What went down in the seventh 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.
Arizona's ace makes history of sorts
It is a note that follows some twists and turns, but the destination is worth the trip. At the bottom of its own recap of Friday's 3-0 win against No. 5 Washington, No. 4 Arizona notes that starting pitcher Danielle O'Toole threw the program's first no-hitter against a top-10 opponent in a game not decided by the run-rule since Susie Parra's eight-inning no-hitter against Cal in 1993.
So let's unpack that. First of all, 1993 was a long time ago -- like "Sleepless in Seattle" long ago, since the visiting Huskies play a part in this story. Second, Arizona has played a lot of games against top-10 opponents in those years. And lastly, any time you have done something for the first time since all-time great Parra at Arizona, that means Jennie Finch, Alicia Hollowell, Taryne Mowatt and a host of other really good pitchers didn't do it.
The short version is that O'Toole pitched one of the games of the year when she no-hit the Huskies, struck out eight batters and came within a walk and a hit batter of a perfect game. That was the start of a weekend that could earn the Wildcats some first-place votes in the Top 25, regardless of outcomes elsewhere. O'Toole nearly shut out Washington a second time, giving up a two-out home run with her team comfortably ahead in the seventh inning of Sunday's finale. That would have blanked the Huskies for the weekend because Arizona's Taylor McQuillin didn't allow any runs in her team's 12-0 win in five innings in the middle game.
Florida and Auburn open with classic
It was imperfect, but the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday between No. 1 Florida and No. 6 Auburn was as entertaining as college softball gets. All with barely a ball hit out of the infield.
Down a run entering the final half inning, Florida rallied for a 4-3 win on what was ruled a walk-off single for Nicole DeWitt, a ball that slipped in and out of the glove of rapidly retreating second baseman Casey McCrackin in shallow center field.
The rally began with Aleshia Ocasio, who earned the win in relief as a pitcher, battling deep into the count to produce a leadoff single in the kind of at-bat at which Florida excels. Auburn appeared to gain the upper hand when Kasey Cooper made a confident throw to get the lead runner at second on a sacrifice bunt attempt. The Tigers again caught a break on a missed call at first base, Florida's Justine McClean out on what should have been, by inches, an infield single. But an error on what would have been the final out set up DeWitt's bloop, and Florida coach Tim Walton sent home the winning run all the way from first base.
What is worth extrapolating from all of the drama? Who knows. That Auburn ranks only in the middle of the pack defensively in the SEC and was undone by missed chances with the glove bears watching. It is only part of the equation that has made him so successful at both Auburn and Arizona State that Auburn coach Clint Myers can always get his teams to hit. The other part is his teams always field well. But that said, the only charged error in the seventh was on Haley Fagan, who surely seems like a long-term defensive asset from this vantage point.
With one game still to play Monday, Florida clinched the series Sunday behind the pitching of Kelly Barnhill. That the Gators have pitching depth is hardly news (even if No. 11 LSU elbowed in on the conversation with complete-game efforts from three different starters in a sweep of No. 15 Georgia). But more than anything, Saturday's drama was just a joy to watch.
Oregon closing in on history
The work for the "week" isn't done for No. 3 Oregon, which concludes a three-game series at No. 13 Utah on Monday night. But it took the Ducks only until Sunday to clinch a potentially tricky stop in Salt Lake City. After weather delay forced a doubleheader, the Ducks beat the Utes 12-3 in five innings and 3-0 in the nightcap to remain the nation's only undefeated team at 29-0.
Freshman Maggie Balint pitched a shutout in the nightcap to drop her ERA this season to 0.99, and six players drove in runs over the first two games for a team that features nine players with double-digit RBIs this season.
A milestone is now within sight.
The longest winning streak to begin a season belongs to UCLA, which won 35 in 1999, the third longest overall (Arizona holds that record with 47 consecutive wins spanning the 1996-97 seasons). Oregon could reach and exceed the UCLA mark against Portland State, a series that immediately precedes a three-game set with the Bruins.
South Carolina holds the record for the most consecutive wins in a single season with 38 in 1997.
The fastest team on dirt
As Purdue's Maya Hughes demonstrated by circling the bases on a bunt to lift her team to a win this weekend, there is something to be said for running until someone makes you stop.
Marshall has followed the philosophy to one of the best starts in college softball and a winning percentage topped only by James Madison among teams outside the major conferences.
As the weekend began, only 21 teams in the country averaged at least two stolen bases per game. That provides context for what kind of track meet takes place in Marshall games. The Thundering Herd led the nation entering the weekend, averaging a whopping 3.84 steals per game. So to merely steal 10 bases in a three-game weekend sweep of Western Kentucky was to all but play at a leisurely jog by their standards. Marshall has won 15 consecutive games and is 24-4 on the season, with half of their losses against Florida State (one of those just 1-0).
The catalysts for the show are Elicia D'Orazio and Morgan Zerkle at the top of the order. At the rate of 2.25 stolen bases per game just between the two of them, D'Orazio and Zerkle would have ranked ahead of 278 Division I teams in stolen bases per game. For the week, which also included a win against UNC Greensboro, the pair hit .520, scored 13 runs and stole six bases.
RPI a bearer of bad news for James Madison
While there are a few out there for whom dinner conversation might naturally stray to RPI, it is not a captivating subject matter for most. But the release of the first official RPI numbers this past week is important for fans who want to see their team in the NCAA tournament -- be that see it in person as a regional or super regional host or just see it make the field of 64.
While the NCAA selection committee insists every year it isn't beholden to RPI, those numbers have borne a striking similarity to the tournament field most years.
That is why this wasn't a good week for No. 10 James Madison, even before it lost the finale of a three-game series at Hofstra on Sunday. The Dukes checked in 12th in the initial RPI, four spots lower than the initial release a season ago. That was when they ended up hosting a super regional that offered some of the tournament's most memorable scenes of fans packed in to watch in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The initial RPI is far from definitive -- just two years ago, Kansas was No. 8 in the initial release. The Jayhawks weren't exactly in the hosting discussion by the time the bracket came out. But a year ago, only Oklahoma, Auburn and Florida State ended up as top-eight seeds in the NCAA tournament after being ranked outside the top 10 in the initial RPI. The difference is those teams had far more opportunities for RPI-boosting wins than will James Madison in the Colonial.
It affords James Madison, and one of the nation's best pitchers in Megan Good, little margin for slips like Sunday's.