Commentary

Hays: Win two or seeds are through

Originally Published: May 19, 2012
By Graham Hays

Valerie AriotoAP Photo/Thurman JamesValerie Arioto and top-seeded Cal are in danger of making the earliest exit ever for a No. 1 seed.

Of course this was the first time the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament lost a game before a regional final since the event took its current form in 2005. And of course that victim was California, playing at home in the postseason for the first time in two decades after holding down the No. 1 ranking through almost the entire regular season.

The most nonsensical NCAA tournament in recent memory needed an exclamation point that made no sense at all.

The first two full days of the tournament were confounding, chaotic, compelling and a host of other adjectives that begin with other letters. Seeds tumbled, bats shattered, calls were botched, a pedigreed program almost imploded before our eyes and winning runs scored on everything from walk-off home runs to illegal pitches.

Heck, LSU even loaded the bases. Twice.

The bracket toll is remarkable. Six seeded teams must win twice Sunday to stave off elimination. A seventh seeded team, UCLA, won't get even that chance after going "two-and-barbecue" for the first time in program history, exiting after losses at home against Hofstra and Florida State. In addition to its other dubious feat, Cal also became just the second No. 1 seed to lose a game at any point in a regional. At least it gets a chance to redeem itself Sunday.

This was supposed to be the year of the chalk, the tournament's 16 national seeds allowed to host regionals after tweaks to a bracketing system that previously favored geography in determining sites, often forcing seeded teams to play on an opponent's home field. Instead, chaos is cruising and conventional wisdom is mired in the losers' bracket on the verge of elimination.

[+] EnlargeJolene Henderson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCal's Jolene Henderson, shown here during a game earlier this season, pitched well in relief in Saturday's upset loss against Arkansas.

A year ago at this time, only three seeded teams entered regional finals needing to win twice (a fourth, Texas, had been eliminated earlier). Missouri won twice at home against DePaul, while Tennessee was eliminated at home in the first game against Oklahoma State and Michigan was similarly eliminated at home after one try against Kentucky.

Since the NCAA added super regionals in 2005, 25 teams have been eliminated at home in a regional final. The catch is, only nine of those teams were seeded. That number could nearly double in a few hours Sunday.

So where do things stand for the teams looking to keep the madness going?

Austin regional: Northwestern (2-0) vs. No. 6 Texas (2-1)

Haven't had enough crazy yet? The last team in the tournament (the Wildcats were the only at-large team to be seeded fourth in a regional), Northwestern could conceivably reach a super regional and still not be guaranteed to finish the season with a winning record. A day after the Wildcats recorded just their second shutout of the season in a win against Texas, they matched a program record with 17 hits in a 13-9 win against Houston. With players such as Adrienne Monka (HR, 4 RBIs vs. Houston) and Marisa Bast (4 RBIs), this team has the offense to get one more win in Austin. The question is, how close to the edge are the Wildcats living in the circle? Amy Letourneau has two wins in two appearances, but she also has 16 walks in 12 2/3 innings.

Berekely regional: Arkansas (2-0) vs. No. 1 Cal (2-1)

Softball is a sport that lends itself to the occasional one-game stunner, but considering Arkansas finished ninth in the SEC and played this game on the road against the only team in the tournament that ranks in the top 10 in the nation in ERA, runs per game and fielding percentage, a 3-2 win for the underdog has to at least enter the conversation for biggest upset. Entering the tournament, Cal had allowed just nine first-inning runs all season, but the Razorbacks got three against Valerie Arioto on big hits from Clarisa Navarro and the fabulously named Jennifer Rambo. Now comes the hard part. Arkansas made a habit of taking a game from top teams -- Cal joins a list that includes Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia -- but one was all it got in three-game series against those SEC foes.

College Station regional: LSU (2-0) vs. No. 8 Texas A&M (2-1)

The fans in College Station are known for providing arguably the most intimidating atmosphere in college softball, but they might have met their match in LSU's Rachele Fico. If her team's offensive woes this season didn't unnerve her, a few jeers and stomps aren't likely to do much. On the heels of Saturday's 2-0 upset win against No. 8 Texas A&M, LSU has been involved in 24 games this season that ended by scores of 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1. Fico was just 4-7 in such games entering the tournament, but one run of support against Texas State and two more against the Aggies were enough to give her two wins, and put the Tigers within a win of a super regional for the first time since 2007.

[+] EnlargeRachel Fico
John Korduner / Icon SMILSU pitcher Rachel Fico has thrown back-to-back shutouts in the tournament, including a 2-0 win against No. 8 Texas A&M on Saturday.

Assuming Fico gets the first shot Sunday, ahead of Brittany Mack in any potential second game, she likely will still need to be perfect. But the return of outfielder Simone Heyward has given a boost to a lineup that needed some kind of spark. Coming off an injury, Heyward had a hit and a walk in each of the team's first two wins in College Station.

