- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Starting with No. 1 Cal, here are the players to watch and storylines to follow at the Women's College World Series:
No. 1 California (56-5)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Berkeley regional (4-1), won Berkeley super regional (2-0 vs. No. 16 Washington)
Three Golden Bears to watch
Valerie Arioto: The fifth-year senior always seems to be smiling. Then again, the best player in college softball has a lot to smile about. Arioto plays in the toughest conference in the country and still reaches base 63 percent of the time, courtesy of the best batting eye in the sport. She doesn't get cheated when she chooses to swing, either. Her .962 slugging percentage is third in the nation and her 23 home runs are in the top five. Nor is she just a hitter. If called on to pitch in Oklahoma City, she'll bring a 20-3 record, a 1.32 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 127 innings to the circle.
Jolene Henderson: Some pitchers throw harder and strike out a few more hitters than Henderson. Some stand taller in the circle than the 5-foot-8 junior. None competes harder than Henderson, who threw back-to-back shutouts in the super regional against Washington and has allowed just three earned runs in 42 2/3 innings this postseason. She got more rest this season because of Arioto's return after missing 2011 with an injury, and appears to be peaking at precisely the right moment.
Jamia Reid: California brings a much more powerful lineup to the Women's College World Series this season than the one that often had to manufacture runs en route to Oklahoma City last season, but Reid ensures it isn't a one-dimensional offense. The senior leadoff hitter's 47 stolen bases are the most in the WCWS field. With 80 singles and just two walks, she's an all-or-nothing slapper, but if she keeps reaching base against WCWS-caliber pitching, it'll make this lineup close to unstoppable.
Two storylines for the Golden Bears
Unfamiliar surroundings. This doesn't apply to most of the Cal roster, which is a big reason a team that returned essentially everyone from last season's WCWS trip was a preseason title favorite this time around. But Cal's success this season also has a lot to do with freshmen Cheyenne Cordes, Danielle Henderson and Breana Kostreba adding power to the lineup. Those three have 35 home runs between them, one more than the entire team hit last season. It was Cordes who hit the two-run home run that clinched Cal's place in Oklahoma City.
Pack the gloves. Tennessee has the best fielding percentage. Alabama may have the best trio of outfielders. Arizona State always plays good defense. But if you have to pick one defense to play behind you, take Cal's. That said, the Bears committed three errors in two games in the super regional after committing just 32 in the previous 59 games. Jolene Henderson keeps the ball on the ground, meaning third baseman Danielle Henderson (Jolene's sister), shortstop Cordes, second baseman Jace Williams and first baseman Arioto need to have her back.
No. 2 Alabama (55-7)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Tuscaloosa regional (3-0), won Tuscaloosa super regional (2-0 vs. Michigan)
Three Crimson Tide to watch
Kaila Hunt: The sophomore shortstop is not a prototypical Alabama hitter -- on a team featuring five starters with on-base percentages of better than .450, Hunt's is a modest .383 despite a .324 batting average. But her aggression is put to good use amid all of those teammates piling up on the bases. Hunt leads the team in home runs (20), RBIs (74) and slugging percentage (.747), and seems to add to those numbers when her team most needs the hits.
Amanda Locke: Kayla Braud, Jennifer Fenton and Hunt give the Crimson Tide a top three in the batting order that is as good, if not better, than any other trio in the country. But extending that danger zone for opponents to a fourth spot could be the difference between a weekend exit and a spot in the championship series in Oklahoma City. A fifth-year senior with both prodigious power and subtle bat control, Locke was arguably the most valuable hitter in the SEC during the regular season, but she's mired in a hitless NCAA tournament slump.
Jackie Traina: The big moment has gotten the better of Alabama in past World Series, most recently in the semifinals last season against Florida, but Traina seems made for such occasions. She lights up the radar gun and makes the ball move, but her mental toughness in the circle sets her apart. As a hitter, she came to the plate just once in the super regional but usually takes a place in the middle of the order when she pitches. Her .644 slugging percentage is third on the team.
Two storylines for the Crimson Tide
The Nick Saban corollary. We saw one Alabama team win a national championship this year on the strength of a dominant defense. That side of the game isn't the softball team's greatest asset, but it can't be a liability if the Crimson Tide are to win it all. Alabama's outfield range might be the best in the WCWS, and the infield, particularly third baseman Courtney Conley, is capable of making sensational plays. But the Crimson Tide also have a penchant for letting routine plays get away from them.
Get your rest. A double-elimination tournament provides margin for error, but Alabama has less than other top contenders in Oklahoma City. Locke made quality pitching starts in the SEC tournament and the NCAA regional, but the ball has to be in Traina's hand for this team to win a national championship. Arizona's Taryne Mowatt proved a one-pitcher team can do that through the loser's bracket, but to a greater degree than California, Arizona State or even Oklahoma, the Tide need to avoid playing two games in one day.
