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|Tulsa ace Jill Barrett leads the nation with 258 strikeouts.|
In a matter of months, University of Tulsa teammates Aimee Creger and Jill Barrett may well end up chasing championships on opposite sides of the globe, Creger in the Netherlands as part of the United States softball national team that is looking to reclaim what once seemed a birthright in the ISF World Championship, and Barrett in Japan as part of the American entry seeking to win the Women's Baseball World Cup for the third time.
That talent can take a person a long way is literally true in the cases of two seniors for whom bat, ball and glove are their tickets.
Barrett's final hit in a sweep of Texas-San Antonio this past weekend was the 300th of her career. That's the most of any player in NCAA Division I competition at the moment, 19 more than any other player, in fact. It would take some good fortune, but she could yet claim a place among the all-time top 25 in hits. And all that needs to be said about that accomplishment is that one of the players she would bump from the list if she made it is Jessica Mendoza. It's good company to keep.
|Aimee Creger and Jill Barrett's apartment is decorated with artwork they've created together over four years at Tulsa.|
Barrett went hitless in her first three college games. Even Creger, who spends a considerable amount of time trying to figure out hitters, can't quite put a finger on what it is that opponents haven't solved in 219 games since.
"I've honestly been asking myself that question since I've known the girl," Creger said. "She's just so good. I really can't explain it. I watch her, I try and pinpoint every little thing she does, and it's so hard to figure out how she does it so well."
Creger has her own place of statistical prominence. Despite a back injury near the end of her freshman season that forced her to pitch in a back brace much of her sophomore season, she is second among active pitchers in strikeouts per seven innings, one measure of a pitcher's dominance, and first among seniors on that list. She is also fourth among active pitchers in ERA and seventh in strikeouts (despite having had 24 fewer appearances than any pitcher ahead of her on the latter list).
She has never been better than she is at the moment. After striking out 29 batters in 18 2/3 innings in the series against UTSA, picking up two wins and a save in the process, she leads the nation with 258 strikeouts this season.
Numbers like those are how she earned an invitation to tryouts for the national team last summer, and why despite initially feeling unsure she belonged in that company, she made the roster and helped the United States persevere through a summer of transition and qualify for this summer's world championship.
"To this day, every day that goes by, I just look back at pictures," Creger said of wearing that uniform, "and think, 'Oh, my gosh, I really got to experience that and go through that.' It's just an amazing feeling. Whenever I stand for the national anthem for the games here at Tulsa, I feel like it's completely different now. It just means so much more."
The same was true for Barrett, who, despite having no prior experience in baseball, was a starter for the team that won silver in the 2012 World Cup (she will stick with softball this summer after being drafted by National Pro Fastpitch's Akron Racers, but hopes to also make the trip to Japan with the baseball team the first week of September).
"Being able to represent your country was the highest honor," Barrett said.
But the roommates whose apartment in Tulsa is decorated with artwork they've created together over the past four years have one more project to complete together, one that doesn't even require leaving the state of Oklahoma. Just over 100 miles separate the school's campus from ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
Before Barrett and Creger arrived in Tulsa, neither from more than 200 miles away, the softball program had been to the NCAA tournament three times in nearly 20 seasons. It will make its fourth consecutive appearance this season. As freshmen they advanced to within a win of a super regional, which although not yet duplicated, raised their own expectations for what the program could be.
"My freshman year, I always knew it was possible to do all that stuff," Creger said. "But then when we went to the regional and we were winning games, it was like you could start counting down how many wins you were away from going to the World Series. It was like it was possible."
It still is possible. Only UCLA has fewer losses than Tulsa so far this season, and as the Hurricanes slide onto the waiting list for these rankings, they are more importantly positioning themselves for a possible seed in the NCAA tournament and the right to host a regional, something that evaded them the past three seasons. Pitching depth has allowed Creger a manageable workload and Barrett has plenty of company in a lineup slugging .524 with a .419 on-base percentage.
The two senior stars have accomplished a great deal already, but perhaps Barrett's perspective on her place atop the hitting charts best sums up their outlook.
"To me, it means I've got to get more so no one can catch me," she said.
