ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit and Graham Hays take a look at the five biggest questions as we head into the Women's College World Series.
1. Which team was most impressive in the super regionals?
Hays: Nothing ruins a good theory like pesky facts, and Texas let its bats do all the talking in answering criticism (including from these quarters) that this season's offensive surge might still leave the Longhorns short of a championship arsenal to complement Cat Osterman. A 9-1 win against Washington in the second game of the Austin Super Regional wasn't exactly unprecedented -- they blanked LSU 8-0 on the way to Osterman's first College World Series appearance in 2003 -- but it was still the strongest statement made in super regional play.
For once, the story coming out of a Texas game wasn't about how many strikeouts Osterman posted (11 in 21 batters faced), but instead about a lineup that produced nine hits and had four different players with RBI. And the Longhorns weren't beating up on Bethune-Cookman or Southwest Texas, the two schools they had previously defeated during Osterman's tenure to advance to Oklahoma City. Nothing against those schools, who had very good teams in the years they advanced to face Texas, but a Pac-10 school with an ace like Danielle Lawrie represented a different kind of challenge. And after struggling to solve the big freshman from British Columbia on Friday night, managing just two hits, Texas hitters made the kind of adjustments associated with, dare we say, a savvy and dangerous lineup. Seniors Tina Boutelle, Chez Sievers and Amber Hall and junior Megan Willis led the way, keeping the heart of the order even on a night when All-American shortstop Desiree Williams didn't manage a hit (although she scored twice).
One game does not a juggernaut make, although it can go a long way toward putting the wheels on a bandwagon. The Longhorns will have to duplicate Saturday's feat when they take on Arizona State's Katie Burkhart in a rare battle of southpaws on Thursday in the Women's College World Series opener for both teams (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET). But for now, the Longhorns' actions speak louder than the words of critics.
Buckheit: Oregon State may have had the higher seed and may have been graced with home-field privileges, but no advantage can diminish the enormity of the beast from Berkeley that was slain by the Beavers in the super regionals.
To really appreciate what Oregon State accomplished last weekend, you must first consider the teams' histories; the Cal Bears were playing for their eighth consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series, while the Beavers were trying to forge the program's inaugural voyage to Oklahoma City.
The Beavers had their work cut out for them before the three-game series even began.
To make matters worse, Cal's Kristina Thorson vanquished Oregon State's offense, striking out 12 Beavers and allowing only two hits in a key Game 1 victory. At this point, an OSU series fold would not have been difficult to absorb. But Saturday saw rain in Corvallis, Ore., which postponed Game 2 until Sunday and evidently washed out all reticence in the Beavers bats. Oregon State was strong out of the gates, tallying four hits -- twice their total from Game 1 -- in Game 2's first inning. The Beavers went on to total nine hits in the stay-alive, series-tying 3-0 shutout. Riding the momentum of Sunday's first postseason death defiance, the Beavers started Game 3 with three consecutive singles, which resulted in a one-run lead in the first they would hold through the following six innings of play to ultimately advance past the mighty Bears.
I'm delighted to see a new team in the OKC mix, but I cannot look ahead to Oregon State's future before first reflecting on Cal's past and a very special senior talent who will not be competing for a title this year. Thorson started in all three games of the super regional series, fanning 23 Beavers in her 17 innings of work to finish the year 36-10 overall. The Beavers earned their WCWS ticket with each hit they mustered off Thorson, who makes this otherwise No. 7 over No. 10 nonstory the most impressive super regional win.
2. Which team are you most surprised to see advance to the WCWS?
Hays: Having previously picked Michigan to defend its national title, only to take a serious tumble when that limb snapped, Tennessee is pretty much a default answer here. Picking the Wolverines to win had a lot more to do with the way they were hitting in the Big Ten tournament than doubts about the Lady Vols, but it's time to stop worrying about Tennessee's nonconference schedule after it survived 20 innings of Michigan ace Jennie Ritter.
Tennessee's statistics were so gaudy this season, they almost worked against the team's credibility, especially given early conference struggles against some of the other SEC heavyweights. Four Lady Vols hit at least .400, including Sarah Fekete's downright absurd .522 average (107 hits in 205 at-bats). Monica Abbott won 41 games and struck out nearly 500 batters, and No. 2 pitcher Megan Rhodes still found time to win 17 games. And as if that wasn't enough, the team led the nation in fielding percentage.
