Category archive: Washington Huskies
Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 15 Washington
Last season: 50-9, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: At the top of the list is a Canadian Olympian who rates among the very best at her position in the last decade or so. That is, of course, shortstop Jenn Salling. In her first full season on the field for the Huskies, Salling posted a 1.051 OPS, was perfect on the bases in 14 stolen base attempts and committed just six errors. Niki WIlliams edged out Salling for the team batting title with a .357 average (and 1.038 OPS), and Kimi Pohlman erased the first word in "potential star" by hitting .347 with gap power and 22 stolen bases as a sophomore. Morgan Stuart endured a tough season at the plate but remains one of the very best with the glove at third base.
Who departs: At the top of the list is a Canadian Olympian who rates among the very best at her position in the last decade or so. Actually, forget the last decade; Danielle Lawrie rates as one of the best pitchers in the history of the college game, dominating hitters at a time when aces like her seem to be a vanishing breed. But the Huskies also lost one of their best run producers at the plate: Danielle Lawrie. The two-time Player of the Year led Washington last season in slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs. Amanda Fleischman, Bailey Stenson and Alyson McWherter were also integral parts of back-to-back World Series appearances.
Sophomore first baseman Hooch Fagaly is an unexpected loss. After posting a .442 on-base percentage as a freshman, Fagaly could miss the entire season with an injury.
Who arrives: Among the freshmen generating the most buzz are first baseman/pitcher Kaitlin Inglesby, pitcher/outfielder Whitney Jones and outfielder Victoria Hayward, the last apparently yet another gem from the Canadian national team (by way of high school in California).
Statistically speaking: Going by the eye test, Washington had an elite defense in recent seasons, Lawrie or no Lawrie. But history raises some questions.In its first season after Cat Osterman, Texas went from 43 errors and a .973 fielding percentage to 57 errors and a .965 fielding percentage. Tennessee went from 21 errors and a .988 fielding percentage to 39 errors and a .978 fielding percentage without Monica Abbott. Virginia Tech went from 62 errors and a .966 fielding percentage to 81 errors and a .953 fielding percentage without Angela Tincher.
Preseason question: What is life like after Lawrie?
Texas is still waiting for its first World Series trip since Osterman left. Virginia Tech has struggled to hold its own in the ACC in the two seasons since Tincher departed. And Tennessee just made it back to Oklahoma City after lingering in Abbott's shadow.
It seems the problem with landing a once-in-a-generation talent is it's tough to wait a generation for the next one. And yes, the Huskies are aware that moving on without Lawrie means people on the outside will do things like rank the back-to-back World Series participants, who still boast four starters from the 2009 national championship team, preposterously low. Like, say, No. 15.
"That's obvious that that's totally the thing," coach Heather Tarr said of the Lawrie factor. "Everybody and their mothers asks everybody on our team, 'Well, what are you going to do about Danielle?' [Washington players] loved playing with Danielle and playing behind her and having her be their teammate, but at the end of it, if you're a competitive player, you're just like, 'Hey, uh, I'm here. I'm pretty good. I helped the team win a national championship.'"
With Salling, Williams, Pohlman, Stuart and catcher Shawna Wright, the offense should score runs and the defense should field the ball. The question is which pitcher or pitchers will try and fill the roles that fell impossibly on the likes of Meagan Denny, Kenzie Roark and Megan Rhodes after Osterman, Tincher and Abbott, respectively. The primary veteran returnee in this case is Baily Harris, who made 14 starts last season with a 3.61 ERA. But even as Tarr makes it clear it's an unsettled depth chart, the figure in the spotlight is Inglesby, the 6-foot-1 prep All-American.
"It would be great to have her evolve as our No. 1," Tarr said. "But she's going to have to prove it. She's going to have to figure it out and figure out how to get through an opposing lineup that might be tough three times. Even for Danielle, that's something she had to go through and learn . A lot of people only remember Danielle in her last year or two, but Danielle went through a lot of the same things, of holding a tough lineup for six innings and then they get her."
Sara EulerNorthwestern's Jordan Wheeler made an impressive catch to rob Stanford's Alissa Haber of a home run during the recent Cathedral City Classic.
Another year brought another statement in the desert from the game's best player.
This time near-perfection wasn't Lawrie's mode of expression. In fact, the first ball she threw in the tournament's showcase game against No. 9 Oklahoma came right back into the field of play when leadoff hitter Haley Nix ripped a double down the right-field line. Nix eventually came around to score, just the second earned run Lawrie had allowed up to that point (coming out of the weekend, she's allowed nine in 56 innings).
Lawrie's response was both instructive and swift. She deposited a Keilani Ricketts pitch into the deepest recesses of center field with a runner on in the bottom of the first. It was her eighth home run of the season, all of them to center field.
