What went down in the opening week of NCAA softball? The aim each week is to bring you five stories that defined the week in college softball or help navigate the long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
Washington upstages the headliners in Mexico
Eight months on and still little separates No. 2 Auburn from No. 1 Oklahoma. The same teams that needed every pitch to settle the Women's College World Series last season opened a new campaign with a nail-biter that Auburn won 3-2 in Mexico this past Thursday. The Tigers took a 3-0 lead, picking away run by run at Oklahoma pitcher Paige Lowary in the Missouri transfer's debut, but the Sooners put the tying run on base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning before Kaylee Carlson struck out the final two batters in relief.
A new season with new faces, highlighted by two home runs from Auburn sophomore Kendall Veach after a freshman season in which she didn't hit any, but the same basic story. Right?
On behalf of No. 13 Washington, Taran Alvelo begs to differ.
Later on opening day, Alvelo allowed a first-inning run against Auburn, then shut out the Tigers over the next nine innings as the Huskies rallied for a 2-1 win in 10 innings. Not quite 48 hours after that, the sophomore threw a five-hit shutout in a 1-0 win over the Sooners.
Lest she get bored, she also picked up a win against Nebraska between those two starts.
Washington wasn't perfect, dropping a game to BYU, but it was unbeaten with Alvelo.
Sweet home of strikeouts
If first impressions are anything to go by, hitters may want to give the entire state of Alabama a wide berth this spring. Those with no choice but to venture there do so at their own risk.
Auburn's Carlson and Makayla Martin were consistently effective against top-tier competition in Mexico. But that isn't the half of it. One week in and No. 7 Alabama's Alexis Osorio is working on a perfect season. The Crimson Tide junior won twice without allowing a hit or a walk in 11 2/3 innings. She opened her season with a 19-strikeout perfect game against Coastal Carolina. Only seven pitchers have struck out more in a seven-inning game and five of them are Monica Abbott, Michele Granger, Alicia Hollowell, Danielle Lawrie and Cat Osterman.
Only by comparison did hitters have any luck against Sydney Littlejohn. Alabama's co-ace allowed a handful of opponents on base but shut out all comers.
Nor is our tour done. Osorio's 25 strikeouts aren't even enough for sole possession of the state lead in strikeouts. South Alabama's Devin Brown stuck out 25 in 15 2/3 innings and, stop us if this sounds familiar, didn't allow a run all weekend. And Jacksonville State's Whitney Gillespie -- you'll remember her as the pitcher who flummoxed Auburn for much of an NCAA tournament regional a season ago -- allowed just four hits and one run in two starts.
South Alabama visits Alabama on Wednesday.
Oregon freshmen step right up
The opening weekend wasn't a particularly taxing one for the ninth-ranked Ducks, with only Fresno State ranked in either national poll among six opponents at the Kajikawa Classic in Arizona. But the talent arrayed against them should have been plenty to show the team's freshmen that college softball is a challenge unlike any they previously faced. In the cases of Oregon newcomers Maggie Balint and Mia Camuso, the emphasis is on "should have been."
Balint's 33 strikeouts (and just three walks) in 19 2/3 innings in the circle were difficult to miss for a team without at least one of Cheridan Hawkins or Jessica Moore for the first time in eight seasons. Balint got the ball against Fresno State and struck out 11 batters in six innings. Run support wasn't an issue, in large part because of Camuso. The freshman had five extra-base hits in six starts, including her first home run, and slugged a team-best .842 for the weekend.
There were auspicious debuts from several teams near the top of the polls -- Alabama's Bailey Hemphill, Tennessee's Jenna Holcomb, UCLA's Bubba Nickles and LSU's Sydney Springfield among the most notable. But as Oregon moves on without Hawkins and a whole bunch of run production from a season ago, the future doesn't look quite so scary. Nor the present.
Pitt wins the weekend
At least by winning percentage, none of the ranked teams thus far mentioned had a more successful opening weekend than Pitt, which made a case for shedding its unranked status.
Pitt swept two games each from NCAA tournament regulars No. 20 Kentucky and host UCF at a tournament in Orlando. A win against Florida A&M sandwiched in the middle made it a 5-0 start.
That's five more wins than the Panthers had in their first season of NCAA softball, in the not-so-distant reaches of 1998. The program didn't post its first winning record until 2006, then found another obstacle in its path with a move from the Big East to the ACC. The Panthers still haven't produced a winning record in ACC play, but they made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2015 and reached 30 wins each of the past two seasons.
Even without a big weekend from Giorgiana Zeremenko, one of the nation's leading sluggers, they could have as many quality nonconference wins as they had all of last season (granted both Kentucky and UCF lost considerable pitching assets). Freshman pitcher Brittany Knight beat UCF with a three-hit shutout in her college debut, then picked up a save and a win in relief against Kentucky and UCF, respectively.
Pitching on 500 days of rest
All right, Cal's Zoe Conley and South Florida's Kalen McGill aren't quite that rested, but both made the most of their first Division I pitching appearances since the 2015 season.
Conley ranked in the top 30 nationally in ERA in 2015 as a freshman at Cal State Northridge but transferred and sat out the 2016 season. While Cal would have benefittd from pairing her with Nisa Ontiveros a season ago, it can't afford to be without her in a post-Ontiveros world. Conley started three of the team's five games this past weekend and appeared in all of them. It wasn't until North Carolina got a second look at her that she met with much resistance. The 24th-ranked Bears have returning run production. A reliable Pac-12-caliber ace would be a boon.
McGill took a few more lumps over the weekend, but she closed out No. 24 South Florida'a 6-4 win over No. 6 Michigan on Saturday. Southern Miss might get the nod for the weekend's biggest surprise after sweeping a doubleheader from Louisiana-Lafayette, but the win was arguably South Florida's best result since it beat the Ragin' Cajuns three years ago.
McGill pitched at the College of Central Florida in 2016, but her last Division I action came as a freshman at South Alabama in 2015 when she had a 1.92 ERA. That ERA ranked 33rd in the nation, three spots behind you know who.