Hays: A mess in Texas, and in Florida
Preview: Louisville Regional
Reflects Friday games completed as of 11 p.m. ET.
Paris really is that beautiful. Crystl Bustos really can hit a softball that far. It really does rain that much in Seattle. Those things everybody says? Sometimes they say them for a reason.
And Texas really is the team that can't figure out the postseason.
The sixth-seeded Longhorns were not the strongest seed to fall on the first full day of play in the NCAA tournament, though fall they did in a 2-0 loss at home against Northwestern. That dubious distinction went to fifth-seeded Florida in a loss against Florida Gulf Coast, but while the net result still leaves the Gators one loss from elimination in Gainesville, they at least had extenuating circumstances after three starters were suspended indefinitely for undisclosed reasons.
Tennessee finds itself on the brink of elimination, too, but the No. 7 seed fell victim to softball's version of a story as old as time, falling to a red-hot pitcher in a 1-0 loss against Miami and Jessica Simpson.
Texas, on the other hand, is fresh out of excuses after its record fell to 2-5 in the past three tournaments, all on its home field in Austin.
The Longhorns were too young and too inexperienced when they lost back-to-back one-run decisions in 2010 against BYU and East Carolina, respectively. They needed time to learn the postseason ropes.
They were older last year, when they lost two in a row against Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette, but they didn't have All-American Lexy Bennett as anything more than a pinch-running shadow of herself after a late-season injury felled her and shook the lineup's confidence.
Or so the thinking went.
The Longhorns started six juniors or seniors against Northwestern on Friday night, six players presumably all too aware that no win can be taken for granted in the postseason. They had Bennett in the middle of the order, the star doing her part and more with two hits, two walks and a stolen base in four plate appearances.
They still need to win four games in two days to advance, beginning with an elimination game against Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
They lost despite getting 14 strikeouts from ace Blaire Luna. They lost despite drawing nine walks to go with five hits against Northwestern's Amy Letourneau, whose perseverance trumped any imperfections. The Longhorns left 13 runners on base in being shut out for the fifth time this season.
At this point, nobody wants to see another early exit, outside of the other teams in Austin -- and perhaps Texas A&M. Bennett, Nadia Taylor and Courtney Craig are too talented not to reach a super regional at least once in their careers. Luna and fellow junior Taylor Hoagland are too much fun to watch. But while Texas coaches and players said all the right things after the loss about coming out and fighting Saturday, it's difficult not to think of coach Connie Clark's preseason thoughts about why this year might be different.
"We talked about team unity and having just a better approach as a team and being there for each other a little bit more," Clark said at the time."Just really strengthening our inward circle of Texas softball a little bit. I think we were good in that regard, but we also feel like we can be great in that regard, and that may be the difference maker. This team is very committed to that. If we can combine that with some great experience, and obviously we do feel like we have talent that matches up with anybody, that it can be a great experience for us this year."
If that's the case, how are we to explain another loss at home in the postseason?
If Texas goes on a run and finds itself with games to play next week in a super regional, it can revel in dismissing all the doubters. The Longhorns can play the respect card all the way to Oklahoma City, rallying around the idea that they were the only ones who believed. More power to them if they do because they are fun to watch.
But they don't get the benefit of the doubt. Not anymore. Not after the most predictable upset of the tournament.
Trouble in Gainesville: The tournament's No. 5 seed, a team seeking a fifth consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series, lost at home against Florida Gulf Coast, and the result wasn't even the biggest Gators-related story of the day out of Gainesville. Or, at the very least, the loss was only a function of the bigger story.
Before Florida took the field Friday, but after all three players reportedly practiced Thursday, coach Tim Walton suspended starters Cheyenne Coyle and sisters Sami and Kasey Fagan. After the game, Walton said the disciplinary measures for all three were indefinite suspensions that would last through the end of the season. The coach declined to elaborate on the reason for separating the players from the team.
