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NCAA Softball: 5 Things You Need To Know

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- There are moments that only happen here. At one point Thursday afternoon, just as the desert sun started to take its toll at this complex of five softball fields a few miles from Palm Springs, Florida State All-American shortstop Maddie O'Brien stepped into the batter's box with a full count and the bases loaded against South Carolina.

At the same moment a few feet away on an adjacent field, Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain stared out at the pitcher in her team's game against San Diego State and sought to continue her pursuit of the NCAA career home run record as the current record holder, Aztecs assistant coach Stacey Nuveman, looked on from the dugout.

From the correct spot on the grass berm that separated the fields, a fan could watch both at-bats unfold at the same time, hoping to savor something special from two of the best hitters in the game -- and to avoid any foul balls that might rocket off either player's bat. O'Brien walked. Chamberlain walked. The moment passed.

No matter. UCLA and Missouri would be along soon enough on these or nearby fields.

The Women's College World Series is softball's grand stage, its Carnegie Hall. It is a concert played out at Hall of Fame Stadium in front of a national television audience. The Mary Nutter Classic is a festival. It is softball Bonnaroo.

The four-day event is hot and crowded. It is often difficult to find anywhere to sit and little easier to find a place to stand. Parking? Hope you brought your walking shoes if you weren't part of the first morning wave or dared to leave for lunch.

And it is something anyone who enjoys softball should experience if at all possible.

While final numbers were still being tabulated by Monday, organizers said the event drew more than 25,000 fans across its four-day run, including more than 12,000 on Saturday. Started in 2004, the tournament this year had 35 teams, including nearly half of the Top 25, contesting 86 games over four days.

The fields are not as immaculately kept as those across most of the Pac-12 and SEC. Bad hops happen, and the lip of the infield, where outfield grass meets infield dirt, sometimes comes close to qualifying as a skateboard ramp. The temporary outfield fences on fields designed as much for slow-pitch recreational leagues as anything else sag in places by the end of the weekend, evidence of outfielders channeling their inner Caitlin Lowe and running through them. Yet coach after coach with plenty of other scheduling options, from Arizona's Mike Candrea to Oklahoma's Patty Gasso and Tennessee's duo of Ralph and Karen Weekly, come back every year.

Location helps, as long as an athletic director is willing to foot the bill for airfare and lodging. The desert weather all but guarantees games will be played without interruption. The proximity to so much of Southern California offers both a homecoming for Californians already on rosters and a chance to catch the eye of recruits. But the allure of the tournament is first and foremost the competition and the atmosphere. Championships are not won here, but in six of the past nine seasons, it could be said they began here.

So with that as the first thing to know, let's run through four more points of interest from the weekend.

2. LSU wins the weekend

Well, not literally. As its size suggests, the Mary Nutter Classic isn't a head-to-head, bracket-style competition that crowns an official champion on the field. And based purely on results, Texas A&M and Utah would have equal claims to any title after each went 5-0 in the desert. But in matching those two teams with five wins in as many games, LSU showed off both the balance and style of a team that could well keep playing through Memorial Day.

The Tigers won their games by a combined 38-6 margin. Granted, it wasn't the most difficult slate any team faced on the weekend, but there also weren't any walkovers among Cal State Fullerton, Nebraska, Northwestern and San Diego State, in addition to the marquee game and lone close call against Arizona.

While so many peers displayed both strengths and weaknesses, LSU offered a little of everything and a lot of most.

In the opening game against San Diego State, LSU nursed a one-run lead into the fifth inning and looked like it might again miss an opportunity to break the game open when two close strike calls went against Sahvanna Jaquish to put her in an 0-2 hole with the bases loaded. Although visibly less than thrilled by the strikes, Jaquish gathered herself and drove the next pitch deep into the night for a grand slam that made the rest of the game a formality. The Tigers, who had the sixth-best slugging percentage in the tournament, have that quick-strike capability with Jaquish, Bianka Bell and Kellsi Kloss in the same way their SEC rivals do with the likes of Lauren Haeger, Alex Hugo and Jadyn Spencer. Long gone are the hitless wonders that made a surprise run to the World Series in coach Beth Torina's first season.

