What went down in the 13th week of college softball? The aim each week is to bring you five stories that defined the week in college softball or helped a team navigate the long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
1. Making a stand at Missouri
Watching on TV, it looked like nothing transpired in Sunday's regular-season finale between Missouri and South Carolina that suggested the Tigers are anything other than a contender to return to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2011.
Perhaps Missouri won't be favored to go to Oklahoma City. It enters the SEC tournament as the No. 6 seed and will likely be in position to host an NCAA tournament regional but not a super regional. But even with its best asset, the top-of-the-order trio of seniors Taylor Gadbois, Emily Crane and Sami Fagan, struggling at the plate all weekend, Missouri won the series and gave up just three hits in its Saturday loss. On any given day, the Tigers have the talent to win with power, base running or pitching. Put a couple of those together in the postseason, and a run is born.
Not that anyone is talking about any of that after what transpired Saturday.
As Missouri honored its seniors and played a video celebrating coach Ehren Earleywine's 10th season, a statement of protest circulated that gave the impression that it represented the views of the entire roster. The statement criticized a university investigation of Earleywine, an inquiry that the athletic department subsequently confirmed is ongoing without specifying the scope beyond complaints from "inside and outside" of the program. For their part, players alleged that the administration bullied them during interviews.
Although Earleywine is not unfamiliar with controversy -- for example, he received a one-game suspension earlier this season for a minor recruiting violation and an earlier reprimand from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association -- he is also clearly well-liked in several quarters. Crowd shots Sunday showed fans holding signs of support, a display that a Columbia Daily Tribune reporter indicated extended to 75 percent of people in the main grandstand. A Tribune story also detailed the support he received from former players Chelsea Thomas and Ashley Fleming, as well as comments from Fagan made prior to the protest that lauded the coach's increased relatability this season.
Players declined comment Sunday on the specifics of their criticism of athletic director Mack Rhoads and the investigation, but Crane, Paige Lowary and Amanda Sanchez reiterated general support for Earleywine and a desire to see him coach next season. In his first comments, Earleywine acknowledged missteps of style but defended the substance of his coaching philosophy and accomplishments.
Closest to the situation generally and present in the moment, the Tribune said in an excellently reported piece that the mood on the day was at least partly that of a "farewell party."
That may be, but it remains to be seen what the rest of this season holds. Did matters reach a boil Saturday, only for the administration to attempt to lower the heat by staying silent through the postseason? Or is this only the beginning of players attempting to assert their will, unanimous or otherwise?
The scene looked normal from afar during Sunday's game. That much we know was an illusion.
2. Texas A&M builds hard-earned momentum
Entering the more pedestrian territory of runs, hits and errors, Texas A&M was one of the few teams to make full use of the regular season's dwindling opportunities to impress.
Even as the Aggies had every excuse to lick their wounds and wait for the postseason.
To say the schedule was unkind to Texas A&M is to say Cinderella's stepmother was a tad overbearing. A&M closed the regular season with SEC series against, in order, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Florida and Auburn, a 15-game gauntlet as grueling as anything a team will face en route to winning the national championship. But after losing 10 of the first 11 games in that run, a win in the series finale against Florida a week ago set the stage for two wins this weekend at Auburn. Those three results alone may keep the Aggies at home as a regional host.
With its weekend power display, which included 10 home runs, Texas A&M should move up this week to rank among the top five major conference teams in slugging percentage. Over the past five seasons, that has meant at least a super regional trip in 19 of 25 instances. Despite the schedule, the Aggies have hit 30 home runs in their past 13 games -- more than postseason-worthy California, Mississippi or South Carolina teams have hit all season.
Kentucky clinched the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament by sweeping Mississippi State. LSU solidified its NCAA tournament resume by rallying three times to win the series finale, and thus the series, against Washington on Allie Walljasper's walk-off home run. Some contenders fared well during a week in which almost all lost at least once. But none did more than Texas A&M.
3. Even Florida's pitchers may not solve Florida's pitchers
To set the stage, Florida freshman Kelly Barnhill threw a no-hitter against Arkansas on Sunday to improve to 15-0 this season. And she's the Gators pitcher who isn't part of this discussion.
