes last week, however, when they went on the road to Tuscaloosa and swept a two-game set against Alabama.
Of note during UW's run has been the pitching, as sophomore ace Taran Alvelo has teamed with freshman Samantha Manti to provide a nice 1-2 punch.
Washington has ample opportunity to stay hot this week, hosting Seattle on Wednesday before a weekend set against cellar-dweller Stanford.
One more note from the Pac-12. Katiyana Mauga of Arizona struck again over the weekend, hitting a home run in the Wildcats' lone loss of the weekend to Arizona State. Mauga now has 22 on the year and 89 for her career, one short of tying the conference record.
Seniors lead Kentucky
Texas A&M came into Lexington with just five losses, third in the nation in fielding percentage (.981), and No. 4 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball national poll. It exited Kentucky with seven losses, an uncharacteristic three fielding errors, and quite possibly a fall out of the top 5 after weekend sweeps by chasers Minnesota and Oregon.
The Aggies' struggles were accentuated by strong play from No. 19 Kentucky, fittingly led by three seniors on a weekend intended to celebrate them. After an A&M win in the opener, Kentucky tag-teamed the circle with two of its three seniors. Shannon Smith started the contest before giving way to Meagan Prince, who flat-lined Aggies' hitters with five shutout innings. The third senior, Breanne Ray, was 1-for-2 with three RBIs and a walk to pace the Wildcats' offense in a 7-2 win.
Kentucky would validate its Saturday win with a 7-4 showing on Sunday. Again, it was the seniors taking charge, as Prince notched her fourth win of the week (and 18th of the season) and Ray contributed another multi-RBI effort.
Kentucky, tied with LSU for sixth in the SEC, travels to Starkville next weekend for a three-game series against Mississippi State before the SEC tournament begins May 10.
One other note from the SEC before we close it out, and it's a biggie. Auburn's Kasey Cooper set the conference record for career RBIs during the Tigers' sweep of Mississippi State. Cooper has 266 RBIs and passed Charlotte Morgan of Alabama for the milestone. Auburn closes its regular season with a three-game series at Alabama this weekend.