A look at softball's weekend ahead
Illinois-Chicago at Cleveland State
The top three seeds in the Horizon League get a pass on the first set of games in the double-elimination conference tournament, so as enticing as this is, the series between the conference's current top two teams isn't going to settle anything. (Third-place Wright State also visits fourth-place Loyola this weekend.) Cleveland State ace Amanda Macenko has nearly 100 more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the league.
Maryland at Virginia Tech
Does the ACC get a fourth team into the NCAA tournament? Virginia Tech is 7-8 in the league but five games under .500 overall with nine to play before the ACC tournament. Mathematically, the Hokies could lose one or two more. Realistically, they need them all. Maryland has more to work with. The Terrapins have stopped hitting in league play (.314 slugging percentage), but sophomore Kerry Hickey has a 1.90 ERA despite three starts and a relief appearance against North Carolina and Florida State.
UNLV at Colorado State
Friday's game in Fort Collins is part of a bigger weekend for both teams. UNLV has a reasonably strong at-large profile for the NCAA tournament, but at 2-6 in conference play, that profile can't really afford a loss at Colorado State or New Mexico the following two days. Meanwhile, Colorado State is 4-3 in the league but is buried in the RPI. Yet if the Rams could somehow sweep the weekend at home against UNLV and San Diego State, the Mountain West would get much more interesting.
No. 7 Northwestern at Illinois
Jenna Hall has been gone for a few years, but folks in Champaign-Urbana should still be familiar with the intentional walk. And as the Illini look for at least one win that would go a long way toward cementing their NCAA tournament at-large profile, they may want to use the free pass against Northwestern's Adrienne Monka. The freshman earned NFCA Player of the Week honors last week and is slugging .919 this season. Then again, whom are you pitching to instead? Erin Dyer went 5-for-8 with a pair of home runs against Illinois last season.
Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State
The second-best home team in the Big West hosts the league's most successful road team, a week after Long Beach separated itself as the lone challenger to Fullerton and Cal Poly. Pitching ruled last season's series, with just 11 runs scored as Fullerton took two of three, but with the exception of Brooke Turner, it'll be new faces in the circle this time around. Ari Cervantes has been excellent for Fullerton in league play (1.72 ERA), and first baseman K.C. Craddick is hitting .448 against the Big West, compared to .130 out of conference.
No. 13 North Carolina at No. 20 Georgia Tech
We're back to the ACC, where Georgia Tech looks to make up some or all of a 2½-game deficit behind first-place North Carolina. Add in Wednesday's doubleheader against Alabama, and it's a make-or-break week for the Yellow Jackets in terms of claiming a seed in the NCAA tournament. Georgia Tech has beaten North Carolina twice in the teams' past eight meetings. During that span, the Yellow Jackets have pushed across just 10 earned runs in 45 innings against current Tar Heels Lisa Norris and Danielle Spaulding.
No. 15 Tennessee at No. 11 Georgia
Strictly speaking, there's not a lot on the line here beyond conference tournament seeding. But with Alabama looming next week, Tennessee could use a road win or two to feel better about a potential NCAA tournament seed. Likewise, a strong closing push for the Bulldogs would help ensure a potential super regional in Athens. And after scoring seven runs in seven games against Washington, Florida and Alabama, it's another chance for the Bulldogs to prove that their otherwise prolific offensive numbers are indeed legit.
No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 10 Missouri
Two of the highest-profile programs unwilling to post their statistics online (making them more secretive than Nick Saban and Charlie Weis) meet in Columbia. The three runs Texas Tech scored in a 10-3 loss against Missouri last week marked only the third time in 15 games that an opponent scored more than two. Both teams are justifiably known for offense, but might this be the week that Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine's pitching depth and innovative bullpen philosophy gain a deserved spotlight?
No. 2 UCLA at No. 8 Arizona State
As usual in the Pac-10, UCLA and Washington swap places for single games Friday. Arizona State freshman Hillary Bach seems to be taking the Pac-10 learning curve with all four wheels on the ground. She's one of only three pitchers with an ERA of less than 3.00 in league play (2.42), joining UCLA's do-everything starter-reliever-slugger Megan Langenfeld and Washington's Danielle Lawrie. And while everyone's line is what it is for a reason, it's worth noting she has a 0.94 ERA in her six conference starts that didn't involve Arizona.
No. 3 Washington at No. 9 Arizona
It's the best offense in the nation against the best pitcher in the nation in a pair of games that will go a long way toward determining whether the conference title is done and dusted for the Wildcats or up for grabs in the final two weekends. What else needs to be said?