One way or another, she seemed to say with one swing, she was going to make sure Washington won the game. It did by a 7-4 score.
"She's just, I feel like, a woman amongst girls when she's out there," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "You can feel her poise; you can feel her command. She doesn't get rattled if something doesn't go her way. It's almost like she's determined to make it right."
There is athletic arrogance to the way Lawrie carries herself in uniform, the same supreme confidence that so many peers in women's sports from Diana Taurasi to Cat Osterman to Candace Parker seem to sweat in place of perspiration.
Talking during the season-opening Kajikawa Classic, Huskies coach Heather Tarr intimated her team might have soaked in the spoils of victory a bit during the fall season, which comes early courtesy of Washington's quarter system and rainy season. But if you're looking for reasons why the Huskies could become the first team to repeat with the same No. 1 pitcher since UCLA in 2003 and 2004, start with said returning pitcher.
"From the day we started back up, specifically like in January, you could tell in her eyes she was over it," Tarr said of Lawrie, who among a variety of such topics, seems to visibly disdain putting her own success in perspective when asked about it. "Everybody else followed and that's really where it was at from January on."
Tarr spent part of her otherwise hectic offseason seeking counsel, in book form, about how best to go about her new existence from some of the most successful coaches in sports: Jim Tressel and Pat Riley.
"There's a couple of really good chapters in both of those books that we used a lot in the fall that talk about [how] dealing with success is a lot more difficult than dealing with failure," Tarr said. "Failure is easier to put behind you and get to the next thing. Success is a lot more difficult to move forward from and get to the next thing."
As any number of coaches could attest, it helps to have a star who seems perpetually more interested in exacting revenge on any slight or failure than in dwelling on success.
Best Defensive Play: Jordan Wheeler, Northwestern
Continuing the subjective awards from the tournament with one for which Fresno State shortstop Haley Gilleland and Oklahoma State shortstop Mariah Gearhart made strong bids. But Wheeler's Rodney McCray impression (YouTube it) to rob Stanford's Alissa Haber of a home run takes top billing.
"I don't even think about where the fence is; we're just going for it," Wheeler said of the snag seen here. "We decided before this game that we were going all-out and every single one of us was going to play that way. That's kind of what was going through my head. I didn't think about where it was. I had [center fielder] Kelly Dyer behind me telling me, 'Catch, catch, catch' the whole way and I just went for it [and] landed on the other side of the fence."
Northwestern dropped out of the Top 25 this week, and that's fair game for a team with a losing record. But Wheeler's catch may represent more than just a nice highlight. Northwestern pushed Arizona and UCLA to the limit in the first three weeks and beat Cal and Stanford in large part because they didn't quit after tough defeats. If this isn't one of the nation's best 25 teams by the end of the season, I'll forsake tri-tips entirely at next year's Classic.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Graham Hays/ESPN.comEleven of the top 25 teams saw action at the Cathedral City Classic.
Some highlights, with the caveat that these are pulled only from what I witnessed (which, with more than 100 total games going on, was more of a sampler platter).
Most Outstanding Player: Danielle Lawrie, Washington
More on Washington and Lawrie later this week, but the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year continues to play above the level of the rest of the college game. Through three weeks, she has 102 strikeouts and just five walks in 56 innings in the circle. In Cathedral City, she started and beat BYU (with a one-hit shutout), Fresno State and Oklahoma and earned a win with five relief innings against Oklahoma State.
"She's just tough," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "And the cool thing about her in her fifth year is she's learned to be able to compete for every pitch. And that's so hard to do over 200, 300 pitches in one ballgame on both sides."
The mind-bending thing about all of it is that Lawrie has been equally impressive at the plate this season, with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and a .400 average in 13 games.
Most Outstanding Player (Non-Lawrie Division): Jessica Shults, Oklahoma
The race for All-American honors among catchers is going to be a treat to watch and a nightmare to decide for the next four years, with Shults, Texas A&M's Meagan May and California's Lindsey Ziegenhirt already entrenched as program cornerstones behind the plate as freshmen.
"She just looks like a veteran," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of her entrant. "I'm waiting to see her stumble. We've been in huge games these last three weeks and she seems to get better as the game is bigger."
Even against a class of current catchers that includes Mississippi State's Chelsea Bramlett, Ohio State's Sam Marder, Arizona's Stacie Chambers and Louisville's Melissa Roth, Shults might have a shot at earning national honors this year. More on Oklahoma later this week, but when you touch up Lawrie for four RBIs in one game, just half of the freshman's weekend total in four games for the Sooners, you earn special distinction.
Most intriguing win: Baylor 9, UCLA 5
The Bears went 3-2 on the weekend, highlighted by Saturday's win against No. 3 UCLA, a result coach Glenn Moore called "one of our top games in the history of the program."