No. 3 Arizona State (51-9)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Tempe regional (3-1), won Tempe super regional (2-1 vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette)
Three Sun Devils to watch
Katelyn Boyd: You can't pitch around Arizona State's leadoff hitter because she'll end up on second base (22 stolen bases), but she's not going to help you out by expanding her strike zone (49 walks, 10 strikeouts). Pitch to her, and you risk giving up more than a base: her 38 extra-base hits led the team and her .901 slugging percentage put her among the national leaders. And just for good measure, you can't get runs back against her; she's committed just eight errors all season at shortstop and has excellent range and a strong arm.
Alix Johnson: There is always another star in the pipeline for a program like Arizona State, just as Boyd followed in the footsteps of Kaitlin Cochran. A sophomore, Johnson sure looks like the next in the queue. A starter as a freshman who posted a .462 on-base percentage but a more modest .471 slugging percentage, she enters the WCWS with a .786 slugging percentage, second on the team, and 27 extra-base hits. Her home run in the first inning of a winner-take-all game in the super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette set the tone for what became a rout.
Annie Lockwood: The senior first baseman is one of just three Sun Devils, along with Boyd and Elizabeth Caporuscio, who started all 60 games this season through super regionals. That's as it should be for a player who doesn't cast the same sort of shadow as Boyd or Dallas Escobedo but provides the kind of superior lineup depth that sets a real contender apart from the crowd. She totaled nine hits, eight RBIs and three home runs in last season's WCWS.
Two storylines for the Sun Devils
A tale of two pitchers. It was the Dallas Escobedo show for Arizona State last season, when the freshman threw 255 1/3 innings en route to a national championship. No other pitcher on the team was within 150 innings of her. But as the Sun Devils return to Oklahoma City, Escobedo has thrown 191 innings, while senior Hillary Bach has thrown 136 2/3, including a complete game with the season on the line in the super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette. Bach's resurgence gives coach Clint Myers options. It also gives him the opportunity to choose the wrong pitcher.
Welcome to Oklahoma City. Players like Bach, Boyd, Escobedo and Lockwood are familiar with the pomp and circumstance of the WCWS -- and between banquets, interviews and huge crowds, it is unlike anything else in the sport. But on the whole, this is a young Arizona State team that routinely starts more freshmen and sophomores than upperclassmen. Newcomers like center fielder Caporuscio, catcher Amber Freeman and third baseman Haley Steele need to show the same poise predecessors Lesley Rogers, Kaylyn Castillo and Krista Donnenwirth did.
No. 4 Oklahoma (50-8)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Norman regional (3-0), won Norman super regional (2-0 vs. No. 13 Arizona)
Three Sooners to watch
Lauren Chamberlain: A native Californian herself, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso keeps raiding the Golden State for stars. Chamberlain is the newest transplant, and she took an instant liking to the Midwest -- or at least the pitchers she faced there. The freshman leads Oklahoma with 27 home runs, 71 RBIs and an .869 slugging percentage. The first number gave her the program's season record in home runs and the other two put her in contention for the same in those categories.
Jessica Shults: The All-America catcher appears intent on making up for lost time. She missed almost all of the postseason a year ago after she was diagnosed late in the campaign with the disease ulcerative colitis. The team wasn't the same without her, missing both her bat and her personality. Both are back, and Shults hit .643 with three home runs in the regional and super regional triumphs, boosting her season numbers to 19 home runs and a 1.242 OPS.
Brianna Turang: Oklahoma's best offensive trait is its ability to put up big numbers with big hits, but some components are valuable precisely because they operate on a smaller scale. Turang, who pulls double duty as a member of OU's soccer team, is best one base at a time. The team's leading hitter in the postseason a season ago, she's at it again with a .750 batting average, a .800 on-base percentage and four stolen bases in five games this postseason.
Two storylines for the Sooners
The unstoppable Keilani Ricketts. No team was more impressive in reaching the WCWS than Oklahoma, which outscored opponents 45-5 in the first two weeks of the tournament. No player was more impressive in that march than Ricketts. The All-American started and won all five games in the circle, striking out 49 against just five walks and one earned run. She also hit .467 with two home runs. All of which was in line with her season at large. She isn't going to steal the spotlight from Kevin Durant this week, but playing in front of the locals in Oklahoma City, she has both the pressure to bring the Sooners their second title and the opportunity to become a school legend.