So how did Tennessee lose nine games in the conference, and why didn't the Lady Vols play anyone other than Oregon or Kansas from the Pac-10 or Big 12? (A game against Stanford was canceled because of bad weather.) The more important answers came this weekend, when the Lady Vols outslugged Michigan 5-3 on Friday and persevered in a 1-0 win after losing momentum to the Wolverines with a loss in the second game of the series.
Surprised? Yes. Convinced? Absolutely.
Buckheit: I can barely type this answer with the sandy flip-flop in my mouth and a well-deserved pitchfork in my side. When I said the Pac-10-practiced Sun Devils could fall in regional play to the Pride of the humble CAA, I was clearly biased by my (naively hopeful) New England softball roots. Be sure though, the projection was never meant as a knock on Arizona State and lofty East Coast ambitions were promptly eradicated when ASU blanked all three of its opponents 6-0, 2-0 and 5-0 in Long Island only to return home to score 11 runs in two wins over Florida State in the super regional.
Said second baseman Mindy Cowles, "Coming into the season, coach [Clint Myers] took us into this room for our team meeting and said to us, 'I'm taking this team to the World Series.' We kind of looked at each other because it was never like that before; it was never set up as our goal. It was, 'We're going to win conference, and we're going to go to regionals.' But his first day, he told us he was taking us to a championship. We have all just believed in him since."
Myers spoke those same words into my tape recorder a few weeks ago. While this skeptical reporter foolishly failed to take heed, his Oklahoma City-bound Devils did not, and that's really all that matters.
3. Which of Thursday's games in Oklahoma City would you set the TiVo for?
Hays: Every game looks good when it's played in Oklahoma City, but Northwestern-Alabama (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) is going to slip under a lot of people's radars. One of these programs -- Alabama has just one WCWS win and Northwestern hasn't been here since 1986 -- is going to emerge from Thursday's game with a spot in the winner's bracket and the chance for an extended stay. Granted, that spot may also necessitate playing UCLA (although the Bruins won't be looking past Tennessee in their opener) in the second game (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), but Northwestern has already stood face to face with the No. 1 seed and come out on top this season, and Alabama has the kind of speed to make even UCLA's brilliant infield defense sweat.
Buckheit: While Arizona-Oregon State and Tennessee-UCLA leave me brimming with anticipation, I find Thursday's southpaw showdown between Texas and Arizona State (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET) the most intriguing of them all.
Although the two hurlers both heave from the left side, their style differences are striking. Consider Cat Osterman: With colossal World Series expectations sitting squarely on her left wing, the senior maintains a stoic persona and steadfast game face in and out of the circle. In contrast is her challenger Katie Burkhart -- a spirited sophomore who can have you laughing as quickly as her screwball beckons opposing hitters right back to the dugout.
Osterman has been known to perfectly paint the outside corner of the dish, leaving batters watching the strikes they aren't waving at. Burkhart has a fearless knack for covering the inside of the zone, jamming batters with nasty junk that sails up and in on the hands of right-handers.
The point is, even folks who would prefer a slow-pitch slugfest over a pea-sized pitching duel will appreciate the tragic comedy of this one, where two talented lefties are about to make the finest hitters in the country look absolutely foolish. And for those who need a little more incentive, consider the Pac-10 vs. Big 12 implications of this one. There's a lot of southwest pride on the line.
As for an outcome, I say a solo jack is worth its weight in winners bracket gold. Neither Texas nor ASU has yet to suffer a loss in the postseason, but somebody will have to earn their stripes battling back from this one in a bracket with No. 2 Arizona and No. 7 Oregon State.
4. Eight teams, eight aces: Who is the most underrated pitcher in the field?
Hays: Cal's Kristina Thorson is justifiably regarded as one of the best pitchers in the nation, certainly near the forefront of any argument about who is No. 2 after Cat Osterman. But Thorson isn't pitching in Oklahoma City, because as good as she was all season, she wasn't the best pitcher on the field in Corvallis on Sunday. Behind two shutouts from Brianne McGowan, Oregon State stormed back to take two games from Cal, sending the Beavers to the school's first WCWS.
