Originally Published: February 29, 2012
Courtesy of Graham HaysSeveral of the nation's top teams played in the Cathedral City Classic this past weekend.

Cathedral City Classic storylines

By Graham Hays

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Softball's annual version of a typical Thanksgiving dinner spread, an unadulterated celebration of excess, descended on the desert near Palm Springs over the weekend. In the span of a little more than 80 hours, more than 80 college softball games (not to mention three exhibition games involving National Pro Fastpitch's USSSA Pride and its litany of recent college superstars) played out across five fields.

You'll have to provide your own soundtrack of cleats clicking and bat bags rolling on cement, but here are a few of the biggest storylines from the tournament:

Washington makes a statement: When Huskies coach Heather Tarr told Oregon State's Kirk Walker to schedule the Huskies against anyone in Cathedral City (the tournament is hosted by Walker's program, and coaches often request a level of difficulty in the scheduling, in much the same way you might request a level of heat in a Thai restaurant), she didn't expect such a high-wire act like five games against ranked teams in four days. But by beating Florida, Georgia, Nebraska and Texas A&M, results that more than offset joining a long list of teams befuddled by Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas, Tarr's team turned in the tournament's most impressive showing.

With former ace Danielle Lawrie among those looking on from the stands, the Huskies got three strong starts from Kaitlin Inglesby. The sophomore allowed just five earned runs and struck out 16 in 21 innings against Florida, Texas A&M and Nebraska. Just as important, given the heavy workload Inglesby shouldered last season, Washington got strong starts from Bryana Walker in the loss against Missouri and freshman Kasey Stanchek in the win against Georgia.

Teams don't win championships in Cathedral City, but it's not a bad place in which to test one's Oklahoma City credentials. Washington got that chance five times over and left little doubt as to the answer.

"In the end, we've got to be able to play against these teams in these types of tournaments, or we're not going to doing anything in the Pac-12 or beyond," Tarr said midway through the grind. "It's a good chance for us."

Georgia mea culpa: Anyone who thought Georgia was in trouble this season -- and start the list of "anyone" with me -- needs to reconsider. The Bulldogs came to Cathedral City an untested 7-1 team, and left as arguably the talk of the weekend after wins against Arizona, UCLA, Oklahoma and Cal State Fullerton. Only Washington's three-run rally in the seventh inning of its 7-5 win against Georgia kept the Bulldogs from sweeping the weekend.

Tess Sito, a transfer who was the two-time Horizon League player of the year at Cleveland State, continued to shine in her new uniform, hitting .421 (8-for-19) with three home runs and nine RBIs and getting the win in the circle against Arizona. Kristyn Sanberg added three home runs and seven RBIs, and Ashley Razey provided the the big hit in the weekend finale, a home run off Keilani Ricketts to provide the final margin in Georgia's 3-2 win against Oklahoma. It's a different ensemble, but the end result looks familiar.

UCLA struggles: The Bruins arrived in Cathedral City with a 10-0 record and left with four losses in five starts. They weren't as perfect as the former purported, and they aren't as flawed as the latter suggests. The Bruins scored at least three runs in each game and 22 runs on the weekend. They actually had fewer hits (6) in their lone victory, a 6-3 win against Syracuse on Sunday, than in losses against Georgia, Fresno State, Texas and Missouri. Freshman Stephany LaRosa was particularly productive at the plate, batting .444 (8-for-18) with five RBIs from the middle of the order. More slugger than table setter, LaRosa nonetheless had three triples on the weekend, matching the team's 2011 total.

What the Bruins didn't have in the tournament was a dominant ace in the circle or a defense capable of cutting pitchers Jessica Hall and Ally Carda any slack. The Bruins already have allowed 15 unearned runs this season. By comparison, California and Washington, the early Pac-12 pacesetters, have allowed just three unearned runs between them.

New Mexico builds buzz: There are two worlds in Cathedral City, one centered on the three showcase fields made up to resemble Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, and one on the so-called "minor league" fields a short walk away. Georgia and Washington were the talk of the former, but word of New Mexico's feats in the minors grew from an early whisper to a major league buzz during the course of the tournament. Playing four of their five games away from the main fields, the Lobos went 4-1 on the weekend, including a 15-3 rout of Texas A&M on Thursday.