And yet for all of that, it's the pitching at Torina's disposal that makes this team's potential so interesting to ponder. The quartet of Baylee Corbello, Carley Hoover, Kelsee Selman and Allie Walljasper, while short on experience, is not a group that lacks for confidence, or a sense of humor, as their collective Twitter identity suggests.

Each of the four started at least once in Cathedral City, and each earned at least one win. But on this weekend, at least, the two newest additions were the story.

A transfer who missed most of her freshman season at Stanford with injuries, Hoover pitched two innings of no-hit relief at the end of the game against San Diego State. Torina then tested her a day later with the start against Arizona, the plum assignment of the weekend. Hoover wasn't perfect by any stretch, allowing nine hits and three walks in seven innings, but she also struck out eight batters and worked out of trouble often enough to come out on the right side of a 4-3 win. If perfection wasn't an option, her perseverance may prove almost as valuable in assessing what role she can play when SEC play arrives and the schedule slows.

"Hoover is just a competitor, is trying to overpower you and is possibly going to do it," Torina said. "She wants the ball in the big game. ... We got one of the better performances we've seen out of Carley Hoover [against Arizona]. We hadn't seen her best performance, and I think we still haven't seen it yet. She's still learning every time she takes the mound."

The only pitcher to start twice, Walljasper allowed two earned runs in 11 innings, all that she needed for complete-game wins against Cal State Fullerton and Nebraska. The freshman who recently made the United States junior national team that will compete in next summer's junior world championship looks like an ace in the making. She leads the staff in wins, innings pitched, ERA and strikeouts and has a nearly 9-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And it's not as if Corbello, who won 19 games a season ago and has thus far shown improved control, or Selman, who has the team's best strikeout rate, didn't pitch well.

Not surprisingly, Torina said she hasn't seen the best of this team yet, but the best start in program history has shown plenty.

3. Lacey Waldrop comes up huge

Maybe what Lacey Waldrop did in her team's final game in the Mary Nutter Classic won't do anything quite so grandiose as define a season that is still taking shape. Maybe it was just another in an avalanche of early-season games. But file away Saturday as one of the most impressive pitching performances the season is likely to produce.

First, the background. In the first of its two games Saturday on the event's showcase field in front of a good portion of the biggest crowd of the weekend, Florida State led California 6-0 entering the bottom of the seventh inning. It lost the game 7-6, the final blow delivered on a two-run walk-off home run by Cal freshman Kobie Pettis. The starter in that game, Waldrop was long gone by that time, lifted after two walks and two wild pitches in the sixth inning. But if the plan had ever been to split starts between Waldrop and Jessica Burroughs, that went out the window after Cal's rally. Half an hour after Pettis jumped on home plate to end one game, Waldrop was back in the circle to face UCLA.

How did she respond? Like the reigning national player of the year.

Against a UCLA offense that scored 31 runs and hit .380 in its other five games in the tournament, Waldrop allowed one earned run and three hits in seven innings. She struck out 10 batters and walked none. She dared the Bruins to sit on her changeup and please a partisan crowd rooting for the almost-local team, floating it in again and again. The Bruins never successfully took her up on the offer. And instead of back-to-back losses and a losing weekend, Florida State beat the Bruins 5-1 and headed home with three wins in five games.

Run production remains a question mark, although freshman Jessica Warren and redshirt sophomore Alex Powers are doing their best alongside O'Brien to provide an answer. But there can be no questions about the ace.