The intrigue comes from the way Moore parceled out the pitching duties for both that game and Sunday's 3-2 loss against No. 2 Arizona. Sophomore Whitney Canion sat out the first two weeks of the season because of a stress reaction in her pitching arm, similar to the injury in a different part of the arm that forced Moore to shut her down in last year's super regional at Michigan. The plan for Cathedral City was to have her throw 20, 40 and 60 pitches on successive days (she threw 19 on Friday against San Diego State, 72 against UCLA and 81 Sunday against Arizona) as she eased back into action.
Moore said the next step is for Canion to throw twice next weekend and then undergo an MRI. Depending on the results of that test and any pain she feels, the team will make a decision on whether or not to redshirt her.
If she's healthy, Baylor can't be overlooked. Last year's success was built on Canion's dominance, but the offense is off to a stellar start in 2010. The team hit 31 home runs in 1,650 at-bats last season but already has 15 in only 392 at-bats this season, including four each from Jordan Vannatta and Dani Leal. And as always with the Bears, they'll steal and slap their way to the extra bases they don't slug. Coming off last season's knee injury, Kayce Walker has eight steals in 15 games, and some around the program suggested freshman Kathy Shelton might be the fastest player of them all in Waco.
"All throughout our lineup people are capable of making some noise," Moore said. "I don't think we have an area in it that I'm really thinking that, 'We've got to get through this area to get to the top again.' I mean, we're capable of scoring runs throughout our lineup. So it's a pretty solid lineup -- not a scary lineup, but we have a lot of pressure with our speed and a couple of kids that are capable of hitting the ball out of the park."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
No. 1 Washington
For more on what makes the defending champion the favorite to become the first team to defend its title with the same No. 1 pitcher since UCLA with Keira Goerl in 2003 and 2004 -- and the first program other than UCLA and Arizona to win back-to-back titles of any kind -- check out the second of five burning questions for the 2010 season.
No. 2 Michigan
Courtesy Jon LeFaive/Wolverine Photo Michigan looks to be a contender again this season.
"All things being equal" is not a phrase many teams at this level of national contention have much use for when it comes to pitching. Depth in the circle is nice from February through about Memorial Day -- although as Washington, Arizona State and Arizona proved the last three seasons, it's far from a necessity for teams intent on winning a championship. But by the time the season culminates with the World Series, there haven't been a lot of examples in recent seasons of teams still splitting innings on a one-for-one basis.
Then there's Michigan, which alternated starts between Nikki Nemitz and Jordan Taylor all season, including regionals, super regionals and all three games in Oklahoma City. By the end of the season, Nemitz had made 40 appearances with 30 starts and Taylor had made 38 appearances with 29 starts. The two were separated by just 25 innings (215.1 to 190.1), 21 strikeouts (306 to 285) and roughly 3/10ths of a point in ERA (1.07 to 1.40).
They also came on in relief of each other on 20 occasions, giving coach Carol Hutchins both the blessing of the most balanced elite pitching staff in the country and the curse of easy second-guessing.
"I'm the only one that makes the decision without knowing how the outcome's going to be," Hutchins said during last season's super regional. "And everybody watching it gets to judge it. But you go with -- I don't ever make that decision in a vacuum. I sit right next to [pitching coach Jen Brundage], and she calls the pitches, so I know when those pitches are working and when they're a little flat. Jen calls a pitch, and I watch my pitchers react to everything, whether it's what's called or what happens on the mound. The first thing I watch is their reaction. So I look to see if I feel they're confident or they're getting uptight -- the things that occur in the game that really only you know because you work with those kids every day. And then ultimately, just go with your gut. And I've learned over the years, better to make it too early than too late."
It doesn't hurt that in addition to being easy to distinguish in any number of superficial ways -- Nemitz is the 5-foot-7 local product from Michigan who hits, while Taylor is the 6-foot-1 California import who doesn't need a bat -- the two offer Hutchins two completely different looks. Despite her size, Nemitz is a power pitcher who thrives up in the zone, while Taylor is the one who fools hitters, her long release point giving them even fewer fractions of a second to pick up spin and location.
There are other teams, like Alabama, that spread the innings around throughout the season and postseason. There are even others, like Florida State, that do it on essentially equal footing. But nobody has done it quite as well over the past two years as Hutchins. Because while equal footing seems like it ought to be the most natural of states, it's not the easiest thing to pull off with a pair of pitchers.
"We get on each other's nerves sometimes," Nemitz said last spring. "We're always together -- pitchers are always together. If you were with someone all the time, you'd get on their nerves. But it's great, because she's a great person, a great girl, hilarious. We mesh well. And if people butted heads, I don't know if it would work out as well."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
When Florida and Alabama opened last season atop the polls, the question of the moment was whether the SEC had caught the Pac-10 as the sport's pre-eminent power base.
