The case for all eight teams in the Women's College World Series
While providing more than enough walk-off wins and heart palpitations to suggest otherwise, the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament brought us back to exactly where we started.
The Pac-12 is indeed ascendent again. College softball's historic power base is responsible for half of the teams in the Women's College World Series. Pitching is, in fact, resurgent. Twelve of the top 20 individual ERAs in the country are on their way to Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
And Oklahoma, of course, is still in pursuit of its three-peat.
For the third time since the tournament added an extra round in 2005, the World Series features the top eight seeds. And however unlikely the journeys were, so much chalk adds up to a week ahead that will feature seven teams that will be surprised to see their seasons end.
Every team has a chance to win. Let's make the case for each.
No. 1 Oregon
Sure, the Ducks made life interesting for themselves in a super regional against Kentucky that went the distance, but the top seeds responded as you would expect of the team that won a conference responsible for half of the World Series field. Balance is the brand. Only Oregon and Oklahoma rank among the top 15 teams nationally in ERA, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and fielding percentage. The Ducks have two equal pitching options in Miranda Elish and Megan Kleist (and a good third option in Maggie Balint). Catcher Gwen Svekis is the lone Oregon individual among the top 90 in slugging, at 82nd, but the Ducks have as many players slugging at least .500 as Oklahoma and UCLA and more than Georgia or Florida. If you like the Ducks to win it all, it's because you can't name their most important player.
No. 2 Florida
Good luck dreaming up a scenario the Gators haven't encountered -- if only in a wild super regional against Texas A&M. This team endures and outlasts, rather than overwhelms. The seniors and juniors watched a season end on a walk-off home run in 2016. All but its freshmen lost a 17-inning championship series opener a season ago. So from player of the year finalist Amanda Lorenz and all-SEC infielder Nicole DeWitt on down, the Gators are content to work counts, take walks and grind out runs waiting for a big hit like the one freshman Jordan Matthews delivered to win this year's super regional. Persevere is what they do. That extends to ace Kelly Barnhill, made mortal by home runs this season, and Aleshia Ocasio, who, after giving up a devastating home run in the super regional finale, waited on deck when Matthews won it.
No. 3 UCLA
No program has more championships. No team has a better player in the present. That's a good start. Rachel Garcia didn't throw a pitch for nearly three weeks earlier this season because of a sore arm, but the espnW player of the year showed in a lengthy regional that she can throw as many as needed in the postseason. All the better, she didn't need to throw many in UCLA's super regional sweep of Arizona. All the same, UCLA is the team among the favorites that most needs a quick start. Asking Garcia to start six or seven more games may be asking too much. Yet the reason to love the Bruins is this: Their defense is strong up the middle with sisters Briana and Kylee Perez, and their offense is good enough to scrape together a trip to Oklahoma City even with an average pitcher. Not that we'll ever know with Garcia around.
No. 4 Oklahoma
The two-time defending champions returned almost intact this season, then added a player having one of the most prolific freshman seasons in college softball history. Do we really need an "Exhibit B" to make the case? Any concern about senior Paige Parker, who was unavailable for a game in regionals after a car accident, faded with her complete-game shutout in the super regional clincher. With Parker and Paige Lowary, the Sooners have the pitching depth for any scenario. They also have a defense that has committed just 19 errors in 58 games. All of that with the security blanket of the nation's highest scoring offense and freshman Jocelyn Alo, who appears so nervous in her first postseason that she's hitting .400 with four home runs.
No. 5 Washington
The knock on Washington was that it either didn't play its best in the biggest games or that its best wasn't good enough to win those games against Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. Well, under the heading of "peaking at the right time," perhaps the Huskies were biding their time. With Taran Alvelo an option again after her shutout in the super regional clincher and freshman sensation Gabbie Plain, the Huskies can match any team for pitching depth.A worry is the lineup still feels top heavy -- the top three of Taylor Van Zee, Sis Bates and Julia DePonte have 19 of the team's 41 postseason hits. The solace is those three can do a lot if they continue to average essentially four hits and two walks a game between them.
No. 6 Florida State
Including the ACC tournament, Florida State trailed in six of its first nine postseason games. It only lost once. On a stage as big as the World Series, it's easy to panic. One mistake can become an avalanche. The Seminoles don't look easily spooked. To that end, just about alone among the World Series teams, Florida State isn't likely to face pitching in Oklahoma City any more difficult than what it dealt with already. Runs haven't been plentiful, but both Auburn in a regional and LSU in a super regional ranked in the top 10 in the nation in ERA. And while this is a new stage for pitcher Kylee Hanson and freshman star Sydney Sherrill, who is going home to the Oklahoma City area, as many as five starters remain from a run to the semifinals in 2016.
No. 7 Georgia
Focus on what Georgia lacks, if you like. The Bulldogs, after all, will take the field in Oklahoma City without their ace after senior Brittany Gray suffered a season-ending injury in April. But this is also a team that showed a lot of versatility in moving on without Gray. Need to find new ways to win? How about Cortni Emanuel, the nation's stolen base leader and a short-game specialist hitting the home run that clinched the super regional? Or pitcher Mary Wilson Avant coming close to a no-hitter in that same game. Georgia can give you tangible -- its offense ranks in the top five nationally in slugging yet also has more stolen bases than any World Series participant. But it's the combination of run production and that typical Georgia stubborn streak that entices.
No. 8 Arizona State
The Sun Devils may have the best pitcher in Oklahoma City. And she is presumably eager to make her own case that not enough people appreciate that. Healthy after a debut season slowed by injury, sophomore Giselle "G" Juarez is the primary reason Arizona State returns to the World Series for the first time since 2013. In fact, considering Arizona State is the lowest-scoring offense among the eight remaining and Juarez is 4-2 with an 0.64 ERA against World Series teams, she is the single biggest reason any team reached the final week. And with 28 runs in five postseason games -- the production has been spread throughout the order -- an offense that could be a question mark is thus far providing all the answers necessary.