4. Three pitchers who impressed

Paige Lowary, Missouri: The SEC team lost one pitcher when Casey Stangel transferred to Washington, so would there be an arm to take some of the load off burgeoning ace Tori Finucane? So far, so good. Finucane had a rough go of it in a loss against UCLA, but a lot of good pitchers down through the years know the feeling when it comes to the tournament. The bigger story for the Tigers was Lowary, who went 3-0 and struck out 15 batters in 14⅔ innings.

Rachel Nasland, Notre Dame: The weekend didn't begin promisingly for Notre Dame or its nascent ace, Nasland striking out 10 batters but giving up four runs in five innings in a loss against Tennessee. By the time the weekend came to a close with Nasland coming on in relief and retiring Cortni Emanuel, Paige Wilson and Alex Hugo for the final three outs of a 5-3 upset of Georgia, things looked a lot better. Nasland also beat Texas the same day she picked up the save against Georgia and fueled a 4-1 weekend for the Fighting Irish.

Katie Sutherland-Finch, Cal: The offense provided the highlight with its rally against Florida State, but Cal has to be happiest with how Sutherland-Finch pitched -- and the bit of ingenuity that aided the cause. Plagued by illegal pitches early in the season, the sophomore pitched in Cathedral City with a piece of neoprene taped to the offending foot and extending out from the toe (think of all the spy movies wherein someone springs a dagger from the toe of his or her shoe). Cal coach Diane Ninemire described it as like a "mud flap" that helps Sutherland-Finch keep her foot in contact with the ground. Less generous descriptions might call it a thumb in the eye of the umpires or an unfair advantage, but despite a protest from Tennessee, it isn't prohibited in the rulebook, a point new pitching coach Chuck D'Arcy (of Arizona State and Team USA lineage) made sure to confirm before the tournament. The upshot is Sutherland-Finch, illegal pitches no longer a problem, was 2-1 with a 1.05 ERA, pitching the Bears never had in 2014.

5. The rest of the country played on

Lest it be forgotten, there was still softball played beyond the borders of Cathedral City.

Shannon Dopeking's debut for the ages: As someone who caught Monica Abbott for the better part of a decade, first at the University of Tennessee and then in National Pro Fastpitch, Shannon Doepking was part of crushing a lot of would-be Davids bent on taking out Goliath in the circle. She fared pretty well in the other role in her first game as Dartmouth coach. Getting a later start on the season than most teams, as is the norm in the Ivy League, Dartmouth opened its season with a 4-2 victory against No. 16 Auburn at a tournament in Tampa, Florida. The rest of the weekend didn't go as well, with losses against Marshall (twice), South Florida and Auburn in a rematch, but senior Kristen Rumley gave her new coach a debut to remember by shutting down the previously unbeaten and run-happy Auburn lineup.

Michigan keeps rolling: LSU made the strongest impression in the Mary Nutter Classic, but the team of the week was Michigan, which beat host Alabama twice and swept all five of its games in the Easton Classic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Michigan's Kelsey Susalla made a strong bid for national player of the week by hitting two home runs, three doubles and a triple and driving in seven runs on the weekend, including three extra-base hits and three RBIs in the wins against the Crimson Tide. At the moment, Susalla is even outslugging Sierra Romero, .795 to .788.

Oregon and Baylor split: Oregon's split of two games against Baylor amid tournament dominance in Waco shouldn't alter the perception of the Ducks being, along with Florida, one of the early favorites to win it all. Instead, until proven otherwise, Baylor's 2-1 win in the weekend finale that gave the Ducks their first loss of the season appears to say more about the potential of Lady Bears ace Heather Stearns taking over for Whitney Canion.

Briana Little practices her home run trot: A frequent visitor to Cathedral City in seasons past, Florida stayed home this season. Briana Little seemed just fine with that. Little hit three home runs and drove in nine runs in a 20-3 run-rule win against Mercer on Saturday. Those are two statistical feats not even former Gators All-American Francesca Enea, one of many former stars in the crowd in Cathedral City, ever did. In fact, no Florida player had until Little.