By the time Washington finished celebrating its first national championship on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, it was clear the softball arms race -- ironically in one of the kindest seasons to batters in recent memory -- was nowhere near such a neat and tidy resolution.
The SEC and others are moving ahead full steam, but they're chasing a moving target.
Washington opens this season poised to defend its title and ranked No. 1. The first Pac-10 team other than Arizona or UCLA to win a national championship when it did so in 2002, Cal appears back in position to challenge for a spot in the World Series and possibly even a second title. Stanford keeps adding talent and can make a strong case as the best team not to reach the World Series in the past five years. A season after making do without Katie Burkhart well enough to reach Oklahoma City, Arizona State must repeat the process without Katie Cochran. But the Sun Devils have more than enough talent to avoid falling off the pace set by their 2008 title team.
And those are just the contenders that didn't win 19 of the first 24 NCAA championships, loot divvied up between UCLA (10 titles and one vacated title) and Arizona (eight titles).
University of Washington Athletic Department If Washington makes it back to the WCWS, Danielle Lawrie will be a threat.
Is the rest of the country catching up to Arizona and UCLA? With as much talent as there is this season in Tucson and Westwood, it's undoubtedly so. It's just that to a greater degree than ever before, despite the Pac-10's long history of large World Series contingents, the rest of the country includes places like Tempe, Ariz.; Berkeley and Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle.
2. Is Washington the team to beat?
Even if you don't subscribe to the theory that the champions deserve that label until it's taken from them, the Huskies qualify strictly on the merits of the here and now.
That isn't to say coach Heather Tarr's team is unquestionably better than last season's version. It lost a huge tangible piece in All-American second baseman Ashley Charters and perhaps an equally noteworthy intangible piece in catcher Alicia Blake, Danielle Lawrie's catcher for three seasons. But the pieces the Huskies return -- and there are a lot -- should be better. Sophomores Kimi Pohlman and Niki Williams have a year of success to build on, while junior third baseman Morgan Stuart has a year of work at the hot corner to build on after shifting from shortstop. And senior Jennifer Salling, whose midseason arrival necessitated Stuart's shift, won't have to jump in midstream.
And there is, of course, Lawrie. After pitching through a stress fracture in her pitching arm for much of last season, she's healthy and without peer in the college ranks now that former Florida ace Stacey Nelson has moved on. Last year, Lawrie pitched through two road trips in regionals and super regionals, plus a long elimination day against Georgia in the World Series; in so doing, she proved she can overwhelm opponents when she's at her best and blink past when she's not.
3. Which player could alter the college softball landscape?
Matt Dunaway/LSU Athletics LSU's Rachele Fico has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
How's that for a buildup? But when you threw perfect games by the dozens in high school in Connecticut, helped a Florida travel ball team upset the softball establishment in knocking off the California powers to win the prestigious ASA Gold title, pitched against Team USA after your junior year in high school and earned space on "SportsCenter" and in The New York Times, lofty expectations get packed for school right along with the notebooks and clothes.
LSU freshman Rachele Fico is just one of several highly touted freshman pitchers dotting big-time rosters around the country, but she has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
All the accomplishments and experiences predating her arrival in Baton Rouge help, as does her place in a program with perhaps the richest softball tradition in the SEC but that, like the rest of the conference, is still looking for its first national championship. It also doesn't hurt that Fico has both the ability to blow pitches past batters and a sense of spin and control beyond her 18 years.
She even sounds like a seasoned vet in passing credit to her defense -- a defense that isn't likely to get a lot of work on days when she's on top of her game.
"I'm extremely comfortable with my team; I know I have a great defense behind me," Fico said a few days before her debut. "So I'm not scared to throw pitches and I know if they do get put into play my teammates are going to make the plays behind me."
The sport is also evolving to give freshman pitchers a greater shot at success. While Connecticut high schoolers still throw from 40 feet, Fico's experience in travel ball and pitching for the elite Stratford Brakettes amateur team (alongside players like former LSU catcher Killian Roessner) means pitching from a consistent 43 feet in college is actually something of a relief, rather than a challenge to overcome.
"My biggest adjustment to 43 feet with pitching was probably my changeup," Fico said. "When I switched to 43 feet, I had to work on getting the ball to get there a little bit more. But it's really nice to have those extra three feet because it gives us so much time to make the ball spin and get a little bit more break on it."
4. Which team could make a surprise trip to Oklahoma City?
There is almost always at least one team that sneaks up on fans and pundits. Two seasons ago, Louisiana-Lafayette went from No. 20 in the preseason Top 25 to the World Series. Last season Missouri and Georgia rose from Nos. 23 and 19, respectively, to Oklahoma City.
Now it's about time No. 19 Florida State ends its World Series hiatus.