The long-term story is what the future holds for players who were seemingly locked in as starters for the next two seasons, in the case of Coyle and Kasey Fagan, and the next three seasons in the case of Sami Fagan. But short of speculation on what isn't yet known, the more immediate story is what hope the Gators have of rallying for four wins in a row without those players. The offense had been in a collective slump for weeks, and Sami Fagan had been one of the few bright spots at the top of the order.
There was a bit of good news for Walton's team in the return of Brittany Schutte. A proven slugger with a track record of postseason success, Schutte hadn't played since suffering a broken jaw March 2. She didn't travel with the team for its final regular-season series at Alabama or the Southeastern Conference tournament, at which time Walton indicated a return wasn't likely. Assuming she is fully healthy, having her back could compensate for much of the production lost to the suspensions, especially with All-American Michelle Moultrie moving back to the leadoff role in which she seems more comfortable and most productive.
May Madness: Your eyes did not deceive you. Friday really was a day to remember, complete with upsets, comebacks, crazy plays and a return to the low-scoring softball of tournaments long past. Of the 28 games completed as of 11 p.m. ET, including Thursday's pair of games in the Eugene regional, 14 were won by teams that scored three or fewer runs. That happened just 27 times in 99 regional games last season. Additionally, there were 19 one-run games in those 99 regional games last season. So far this year, there already have been 11 such games.
Pitcher of the day: Jessica Simpson, Miami. Is it more impressive to pitch three complete games in one day to get your team to the NCAA tournament or join former Arizona All-American Taryne Mowatt as the only pitchers to beat Tennessee by 1-0 scores in the NCAA tournament? Fresh, so to speak, off winning three games on the final day of the Mid-American Conference tournament last weekend, Simpson blanked the Lady Vols in Knoxville to put Miami in the winner's bracket against Virginia Tech. Simpson struck out six and allowed five hits and one walk in going the distance. The Redhawks and Hokies played once this season, the Hokies coming away with a 6-5 win in 10 innings, but Simpson only came on in relief in that game.
Player of the day: Alicja Wolny, Louisville. There are too many candidates to count, Arizona's Kristen Arriola (6 RBIs, HR vs. North Dakota State), Texas A&M's Meagan May (5 RBIs, 2 HR vs. Bethune-Cookman), Michigan's Sara Driesenga (two-run, walk-off hit vs. Kentucky after Michigan blew a lead in the top of the seventh) notable among them. But at least by the criteria of necessity and sheer distance traveled, Louisville's Wolny came up as big as any player. Wolny saved the Big East champions from an upset with a three-run walk-off homer in a 6-4 win against Valparaiso, part of her three hits and four RBIs on the day. That it took such heroics for the Cardinals to dispatch of the Crusaders is one thing, although the Horizon League champions earned plenty of respect with their play, but a win is a win in the NCAA tournament. Especially on this day.
Play of the day: Jessica Mouse, South Florida. She may have equals, but good luck to the person who tries to argue there is anyone better at playing a position than Mouse is at playing third base. Great at LSU for three seasons, she has been great in her first and last season at South Florida. And the Bulls can thank her for keeping them in the winner's bracket in Gainesville. With Central Florida down a run with two outs and runners on second and third, Mouse climbed the ladder on a line drive that seemed destined for the outfield. Check it out for yourself here and enjoy the best glove in college softball.
Tough luck of the day: Auburn. What should have been a good bit of strategy by Auburn coach Tina Deese backfired when Houston scored the go-ahead run in its 2-1 win courtesy of an illegal pitch called against Angel Bunner. The Tigers have three good pitchers, none of whom are quite the level of dominant ace it makes sense to ride exclusively in the postseason. So Deese used all three against the Cougars, a move that limited her opponent's ability to make adjustments to any one pitcher. It's a gambit that probably isn't used enough in the postseason by teams that have pitching depth, but the flip side is Brunner didn't have any time to adjust to what would or would not be called illegal (sure, it isn't supposed to be a subjective call, but like so many things in officiating across sports, it's called far less than it's done). She was called for illegal pitches twice after coming on with one runner on in the top of the seventh, and the second plated the eventual winning run.