Second-year coach Erica Beach has made short work of turning around a program that was only recently an afterthought. Still starting many of the players recruited by the old regime, the Lobos have gone from an 11-37 team that slugged .399 in 2010 to a team that won 19 games and slugged .475 last season to a team already 13-2 this season and slugging .646. It's a work in progress -- the Lobos walk a lot of people and commit too many errors. But with players such as Stefanie Carramusa and Jessica Garcia, who combined for three home runs, five extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in the win against Texas A&M, that progress is both impressive and highly entertaining wherever it's on display.

Longhorns focus on the finish

By Graham Hays

It's a fact of life that after a series of disappointingly early postseason exits, Texas will be judged solely on how it finishes the season. Which isn't to say the Longhorns can't get in some practice at closing.

A week ago, playing Tennessee in its first game of the season against a ranked team, Texas trailed by a run with a runner on base in the bottom of the ninth inning when outfielder Brejae Washington launched a ball into right-center and made a mad dash around the bases for a game-winning, inside-the-park home run.

Waiting on deck at the time, reprising the role Willie Mays played on Bobby Thomson's famous home run, Texas senior Lexy Bennett had the best vantage point to watch her team win a game it might well have lost last season.

"That was probably the craziest moment I've ever experienced in softball," Bennett said. "I was walking slowly up to the plate, and then all of a sudden [Washington] is not stopping. It was the craziest thing. We got to see the play right there; we were right in front of the plate. It was the most amazing play I think I've ever seen."

Fast forward to Cathedral City, and the Longhorns were at it again. After opening their stay with a win against Cal State Northridge, the Longhorns trailed San Diego State 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh in their second game of the day. After Taylor Thom doubled and Mandy Ogle walked, No. 9 hitter Karina Scott delivered a one-out walk-off double that once again left Texas players celebrating at home plate after a 2-1 win.

The Longhorns have talked a lot this season about seeing things through to the end. Seeing them act on those words makes it easy to again be seduced by how much talent this team has at its disposal.

"We try to focus on that kind of stuff at practice, but you can't really get that feel until you get in a game like this," Bennett said. "One of our main goals this year has been finishing, and I think this is a great example of us finishing, fighting and competing to the end."

It will help if they have Bennett to the end. Out with an injury during the team's late-season slide last year, she provided what proved to be the finishing touch in Saturday's 5-4 win against UCLA in front of one of the biggest (and most partisan) crowds of the weekend. With her team trailing 3-2 in the fifth inning, Bennett's two-run home run gave the Longhorns a lead they never relinquished.

As finishing ability goes, it's a good start.

Canion's loss a massive blow to Baylor

By Graham Hays

From the games in Cathedral City to the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Florida, the college softball season seemed to hit full stride during an entertaining third weekend of play. But all the good vibes and positive energy came to a crashing halt Sunday with news that Baylor's Whitney Canion tore her ACL running out a ball in a game against North Texas.

What Robert Griffin III and Brittney Griner are to Baylor football and women's basketball, respectively, Canion is to the softball team. This is that big a loss. It's also the second time in three seasons that Baylor shut down its star because of injury, not even counting her freshman season, when she led her team to a super regional before she was forced to sit out the final game because of an ailing arm. Baylor isn't ruling out a return this season, stating in a release that Canion will attempt to rehabilitate the knee, but this injury likely puts in jeopardy both her college season and a spot on Team USA for this summer's world championship (she was a key part of the team that won Pan-Am gold last fall).

Speaking before the season about his pitching depth, Baylor coach Glen Moore sounded pleased with the progress returnees Courtney Repka and Liz Paul made behind Canion, who started 40 of the team's 62 games last season. And to this point in 2012, Repka and Paul are 6-1 with a 1.26 ERA in 50 innings. But the coach also offered an inescapable truth.

"Do we have another Whitney Canion who can match up with her? No, absolutely not," Moore said at the time.


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