The Seminoles will need more consistent run production this season, no small task considering they lost their best hitter, Kaleigh Rafter. A team that slugged an anemic .366 in 2009 has some work to do, but senior outfielder Carly Wynn (.530 slugging, .409 on-base percentage) is a good place to begin building a lineup. The Seminoles should once again get a boost from the transfer market -- like they did with Rafter -- with the arrivals of Jen Lapicki from Tennessee and Tory Haddad from Ohio State, patient hitters with the ability to add to the team's extra-base hit totals.
The good news is Florida State doesn't need to set scoring records as long as Sarah Hamilton and Terese Gober are splitting innings in the circle. The two combined to go 44-16 with 519 strikeouts and just 87 walks in 421 1/3 innings, reminiscent in some ways of Northwestern's duo of Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster in that program's breakout 2006 campaign.
5. Who are three players who deserve a brighter spotlight?
Carly Normandin, OF, Massachusetts The Minutewomen might have been one of the best teams in the country last season. They just had the misfortune to play 22 innings against Danielle Lawrie on the final day of regionals. Ace Brandice Balschmiter is gone, which will make a repeat performance difficult, but Normandin was one of the toughest omissions from this season's ESPN.com All-America team. Her bat is streaky, but the end product (.727 slugging, .457 on-base percentage) is indisputably great. And what never wavers is her defense. It's tough to make declarative defensive statements without more widely available video and statistics, but I know this: I've never seen a better outfielder.
Kylie Reynolds, P, Kent State All she's done for the past three years is strike out batter and win games. A season ago, she finished sixth nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- and it was the first season in which she didn't win MAC Pitcher of the Year honors (Ball State's Elizabeth Milian ended her run). In 236 innings, Reynolds struck out 345 batters and limited opponents to a .190 batting average. And Reynolds isn't just a MAC phenomenon. Last season alone, she struck out 11 in a loss at Arizona State, didn't allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings in a loss against Iowa and shut out a good Texas State team for an upset win.
Melissa Roth, C, Louisville The Big East may not be the Pac-10 or SEC -- it may not even be the Big Ten or ACC -- but if you hit .444 with an .870 slugging percentage and .566 on-base percentage, you can get it done in any uniform. That includes the Team USA uniform Roth wore in the Pan American Games. Her only problem is she's caught, pun intended, at what's surprisingly one of the deepest positions when it comes to elite hitters, joining the likes of Sam Marder, Chelsea Bramlett and Stacie Chambers in fighting for recognition behind the plate.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Seconds after her college career came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end with a loss to Washington in the Women's College World Series championship series Tuesday, Nelson, along with teammate Francesca Enea, comforted Ali Gardiner, the senior who had struck out to end the game.
AP PhotoEnjoy seeing Stacey Nelson's No. 42 -- Tim Walton said it won't be worn by another under his watch.
Pitching is an ego business, especially in big-time college softball, in which the ace pitches almost every game and her name is the only one that gets a loss attached to it in the box score. But Nelson, always quirky, never seemed interested in staring down hitters, pouting about strike zones or generally playing the diva.
She just pitched. And won. A lot.
Before this season, Tim Walton recounted how, when he first started working with Nelson (who had been recruited before he took the job in Gainesville), he immediately knew she was a tremendous, fun-loving person. He didn't know whether she was a great pitcher. Four seasons later, he has no doubts on either count.
"Obviously, No. 42 won't be back for us next year," Walton said. "We will feel that because not only is she a great pitcher, but she is also one of the most outstanding people you will ever meet. I already told her this, but there will not be the No. 42 worn in the sport of softball as long as I'm the coach there. She just meant that much to our program, and we would have not been here in the last two years without this young lady."
Among the top 10 in wins in NCAA history, Nelson deserves a place in the game's lore. Unfortunately, Florida's exits short of a championship the past two seasons place her in an elite group of players who weren't able to cap All-American careers with success in Oklahoma City -- alongside aces such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott and Angela Tincher, of recent vintage.
But as with each of those pitchers, the sport is better for having had Nelson. And true to form, she seemed to appreciate that she was better for it, regardless of the past two days.
"Losing sucks, especially on this stage," Nelson said. "It's the things that you have learned playing the game that you really take into the rest of your life. And I am not going to remember -- well, I will remember that we came in second, but what I am going to remember are the 20 great girls that I had on my team, playing with them for four years, building the best relationships I've ever had, playing for a coach like Tim Walton.
"There's a lot of pain that comes with this loss, but I'm always going to remember my time at Florida as the best time of my life."
Now, like Texas after Osterman, Tennessee after Abbott and Virginia Tech after Tincher, Florida must move on. Unlike each of those programs, it will be a mild surprise if Walton's team isn't back here next season, even if it has to suffer through a season with double-digit losses like everyone else. There is a clear plan of succession in the circle, where Stephanie Brombacher will enter her junior season undefeated as a college pitcher.