Pack the house. With Shults not herself and Chamberlain not yet around, Oklahoma didn't stick around the WCWS long enough last season to make much of an impression at the gate in its first appearance since 2004. But if the Sooners fare better this season, particularly if they manage to reach the best-of-three championship series next week (when attendance typically slips from weekend highs), attendance records should fall by the wayside.
No. 7 Tennessee (52-12)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Knoxville regional (4-1), won Knoxville super regional (2-1 vs. No. 10 Georgia)
Three Lady Vols to watch
Shelby Burchell: The senior struggled for much of the season to match a breakout junior effort in which she hit .325 with 15 home runs and a 1.099 OPS, but Burchell is coming around at the right time. After three hits from near the bottom of the order in the team's first NCAA tournament game, she found herself batting either fourth or fifth for the rest of the regional and super regional. She's patient and is second on the team in walks, but it's her power the team needs.
Raven Chavanne: It hasn't been an easy junior season for Chavanne, who missed time early with a shoulder injury and late with concussion-like symptoms, but she continues to make hitting look like a breeze. Chavanne enters the WCWS hitting .433 with a .495 on-base percentage and 28 stolen bases. Teams are going to have to get her out -- in more than 200 plate appearances, she's struck out just six times -- and once she starts running, that's not easy.
Lauren Gibson: Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said he worked with only one player who had superior bat speed to Gibson: Crystl Bustos. That's pretty good company to keep. The diminutive Gibson is an outstanding defensive second baseman (she is the incumbent starter at the position for Team USA), but her bat is her best asset. She had some ups and downs at the plate during the regular season and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but her 1.038 OPS leads the team.
Two storylines for the Lady Vols
Renfroe and Renfroe. Tennessee isn't the only team in the WCWS with options in the circle, but it is the only one choosing between sisters. And it may well be the only one in which it's hard to point to either pitcher as the clear first choice. Younger sister Ellen Renfroe started more games overall this season and is the more dominant strikeout pitcher when she's on her game, but older sister Ivy is the one with World Series experience from two seasons go and who started two of three games in last weekend's super regional against Georgia.
Finding a power supply. Weekly wanted to find a little more balance between power and speed this season after watching conference rivals like Alabama and Florida slug their way to success in recent seasons. With just 44 home runs and .435 slugging percentage this season, the Lady Vols still aren't a juggernaut in that department, but Gibson, shortstop Madison Shipman and even Burchell give them some potential. The pitching, defense and speed are good enough to take this team to the title series, but finding a power source in Oklahoma City would put it on even footing with the top seeds.
No. 11 Oregon (44-16)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Eugene regional (3-0), won Austin super regional (2-1 vs. No. 6 Texas)
Three Ducks to watch
Kelsey Chambers: Twin sisters Kelsey and Lindsey Chambers, seniors who form the starting left side of the infield, are the only players on the roster who have played for an Oregon team that wasn't coached by Mike White. A shortstop who showed flashes of offensive potential her first three seasons, hitting .301 as a sophomore and slugging .574 as a junior, Kelsey put it all together this season, maintaining the power while boosting her on-base percentage from .313 last season to .391 this season.
Jessica Moore: Oregon's ace might struggle to avoid finishing eighth when it comes to the name recognition of WCWS aces, but Moore doesn't give much ground to any of her counterparts when it comes to value. No pitcher in Oklahoma City has as many starts this season as Moore (44). She struggles at times with her walk rate, but she is not going to break mentally. She's even started pitching in, so to speak, by taking turns at the plate recently as the lineup tries to compensate for the loss of Courtney Ceo to a season-ending injury.
Samantha Pappas: Oregon ranked second in the Pac-12 in batting average during conference play but didn't have a single player crack the top 10. As that suggests, it's a team effort at the plate, but if you want to pick one bat to worry about as an opponent, start with Pappas. The most complete offensive player on the roster, she leads the team in batting average (.396) and stolen bases (21), but she was also one of just eight Pac-12 players to slug better than .700 in conference play (along with teammates Kailee Cuico and Christie Nieto).
Two storylines for the Ducks
The defense can't rest. This team is below average defensively. There is no way around that. The Ducks have committed 88 errors through 60 games, 27 more than any other Pac-12 team and 24 more than any other team in the WCWS. But they kept the mistakes to a minimum in a super regional win against Texas, committing just one error in each of the three games. If they can repeat that and be average in the field, the hitting and pitching can keep them around.
Pushing the right buttons. Mike White and his staff, including assistant coach and former UCLA standout Lisa Dodd, have shown they can coach a little, taking a moribund program to back-to-back super regionals in their first two seasons and the WCWS in their third season. After a contentious super regional in Austin that saw passions run hot on both sides and Cuico ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct after a collision at the plate, the challenge for the coaches will be dialing in the right energy level to avoid burning out before Thursday.
