Weekend Rewind: Pac-12 emerges from SEC softball shadow with a practically perfect week

Courtesy Arizona State

G Juarez allowed three hits and no runs in 14 innings in the circle against Minnesota over the weekend.

There are fewer ways to hide imperfections in conference games. No. 22 Kentucky can confirm as much after its weekend spent searching for hits while being swept by No. 2 Florida.

Stepping in against Kelly Barnhill and Aleshia Ocasio for three days in a row will do that.

There is a tissue-thin margin of error in conference play. No. 10 Auburn can attest to that after 28 innings of intense competition produced three consecutive one-run losses at No. 8 LSU.

Seeing too much of Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper in a weekend will do that, too.

While short on surprises, the first weekend of SEC games demonstrated how difficult softball gets when every team in a conference harbors NCAA tournament aspirations. But if the SEC set the standard for competition the past few seasons, for all the reasons on display in Gainesville, Baton Rouge and elsewhere in recent days, it has company this season. In its final week before conference play, the Pac-12 upstaged the SEC opening act with a run at perfection.

For the week, Pac-12 teams went 45-1. Even with much of the conference playing each other, SEC teams still lost four games out of conference last week (granted, two of those were South Carolina losses to two-time defending champion Oklahoma). Oregon State's loss against Texas Tech on Sunday was all that kept the Pac-12 from running the table, something that didn't happen for those teams in any week during the regular season in at least the past five seasons.

With previously undefeated No. 25 USC Upstate losing five times, including twice to No. 9 Arizona, the only remaining Division I unbeaten teams are No. 1 Washington (27-0) and No. 3 UCLA (24-0). Both were pushed this week, the Huskies in 10 innings against New Mexico State and the Bruins in a rare rocky outing for All-American Rachel Garcia in a 6-5 win against Long Beach State. But both won and enter conference play in pursuit of the NCAA record of 35 consecutive wins to start a season, set by UCLA in 1999 and matched by Oregon a season ago.

The Ducks will have a chance to end UCLA's streak this coming weekend. After taking the loss in a no-hitter a week ago, No. 5 Oregon's Megan Kleist left nothing to chance this week with 12 strikeouts against Montana for her second consecutive no-hit effort.

Still, the strength of the Pac-12 won't be defined solely by the four teams expected to be at the top: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Washington. The SEC is what it is because it offers at least one series like LSU and Auburn every week and because teams like Kentucky push Florida.

That's where this past week stood out -- the other five Pac-12 teams (the conference has nine schools that field a softball team) went 25-1 with dominant pitching performances.

Arizona State sophomore G Juarez threw a two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts in the opening game of a three-game series against Minnesota. She did that one better by throwing a one-hit shutout in the series finale. The latter performance actually snapped a streak of five consecutive games in which she reached double-digit strikeouts, but her 98 strikeouts in 64 innings this season are already more than her team-leading total through all of last season.

Cal's Zoe Conley and Kamalani Dung allowed just 20 hits and one earned run in 30 innings pitched this week. As recently as 2015, Cal had fallen off the national radar because of a 3.95 ERA. Behind Conley and Dung, both transfers, the team ERA is 1.42 entering conference play.

Even Stanford, which had slipped so low as to become the kind of "gimme" series that can't be found in the SEC, has an ace in freshman Maddy Dwyer who offers hope. She didn't allow a run in 15 innings this past week, albeit against the weakest schedule among conference teams.

The Pac-12 made its name over the years on national championships but also on the idea that there were no easy weeks in conference play. It looks ready to again live up to the second part of that.

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