Facing elimination after coming out on the short end of a 2-1 pitchers' duel on Friday, McGowan's numbers on Sunday suggest nerves were not a problem after having extra time to dwell on the task in front of her (rain forced the postponement of Saturday's action). Staked to a two-run lead by her teammates in the top of the first, she scattered six hits in Sunday's first game, striking out eight and walking just one. And after a short break between games, the junior did what LSU's Emily Turner and Michigan's Jennie Ritter could not in their super regionals: shut down the same team for a second time.
Although she doesn't have the power numbers of some of her peers in Oklahoma City (though she did have 249 K's in 252.1 innings), McGowan simply gets the job done against the toughest competition the game has to offer.
Buckheit: It's hard to imagine a day when anyone would describe a pitcher at the University of Arizona as underrated, but I would argue that Wildcats senior ace Alicia Hollowell has a small price tag these days. While Osterman's last chance to bring a title to Texas, Abbott's shot to keep the title on the (L)East Coast and Anjelica Selden's sophomore stab at Oklahoma City get top billing, Arizona's stalwart senior will step into the circle on Thursday afternoon with four All-America honors, 139 victories and 1,702 career strikeouts for Arizona.
A youthful instability may have had Mike Candrea's club marginalized at the start of the season, but the Cats seem to be firing on all cylinders, leaving opponents seeing red just in time for World Series play. As recent Wildcats success drums up support for their championship run, observers are quick to praise the brilliance of offensive specialists Caitlin Lowe, Autumn Champion and Kristie Fox -- and deservedly so. But in an exceptional eight-team bracket with so many big names and sparkling story lines to marvel, don't slight the hurler who follows in the footsteps of legends like Jennie Finch and Nancy Evans.
Hollowell practically tiptoed to a 27-4 record this season, but I won't let her slip through the back door of ASA Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium.
5a. Which two teams will be playing on Monday?
Hays: UCLA and Arizona.
Buckheit: Texas and UCLA.
5b. How about those championship picks?
Hays: Right idea, wrong sport. Defending champ Northwestern rose above its No. 4 seed to win the national title in women's lacrosse on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, that does little to help anyone who picked No. 9 seed Michigan to survive Knoxville and defend its title in softball. So with one strike, I'm going to choke up on the bat and look for safe ground with the Pac-10. But in an effort to remain at least mildly contrarian, I'll take Arizona.
Sure, UCLA beat Arizona three times this season. And yes, the games weren't exactly classics, with the Bruins outscoring the Wildcats 18-6, despite playing two of the games in Tucson. But the last loss, an 8-2 drubbing in Los Angeles, seemed to finally wake up Mike Candrea's young team. Following that setback, the Wildcats won 16 of 17 games, finishing the run with a 14-5 drubbing of LSU to reach the WCWS. Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion are the ultimate pests at the top of the order, and Kristie Fox continues to hit like one of the best run producers in the game.
It would be a little easier to jump on the bandwagon if senior Alicia Hollowell had looked better in the finale against LSU, but chalk it up to the big ace pitching to the scoreboard. If picking the defending champs was the right idea for lacrosse, maybe stealing a page from women's basketball, where a young Maryland team came of age against conference foes North Carolina and Duke in the postseason, will work out better in predicting the outcome in Oklahoma City.
Buckheit: As if there was ever any doubt, I'm sticking with UCLA. I cite the same reasons I've been peddling since Day 1, only now, after witnessing every one of the Bruins' wins this postseason, I am even more convinced that this team has all the makings of a national champion.
The Bruins play scrappy small ball but their No. 8 lefty slapper (left fielder Ashley Herrera) can turn around and belt a bases-clearing long ball and their leadoff hitter (Andrea Duran) has been known to knock the first pitch out of the park. They have a young, healthy, intrepid ace in Angelica Selden throwing to a smart, seasoned veteran backstop in Emily Zaplatosch. They are also rock-solid up the middle, with Jodie Legaspi, Caitlin Benyi and Tara Henry.
The Bruins may be the most complete team -- they boast unrivaled strength, speed, smarts and composure.
You've got to dance with the girl that brought you to the prom. I took the hand of the Bruins a long time ago and I've had canned heat in my heels ever since.