As strong as cases are for Washington's Ali Aguilar, Auburn's Kasey Cooper, Alabama's Haylie McCleney, Michigan's Sierra Romero and Oregon's Nikki Udria, among a handful of others, there is more precedent for a pitcher winning USA Softball Player of the Year than a position player. That bodes well for Florida's Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio.
Although it would more easily bode if it was Gourley or Ocasio.
Along with Florida Atlantic's Kylee Hanson, Gourley and Ocasio have two of the best pure pitching resumes. Each has a sub-1.00 ERA and ranks among the top 10 nationally in strikeout rate. Each has proved adept at starting and relieving as part of the team's enviable rotation.
And that's the problem. It's impossible to differentiate the two. Ocasio is 19-1 to Gourley's 18-3, which may sway some, but Gourley has arguably been the more dominant of the two. She has a fractionally better WHIP, strikeout rate and has allowed fewer extra-base hits in more innings. If Ocasio had a slight lead entering the week, Gourley pulled level by striking out 10 in a two-hit complete game against Florida State and then fanning 16 more in a shutout against Arkansas.
The power sharing arrangement works just fine Florida, which will be happy to trade the player-of-the-year award for a third consecutive national championship. But in this instance, it appears that like the rest of the country, not even Gourley and Ocasio can find a way to solve the other.
4. NCAA's newest team not waiting patiently
Consider what is currently unfolding in unfamiliar softball territory. In just the program's second season, Montana clinched the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky tournament with a series win against Weber State, which is both the top seed this year and the defending tournament champion. Utilizing a roster comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who signed with a program that hadn't played a game, the Grizzlies guaranteed themselves at least a .500 season.
And yet the best indication of the kind of season it has been in Missoula is that for all of those accomplishments, Montana might feel that their weekend could have been better. Had it won the series finale against Weber State, which was tied into the sixth inning, and had Portland State completed its comeback in a tight loss at Sacramento State the same day, Montana could have clinched the regular-season conference title and hosted the conference tournament.
Ranked in the top 30 nationally in batting average when the series began, Montana scored 17 runs in three games against the best pitching staff in the Big Sky. And from freshman and Montana native Sydney Stites (11 HR, .668 SLG) to a veritable elder stateswoman in junior Bethany Olea (.411 BA, .505 OBP), the Grizzlies are just getting started in their second season for coach Jamie Pinkerton.
5. Five conference tournaments to watch this week
Atlantic Coast: Florida State has its own agenda in the single-elimination tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, the top seed trying to make its case for a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament. But the primary drama is in the week's largest gathering of bubble teams. North Carolina (No. 35 in the most recent RPI), Virginia Tech (No. 41), Louisville (No. 48) and even upstart Boston College (No. 55) have reason to sweat or hope, depending on your perspective. Second-seeded Louisville, which beat Florida State once in three tries this past week, is in danger of being the major conference team with the most wins among those left out of the NCAA tournament.
Colonial: No team may inspire a greater rooting interest, for and against, than James Madison in the double-elimination tournament it hosts. There will be at least half a dozen teams at the top of the heap rooting for James Madison to lose, potentially ending its bid for a top-eight NCAA seed. But there will be an even larger number of teams rooting for the Dukes to take care of business. If they lose here, it takes an NCAA at-large bid from a bubble team elsewhere.
Conference USA: Top seed Florida Atlantic is going to the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in a double-elimination conference tournament hosted by North Texas. No other team will join them without the league's automatic bid. Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech both played FAU close in the regular season, but keep an eye on Marshall. The Herd played part of the season without outfielder Morgan Zerkle. With her healthy, the three players who typically fill the 9-1-2 spots in the order have 117 stolen bases between them. That included seven steals in Sunday's regular-season finale by Zerkle, Kaelynn Greene and Elicia D'Orazio.
Ohio Valley, Summit: The reason for a two-for-one deal? OVC top seed Jacksonville State and Summit top seed North Dakota State are a combined 43-0 in league play, but the RPI math leaves little doubt about the task to come. Fail to win the conference tournament and there won't be an NCAA at-large bid waiting. That would send a bad message, given that both did all they could to schedule competitively out of conference. It would also reinforce how conferences negate the meaning of their own seasons with postseason tournaments. But it makes for drama.