More importantly, there is a coach who has stocked his roster with more talent than a lineup card can hold. Gardiner, Kim Waleszonia and all of the seniors will be missed for what they brought to the team. But from a coldly analytical perspective, the Gators have replacements ready at every position.
If Brombacher is even good -- and there's reason to think she can be great -- she should have all the support she needs from a lineup that will include Enea, Aja Paculba, Kelsey Bruder and Megan Bush, in addition to expanded roles for players such as Alicia Sisco and Michelle Moultrie.
Walton likes to keep his program insulated from the media and the outside world, but he's going to have to continue putting up with prying eyes. As long as he's around, Florida isn't a program that's going to slip off any radars.
• The whole debate about the SEC and the Pac-10 strikes me as a little pointless. Clearly, the Pac-10 has more championships and isn't going to exit the stage in Oklahoma City anytime soon. And anyone suggesting the SEC has surpassed it is out of their minds. But at the same time, anyone who suggests that just because the SEC hasn't won a national championship, it's somehow inferior is almost equally out of their minds.
Florida missed out on the SEC's best chance to date to add a title to its résumé. But the most basic truth is the SEC and Pac-10 are two really good leagues. As softball fans, it seems like savoring that ought to have more value than worrying about which one is best.
The only "best" that really matters is the team title Washington earned Tuesday.
But the Gators also seemed more puzzled at their own performance than fearful of their fate.
Both Nelson and Walton used the word "uncharacteristic" to describe a performance marked by missteps across the board -- hitting, fielding and pitching -- and which doubled the total number of runs the Gators had lost by in their only three losses of the season entering Monday's game.
Nelson wasn't sharp, although it didn't help her cause that the strike zone tended to favor outside pitches, especially to right-handed batters. That's not to say the Gators were unduly burdened -- the strike zone is always an organic thing -- but Nelson is at her best when she's able to get in on the hands of batters. And it's tougher to get those swings when there's no need for batters to protect inside.
Aside from one oblique reference, Walton didn't make an issue of the zone or use it as an excuse, but it also seemed to get to the Gators at the plate. Two of the team's first three batters struck out looking, and only leadoff hitter Aja Paculba even recorded a swing in the first frame, striking out on a rise ball from Lawrie after taking two strikes. In all, five Gators struck out looking in the game.
One of Florida's greatest offensive strengths is its plate discipline. Walton said earlier this week that his staff didn't even worry about batting averages this season (although with a .324 team average, there's plenty to focus on), looking more at on-base percentage and the sheer volume of run-scoring opportunities the team could produce. But where Washington batters have more walks than strikeouts in the World Series, reversing a season-long trend for them, Florida batters have more than twice as many strikeouts as walks, also a reversal of their norm.
Don't be too patient, but don't be impatient. It's a balancing task worthy of a high-wire act, but it's one that made this Gators team such an offensive juggernaut all season.
"We just have to maintain our discipline, do the things that got us here," Walton said. "We typically will walk as many times as we'll strike out in a game, and we've just got to be able to do a good job of being selective and making adjustments with the game that's being called."
At the same time, Walton suggested, whether as a decoy or not, that he might be looking to change his approach in at least some situations against Lawrie, who has now thrown 16 shutout innings against the Gators this season. Florida has nearly twice as many home runs as sacrifice bunts, but he may be looking for a little of both to avoid falling in another hole Tuesday.
"Overall, just put ourselves in a better position to play -- you know, play a different style of game," Walton said of possible adjustments. "We're going to have to come out and try to play a little small ball tomorrow and get some runners going."
That could mean moving catcher Kristina Hilberth, one of the lineup's better small-ball options, back to the No. 2 spot she occupied at various times this season, including the super regional against California and the World Series opener against Arizona. It could also mean a look for outfielder Michelle Moultrie, second on the team in stolen bases and a regular in the lineup when center fielder Kim Waleszonia was out with an injury. Pinch hitting Monday, Moultrie had the team's only clean hit of the night (the other coming when Washington's Morgan Stuart and Jenn Salling collided on a grounder).
Responding to adversity is the only thing the Gators haven't proven they can do this season, because their own success hasn't offered many opportunities for practice. A walk-off grand slam Sunday was a start, but even then, the Gators had the cushion of another game if they lost. Monday's meltdown aside, they've shown they can do everything else a team has to do on the field to win a championship. In trying to get back to those strengths, they'll prove whether or not they really are a complete team.
"Give Washington credit," Walton said. "I thought they did a great job of capitalizing on our mistakes. We just didn't play very well at all."
Nelson can be overpowering by any abstract measure, but she's truly dominant because of her ability to make hitters beat themselves. She confounds them with an array of pitches and leaves them guessing at which they can hit and which will result in little more than weak pop outs or groundouts.