Road to Oklahoma City: Won College Station regional (3-0), won Columbia super regional (2-1 vs. No. 9 Missouri)
Three Tigers to watch
Simone Heyward: When you're struggling the way LSU's offense was at the end of the regular season, even small improvement helps. In this case, small improvement in the form of the 5-foot Heyward helped a lot. A hand injury limited the sophomore's availability for much of the regular season, but she has been a constant presence near the top of the order in the postseason. Fast with enough power to get the ball into the gaps, she's given the lineup a boost. Ignore the .214 batting average and focus on the .395 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases.
Rachele Fico: The junior doesn't show a lot of emotion, but all you need to know about her competitive fire came after she eliminated Missouri in a super regional. A day after Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine dismissed an LSU win by saying his team had figured out Fico and that her teammates hit only "one ball on the barrel" all game, she said of beating Earleywine's team a second time: "We had a little bit of a rough start, and they were definitely barreling up on the ball -- they were putting some solid balls into play. But as the game went on, we definitely got stronger and gained momentum." She didn't call him out by name, didn't give it away with a smile. But she made it clear she remembered.
Brittany Mack: The senior pitcher who battled injuries through parts of her time in Baton Rouge is the more outwardly emotive of LSU's two aces. And while she doesn't match Fico's overall numbers this season, her ERA more than a run higher at 2.21, she is capable of shutting down any lineup on a given day. As important, she works well with her younger counterpart in the circle. The two are good friends who help each other pick up tendencies and vulnerabilities in opponents.
Two storylines for the Tigers
All the runs they need. Last time we saw an offense with numbers like LSU brings to Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech went 0-2 with Angela Tincher in 2008. That's the bad news for the Tigers. The good news is Virginia Tech nearly won both of those games, losing 1-0 to Texas A&M on a run in the sixth inning and 2-0 in nine innings against Florida. Neither Fico nor Mack is Tincher, but the combination of the two is at least a reasonable facsimile. LSU needs only one or two runs to have a chance, and it has proved more and more capable of providing that the past two weeks.
The encore won't be easy. Beth Torina is making life difficult for herself. What is a coach supposed to do for an encore after leading a team to the WCWS in her first year? Torina's energy was a good fit this season for a team that could easily have turned on itself or simply given up amid all the tough losses and offensive woes of the final month of the regular season and conference tournament.
South Florida (50-12)
Road to Oklahoma City: Won Gainesville regional (3-0), won Tampa super regional (2-1 vs. Hofstra)
Three Bulls to watch
Jessica Mouse: If it's worth the price of admission to watch Jessica Mendoza and Crystl Bustos take batting practice, it's worth the same to watch Mouse take infield. The LSU transfer is a more valuable offensive player than a .272 batting average suggests (good plate discipline translates to a .364 on-base percentage and she leads the team with 12 sacrifice hits), but her defense at third base sets her apart. She has it all at the hot corner -- instincts, positioning and arm strength.
Sara Nevins: South Florida's ace is not a one-woman show in the circle, splitting time with Lindsey Richardson even through the super regional against Hofstra, but Nevins is the key to this team's chances. She enters Thursday's opener against Oklahoma with a 31-6 record, 1.06 ERA and 323 strikeouts in 245 2/3 innings. Like her counterpart in that game, Keilani Ricketts, she's big, she's a lefty and she doesn't get beat by the long ball often.
Janine Richardson: You've got pitching (Nevins) and defense (Mouse), and Richardson ably represents the third component of South Florida's success. The outfielder has some pop: Her .485 slugging percentage leads the team, but she's also one of just three players in Oklahoma City who has at least 10 stolen bases and 10 sacrifice hits, joining Oklahoma's Brianna Turang and Oregon's Janie Takeda in that double-double club.
Two storylines for the Bulls
Familiar foes. This is South Florida's first trip to the WCWS, but coach Ken Eriksen is hardly unfamiliar with some of the players his team will face. Eriksen's other job is head coach of the United States national team, which last summer included Oklahoma's Ricketts and Jessica Shults, two key players for South Florida's opponent in Thursday's opening game. That may not make it any easier to actually hit anything Ricketts throws, but it makes the scouting report more valuable.
Celebrating the bunt. Home runs ruled the WCWS in recent seasons and may well do the same this season, but South Florida is going to do its best to bring small ball back into the spotlight. The Bulls hit just 27 home runs this season but piled up 60 sacrifices and 92 stolen bases through their first 62 games. The stolen bases are notable in that they're the product of a lineup-wide effort. No player has more than 15 stolen bases but four have reached double digits.