Category archive: DePaul Blue Demons
Michigan: If the second-ranked Wolverines inherit the No. 1 spot in the polls Tuesday, it won't be solely as the beneficiaries of another Washington loss. It's not that the Huskies deserve to be penalized for merely winning, instead of sweeping, back-to-back series in the country's toughest conference; it's that Michigan is doing some remarkable things.
The Wolverines swept two games at Purdue over the weekend to cap a week that also included a doubleheader sweep at home against Penn State. In those four games, the Wolverines outscored their opponents 33-4. Since losing to Texas at the Judi Garman Classic, the Wolverines have outscored opponents 151-18 in winning 16 consecutive games.
Just in case you glossed over that last part, let's repeat: 151-18.
Sure, the Big Ten is a step below the Pac-10, SEC and Big 12 when it comes to the depth of postseason-caliber competition, especially in a year in which Northwestern is struggling, but all the Wolverines can do is beat the teams on their schedule (which, of course, also includes nonconference wins against Arizona, Alabama twice, UCLA, LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Oklahoma State and numerous RPI top-50 teams).
Check that; all the Wolverines can do is obliterate the teams on their schedule.
Maggie Viefhaus had at least one hit in all four games this past week, and finished with two home runs and eight RBIs against the Nittany Lions and Boilermakers. In a year that includes Danielle Lawrie and Jen Yee, USA Softball Player of the Year might be out of reach for everyone else. But if you're looking for that third finalist, Viefhaus -- who also has just three errors at third base -- makes a strong case in a crowded field.
DePaul: After a doubleheader split at St. John's on April 14, DePaul was 21-14 overall and 5-3 in the Big East, including losses against conference afterthoughts Villanova and St. John's. Thanks to a typically rigorous nonconference schedule (including wins against Washington, Hawaii, North Carolina and Fresno State), the Blue Demons weren't exactly in danger of missing the postseason for just the second time since Ryne Sandberg retired, but it wasn't shaping up as the kind of season many expected out of the preseason No. 20.
Eight games and eight wins later, things look a lot better in the Windy City (which makes one for the city's baseball and softball teams). The Blue Demons added to their winning streak this week by sweeping a midweek doubleheader at home against Notre Dame and then taking all three games at South Florida over the weekend. Taking over the cleanup role vacated when Simone Ashkar left the team earlier in the month, Brittney Yniguez went 7-for-20 with seven RBIs between the two series. And working under the tutelage of fellow Texan and pitching coach Cat Osterman, freshman Bree Brown pitched a pair of shutouts in the series against South Florida.
Texas Tech: Perhaps no team needed a week like this as much as Texas Tech, which swept a midweek doubleheader from Oklahoma State and took both games of a weekend series at Kansas. The Red Raiders roared out to a 28-4 start under first-year coach Shannon Hays (who gets bonus points for not needing the wasteful extra "e" in his last name), but while there were wins against Oregon, San Diego State and Florida, there also were a lot of wins against teams well outside the RPI top 100. A 3-8 Big 12 start raised doubts.
The heart of the Texas Tech order, Mikey Kenney and Emily Bledsoe, combined for eight hits and nine RBIs in the week's four games. Freshman Karli Merlich also came up big, earning a win in relief against the Cowgirls and going the distance in the finale against Kansas. All three are underclassmen on a roster with just four juniors and seniors.
UCLA: Strange as it feels to write during the last week of April, the No. 7 Bruins put up their first meaningful series win in Pac-10 play with the sweep of their three-game set at Stanford. If the previous weekend's sweep against Oregon State was one the Bruins had to have to keep pace in the conference race, this one offered more of a statement.
The Bruins tied a season high with 15 hits in the opener, including 12 hits from the first five batters in the order: GiOnna DiSalvatore, Monica Harrison, Megan Langenfeld, Andrea Harrison and Dani Yudin. Langenfeld added a pair of home runs and four RBIs in Sunday's finale, in addition to pitching all five innings in a 10-1 run-rule win. She might not be the best hitter or the best pitcher, but Langenfeld, who has missed 10 games this season, is as valuable as any player this side of Lawrie to a World Series contender.
Florida International: The Panthers kept pace with Sun Belt leader Louisiana-Lafayette by taking two of three at South Alabama over the weekend (Louisiana-Lafayette took two of three at Troy, while North Texas moved into a second-place tie after sweeping Western Kentucky). But the attention grabber of the week came courtesy of an 8-3 midweek win at No. 4 Florida.
The win against the Gators was the first in program history against a top-five team and adds a bit of shine to an NCAA tournament résumé that already featured a decent RPI but not a lot of signature wins. Senior Kasey Barrett went the distance with a five-hitter for that win. Barrett also struck out 15 in another complete game Sunday against South Alabama. Despite pitching one season at South Florida Community College, she's second all time at Florida International in both wins and strikeouts.