Gainesville regional: South Florida (2-0) vs. No. 5 Florida (2-1)

Saturday couldn't have worked out much better for the Bulls. Perhaps coach Ken Eriksen would have given the ball to No. 2 pitcher Lindsey Richardson regardless of the opponent, but facing Florida Gulf Coast instead of Florida made it a safer gambit. Ace Sara Nevins came on in the fourth inning and finished out the 8-3 win, but sparing her half a day's work is no small thing. Florida's Hannah Rogers will need to throw at least three games in three days (in addition to the two innings of relief she threw against Florida Gulf Coast in Saturday's elimination game) if her team is to complete its comeback. That's hardly an unmanageable workload for Rogers, but every edge helps against a Gators team that is down but not out after two wins.

Knoxville regional: Virginia Tech (2-0) vs. No. 7 Tennessee (2-1)

The Hokies played 18 NCAA tournament games during Angela Tincher's four seasons in Blacksburg, the sum total of the program's tournament experience prior to this season, and scored as many as six runs in a game just once. So a 6-0 win against Miami might not sound like an offensive outburst, especially when all 12 hits were singles, but it's significant for a team now one win from a milestone for any program -- advancing in May after a once-in-a-generation pitcher moves on. Not that this team is without pitching, as Jasmin Harrell demonstrated in improving to 31-14 with a three-hit shutout against the Redhawks.

The Hokies enter Sunday's action with the upper hand, but more than any other unseeded team in a similar position, they need to win the first game and be done with it. Throwing a tired Harrell in a second game against a Tennessee team with a presumably rested Renfroe sister (Ellen or Ivy) in the circle would not bode well for a second super regional appearance.

Louisville regional: Michigan (2-0) vs. No. 15 Louisville (2-1)

Michigan had home-field advantage and a senior All-American in the circle when it lost to Kentucky in a regional last season. Unseeded this time around, it handed the ball to a freshman and watched her beat Kentucky in the Bluegrass State on Friday. Then Haylie Wagner did it again against No. 15 Louisville on Saturday. Does Western Kentucky want any? Michigan benefitted from a blown call at third base in the 2-1 win against the Cardinals, the runner ruled safe eventually scoring on a walk-off hit-by-pitch. But Wagner held the Big East champions to three hits in eight innings, a day after limiting the Wildcats to six hits in a complete-game win. Louisville should have a big edge Sunday with its three-pitcher rotation. Wagner's first two games suggest otherwise.

Seattle regional: No. 16 Washington (2-0) vs. Harvard (2-1)

Granted, Washington needs just one win to advance, but an Ivy League team playing in a regional final doesn't happen every year. In fact, since Princeton made back-to-back World Series appearances in 1995 and 1996 (winning regionals against teams from the same geographic area), no Ivy team had more than one tournament win. But after a 2-0 loss against Washington on Friday, the Crimson won a pair of elimination games Saturday, 3-2 against Maryland and 2-0 against Texas Tech. Ace Rachel Brown allowed just eight hits in 15 innings on the day.

Pitcher of the day: Olivia Galati, Hofstra Galati wrapped up Friday's win against UCLA too late for the day's notebook, so it's only fair she get a double dose. She certainly earned it through the first two games of the regional. Hofstra's ace struck out 12, and allowed just two hits and one walk in a 1-0 win against San Diego State to advance her team to the regional final. That came on the heels of a 14-strikeout effort against the Bruins the previous day. How well are things going for someone working on a 29-game winning streak? The senior didn't even have a true changeup when she arrived at Hofstra, but after UCLA's Stephany LaRosa hit that pitch for a home run in the sixth inning of Friday's game, Galati went back to it to strike out LaRosa with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Hofstra's 7-2 win. It's her world right now.

Player of the day: Lexy Bennett, Texas

Credit where credit is due. Texas said it was going to come out fighting after an opening loss against Northwestern, and it did just that in piling up 16 runs in comfortable wins against Auburn and Houston. The Longhorns still have work to do to avoid elimination at home for the third year in a row, but at least they earned the right to try to do it in a regional final, something they didn't do in the past. No hitter did more for the cause than Bennett, who set the tone with a home run in the first inning against Auburn and added another home run to go with four runs scored against Houston. Everything rides on two wins Sunday for Texas, but there is a Sunday. That's a start.

Regional winner of the day: Oregon All right, No. 11 Oregon doesn't have a lot of competition for this title. The Eugene regional wrapped up a day ahead of the rest of the bracket because of BYU's presence, but we've gone this far without mentioning the one team that knows it will still be playing softball next week (where it will be playing is another matter). Truth be told, the Ducks didn't make many waves in cruising to a 3-0 record, and that's a good sign. Ace Jessica Moore posted her best line of the regional in Saturday's 4-1 win against BYU, allowing six hits and one earned run in a complete game, but she was steady through a pair of wins against the Cougars and one against Portland State. It didn't hurt that the Ducks committed just three errors in three games after committing 82 in 54 games in the regular season.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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