It's no coincidence that both Arizona's Mike Candrea and Michigan's Carol Hutchins talked after losses about their respective teams' inability to adjust to Nelson and her corresponding ability to counter any eventual adjustments, and that Alabama was the only team that has made her look mortal to this point. The Crimson Tide had faced her four times this season and numerous times during the past few seasons. Without a lot of looks and a lot of All-Americans, the odds of making Nelson sweat are lottery-long.
Lawrie is the international veteran and the more traditional postseason workhorse, bringing a slightly higher strikeout rate (10.4 per seven innings, compared to Nelson's still-elite 8.9 per seven innings) and a slightly higher risk-reward element (0.85 extra-base hits per seven innings, compared to Nelson's 0.56 extra-base hits per seven innings).
But if the two aces are equals in the results they produce in the circle, they don't enter Monday's game on equal footing.
Look at the number of pitches each has thrown in the NCAA tournament.
Super regional: 212
Super regional: 170
At this time of year, the fact that a softball pitcher's motion is easier on the arm than a baseball pitcher's motion tends to wildly morph into the myth that softball pitchers can throw all day and still have the arm and legs to play some ultimate Frisbee at night.
One look at all the ice on Lawrie's arm after a game ought to dispel the notion that 100 pitches take no toll on the arm, and yet that's only a weakened branch compared to the tree trunk of a pitcher's legs. Florida coach Tim Walton, a former college baseball pitcher, touched on this topic before the season, talking about the importance of Nelson's improved conditioning through her years in Gainesville to her success.
"To say the body doesn't get sore when it throws 120 pitches in a game is absolutely crazy," Walton said in late January. "It's easier on the arm, but it's not easier on the body. The body still takes a toll throwing 120 pitches, and then having to turn around and possibly throw in the next game of a doubleheader. So I give our girls -- I give every girl, but I give our pitchers a lot of credit for having the ability to be able to separate themselves from the game and the competition and really [continue] competing at a high level. And knowing the difference between being sore and being hurt.
"That's the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete is they play through pain."
Florida's dominance and the presence of Stephanie Brombacher eased Nelson's workload this season, leaving her fresh now, but Walton might as well have included some stock tips, given how precisely his comments forecasted the challenge that now faces his foe. Consider that included within Lawrie's pitch count is a pair of doubleheaders: 285 pitches in two games against Georgia on Sunday and a staggering 395 pitches in two games against Massachusetts on the final day of the Amherst Regional.
That's the storyline of this championship series, whether Lawrie talks about it or not. (And never one to publicly linger too long on the philosophical side of things, she won't dwell on any possible negatives.)
It's not so much Lawrie's taking on Nelson as Lawrie's taking on time and physiology.
Lawrie is not quite the dominant pitcher she was in February. A few more pitches per game hang in the zone (two home runs in 30.2 innings here and six in 78.2 innings in the postseason, compared to six in 260 regular-season innings). Her counts go a little deeper, and she loses the additional hitter to a walk perhaps once every game or two. But even in her production at the plate, where she's hit three home runs and driven in 13 runs in the postseason, or stepping up with a vintage effort in a tight game against Arizona State, you see a pitcher doing what she can to plug the leaks in precision.
It's the mental toughness that Washington coach Heather Tarr identified as far back as February as the biggest evolution in Lawrie's game after a year with the Canadian Olympic team.
"I think taking a year off and spending it with older players and with the national team and international softball, it helped her just be more mature, mentally stronger," Tarr said in February at the Campbell-Cartier Classic in San Diego. "Physically, I think she's pretty much what she is; she's going to be what Danielle is going to be. But I think mentally, it kind of helped her take a step back and recognize, what does she really want to do in the game?"
After pitching 22 innings in the two games against Massachusetts on May 17, a little after 1 a.m., Lawrie offered this take on the specter of fatigue.
"You've got to look at what you've done to get there," she said. "You've got to look at all the money you've put in the bank. And you're not done spending."
Matched up against her lone equal in Nelson, she'll have to go for broke.
And the crowd Sunday was most definitely on its feet and on pins and needles -- or just shaking out the pins and needles in their legs after sitting for more than four hours -- when Georgia's Brianna Hesson drew a bases-loaded walk after fouling off three two-strike pitches to beat Washington 9-8.
It was the highest-scoring game in Women's College World Series history. It was the longest first seven innings in the event's history. It featured a record-setting performance from Washington freshman Niki Williams, who drove in seven runs. It was alternately mind-numbingly slow and breathtakingly dramatic. And it was only the opening act.
"I didn't think the game was going to go this way, but that's why we play the game," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "You never know what's going to happen. And we've got to be more prepared to control our game. I don't think we did a very good job of that today."