Bonus note: Florida's split of a weekend series at Tennessee puts Alabama in control of the SEC race. As Tommy Deas reports in the Tuscaloosa News, the Crimson Tide swept Arkansas on the road despite being without ace Kelsi Dunne because of a violation of team academic policy. If Alabama wins its last six SEC games, it wins the regular-season title.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Sometimes neither words nor pictures tell a story as well as sound.
A 2-1 overtime win against DePaul may or may not help save a season left teetering by a devastating injury to junior forward Ashley Jones. But whatever happens in the weeks ahead, what happened after Jones' injury Sunday told a story of this team and this season.
"For Ash Jones, period," Rutgers coach Glenn Crooks said of the day's work. "End of story; they did it for Ashley."
Jones was the player who had picked up the defensively gifted Scarlet Knights after season-ending injuries knocked out three top forwards -- Caycie Gusman, Merissa Smith and Jonelle Filigno -- and midfielder Gina DeMaio, second all-time in assists at Rutgers. A natural midfielder with four goals in 42 career games entering the season, Jones led the team with eight through 14 games this season. That includes the winner against Penn State in September, a result that launched the team on its ascent to No. 10 in the polls.
But with 22 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the first half of a physical game Sunday that appeared to get away from referee Giany Barbat on both ends, Jones went down following a collision in front of the DePaul goal. Play was halted for 28 minutes while medical personnel attended to her and eventually took her from the field in an ambulance. No official diagnosis was available immediately after the game, but it was later confirmed that Jones suffered two compound fractures -- tibia and fibula -- and underwent surgery Sunday night.
Trailing 1-0 at the time of the injury, Rutgers managed to make it into halftime without surrendering anything more on the scoreboard but also without showing much attacking presence of its own. In the locker room at halftime, Crooks tried to avoid letting an emotional team lose itself.
"The only thing that happened in there was I told them what Ashley told me," Crooks said. "And that was the only discussion about Ashley, and that was all they needed to hear. And we kept the tactics very simple. Normally I'll go in with three things on the attacking side, three things on the defensive side. I just said two things; I had to keep it simple. [Assistant coach Karina LeBlanc] made a good point. She said, 'They're so emotional; they're not even going to hear what you say.'"
Without Jones, one of the Big East's fastest players, the Scarlet Knights struggled for the remainder of the game to get the ball wide, but as the second half began, they nonetheless gradually began to control the flow of play. A penalty kick conversion from Jennifer Anzivino in the 58th minute off a DePaul hand ball tied the game, and with just more than five minutes remaining in the overtime session, Lancos laced her winner off a free kick.
Now the Scarlet Knights will have to go about the work of constructing a viable offense without arguably their five best attacking talents. Since beating Marquette last week, they've scored just two goals in the past three games.
But with every reason to give up on this day, Rutgers instead heeded the message Jones gave her coach before leaving the field.
In no uncertain terms, she told him to make sure they won the game.
For an answer, all you had to do was listen for the roar.
The Wolverines traveled every weekend for six weeks starting the first week in February and ending the second week in March. During that time they traveled to Florida twice, Nevada, Georgia, California and Kentucky. They played 15 games against opponents ranked in the Top 25.
And now the Wolverines are ranked seventh in the RPI.
Check the schedules. The better teams from the North and Midwest travel during the preseason. If you want to be the best, you have to be prepared for the road slog late in the season and play the best.
Michigan puts in the preseason travel time because without playing Big 10 teams, there is not enough competition around to prepare for league and postseason play. Missouri, Oklahoma and DePaul are among the other teams that travel often in the preseason for the same reasons. This year, they each traveled four weekends.
Jessica Merchant, a former national team member and national champion with Michigan who now coaches at UMass, recognizes the benefits of traveling in the preseason.
"Traveling a lot in the preseason has its pros and cons," Merchant said. "While it causes the student-athletes to miss a lot of class, which is not ideal, early preseason travel has the potential to create a hostile environment on the field that would simulate what a team might face in the postseason, which is important."
After traveling week after week in the preseason, teams get used to being on the road, taking care of schoolwork and living out of a suitcase. For many teams, league games can be pretty far from home. Michigan to Penn State is not close; neither is UCLA to Oregon or Missouri to Texas. Those teams that have been traveling together know the routine, are more comfortable together and are more inclined to have smooth transitions from home to away games.
In addition, when it comes time to play in regionals, super regionals and the WCWS, who knows where teams will travel. Knowing the travel routine and establishing chemistry off the field gives teams an edge over competition. This is why teams that travel early tend to succeed in postseason play.
Being able to adjust to grass and dirt in different locations is something that people take for granted. Playing surfaces can drastically differ from field to field and can change the way the ball moves. Being prepared to play on any surface during preseason play can give a team the advantage going into a regular-season game. After all, it takes only one bad hop to lose or win a game.
It is true that the athletes miss a lot of class during constant travel, as Merchant stated, but this is something that comes with the territory. It is good for student-athletes to get used to doing work on the road since it is something they will have to do throughout their careers.
Some may disagree and think that traveling early on wears teams out. However, teams that don't travel early and play a robust schedule may not have the RPI to make it into postseason.