With the dramatic win, in which it both rallied from a three-run deficit and watched a four-run lead evaporate on one swing of the bat, Georgia earns another shot at the Huskies later this evening. One loss from elimination after Thursday's opening round of games, the Bulldogs are now one win from the championship series.
As has been their style since the start of super regionals, the Bulldogs ceded the early momentum after Williams hit a three-run home run off Bulldogs starter Sarah McCloud to give the Huskies a 3-0 lead. That led to the first of four pitching changes and perhaps the most surprising, bringing Taylor Schlopy in from center field to pitch for just the fourth time this season and the first since Feb. 22 against not-quite-WCWS-bound UNC-Greensboro.
Schlopy held up her end of the bargain, getting through Washington's order once unscathed (she would earn another stint later between further duty in center), but it wasn't until coach Lu Harris-Champer turned to freshman Erin Arevalo that the Bulldogs silenced the Huskies. Pitching for the first time since the first week of April, Arevalo threw four shutout innings, allowing four hits and no walks.
"I thought she did an outstanding job," Harris-Champer said. "The best job she's done all season, and I'm extremely proud of her."
Harris-Champer wouldn't say who would get the ball to start the second game. Ace Christie Hamilton lasted just one inning in the first game, throwing 32 pitches and allowing three hits, two walks and four earned runs. At this point, unless there is something physically wrong with Hamilton, the likely bet would be she gets the ball with the suddenly deepened bullpen ready to go at the first sign of trouble.
For Washington, even after 164 pitches on the afternoon, it's Danielle Lawrie's game to win or lose tonight. On the plus side, she pitched 22 innings in two games against Massachusetts on the final day of regionals. On the negative side, she has a season's worth of use like that on her arm, and that regionals performance took place on a cool, New England night -- not under the hot Oklahoma sun.
What started as a massive advantage for the Huskies when Sunday dawned has shrunk to the slightest of edges. Their ace is tired, and the Bulldogs have seen her four times this season and come away with wins twice. For the newly crowned USA Softball Player of the Year to avoid prolonging a streak in which no player has ever won a national championship in the same year she won the award, Lawrie will need to pull out something special.
Georgia is closing fast, even if they have to slow games down and pull pitchers out of nowhere to do it.
"Everybody knows that me and Christie [Hamilton] don't want to stop playing," Kristin Schnake said after the win a night earlier. "We want to prolong this as long as we possibly can. And we want to be in that championship series."
Georgia vs. Washington
1 p.m. ET | ESPN
Pitching: Washington ace Danielle Lawrie rated her outing Thursday against Georgia as a B-minus performance. She allowed six hits, two extra-base hits, and walked two in seven innings, which, given Georgia's talents, is a harsh enough grading scale to make even MIT professors blush. That said, whether she's at a B-minus or an A-plus, as she was against Arizona State on Friday, the Huskies have as decisive an edge in the circle against Georgia as a team is going to have at this point of the season.
Coming off a day of rest (and just 85 pitches Thursday), Lawrie will face either Christie Hamilton, who had to throw 13 innings Saturday, or Sarah McCloud. The Bulldogs would have to win two games to advance to the championship series, so it's possible coach Lu Harris-Champer might start McCloud in the first game and hope she can afford Hamilton a few more hours of rest. More likely, they hope Hamilton can get by one more time on guile and cross the bridge of the second game later.
Both Bulldogs pitchers fared well against Washington earlier this season, albeit facing a lineup that didn't include Jenn Salling, and Hamilton held her own Thursday until a home run from Washington freshman Niki Williams. McCloud threw a three-hit shutout to beat the Huskies on March 8 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but she's been shaky in her past two outings, as the starter here against Arizona State and in the super-regional clincher against Ohio State.
Hitting: Georgia showed Saturday how dangerous it can be at the plate, getting five home runs from four players in two games. Alisa Goler and Taylor Schlopy aren't overmatched against any pitcher in the country, including Lawrie, and their presence buys other hitters good pitches (although for what it's worth, the two combined to go 3-for-16 against Washington's ace in the first three games between the teams). For its part, Washington has gotten key hits from people outside the top four of Ashley Charters, Kimi Pohlman, Salling and Lawrie. When that happens, the Huskies go from merely a good enough offense to support their ace to a good offense in their own right.
Fielding: It's a windy morning in Oklahoma City, and the samba the flags are doing suggests it's not a consistent breeze. That may well die down before the game starts, but if not, fly balls could be an adventure. On the infield, both teams have the potential to be spectacular, but both also rely on the excellence of their infielders. One mistake could upset a delicate balance for either.
Player to watch: Kristin Schnake
She's the emotional heartbeat of the Bulldogs, but perhaps more important from a strategic standpoint, she's the only Georgia player to get at least one hit off Lawrie in all three games between the teams this season. Wedged between Schlopy in the leadoff spot and Goler in the No. 3 hole, Schnake is going to have to see pitches to hit.