In other words, the journey isn't done. And those 100 miles of Oklahoma highway will be the toughest of all.
"We haven't done it yet," Creger said. "But I'm pretty positive that we have a really good shot this year."
Now on to the rankings.
How good has Oregon been of late? The Ducks scored 69 runs in their six games before Tuesday, all against Pac-12 competition. Oklahoma, which fielded one of the most potent lineups in the history of the sport a season ago, never scored more than 66 runs in a six-game span. The lineup hits top to bottom, but leadoff hitter Courtney Ceo reached base in 8 of 11 plate appearances this past week and now ranks second in the nation in batting average. This week's trip to Stanford (Friday's game is on ESPNU at 10 p.m. ET) is one of two remaining road trips in conference play.
The math isn't complicated. Ally Carda, Stephany LaRosa and Delaney Spaulding all rank in the top 30 in the NCAA in on-base percentage. When the top three hitters in your order reach base better than 52 percent of the time, you're going to score a whole bunch of runs (especially when your cleanup hitter, Mysha Sataraka, also ranks in the top 50 nationally in slugging percentage). LaRosa earned Pac-12 player-of-the-week honors for her work at the plate, and that was before she picked up four hits, including a home run, and two walks in Monday's doubleheader sweep against Long Beach State.
It says something about the depth of pitching available in Ann Arbor that a different pitcher started each of the three games in Michigan's most important Big Ten series of the season. And it speaks volumes about freshman Megan Betsa that she got the start in the decisive finale. Still, Sara Driesenga's strong start in the second game is the one with long-term implications. So good a season ago, Driesenga struggled with the weight of expectations early this season. As she regains her confidence and her form, Michigan becomes more and more of a title threat.
The doubleheader Arizona State and Washington played Friday is the reason people in the Pac-12 speak with such confidence about conference play preparing their teams for the postseason. It was championship-caliber softball, and the split hardly mattered as much as the experience. Haley Steele had a big home run in the win, four hits in the loss and is stamping herself as one of the season's real breakout performers. This week's break from conference play, a three-game series against Southern Miss, precedes closing series at Oregon and against UCLA.
Lacey Waldrop and Maddie O'Brien did their thing in five wins against Pitt and Syracuse, but the team is more than its two stars. At the bottom of the order, Briana Hamilton had nine hits and six RBIs on the week, including two doubles, a triple and a home run. The Seminoles are obviously a lock for one of 16 NCAA tournament seeds, but they have reason to sweat out the bracket. Ranked No. 8 in this week's adjusted RPI, they would love to claim one of the top eight seeds and a chance to host a super regional. This week's series against Georgia Tech won't be much help.
Are they back? Did they ever leave? Or are the current highs any more reflective of the team's true level than its recent lows? The Gators probably won't care how we answer any of those questions. They'll just be happy with a week that included three wins and a 30-5 scoring advantage on the road against Texas A&M. She doesn't have anything to do with the runs, but it's no coincidence that Florida is surging as Hannah Rogers keeps opponents off the bases. The three-pitcher rotation of the early season is all but gone, but if it kept her fresh for May, it did its job.
Alabama now finds itself in a similar spot to Florida a few weeks ago, where its wins are parsed for decisiveness. The box scores from a 6-4 win against Georgia Southern and a 4-3 win against North Carolina last weekend won't wow anyone, but those results broke the Tide's three-game losing skid that peaked with a midweek loss against Auburn. (Tide coach Patrick Murphy elected not to use ace Jaclyn Traina in a game that didn't count toward the SEC standings.) Cleanup hitter Jadyn Spencer made the most of the week, hitting home runs in all three games.
The Wildcats had the week off. Five games loom this week, a midweek doubleheader against New Mexico State and a weekend visit from Utah for three games. At No. 9 in adjusted RPI and with a trip to Washington and home series against Oregon still to play, now is not the time to slip up.
Ellen Renfroe had next to nothing to do with the first loss against Mississippi State this past week, Tennessee's ace allowing just four hits and two earned runs in seven innings, but it is a major problem if she is hitting a wall. The Lady Vols couldn't solve Alexis Silkwood in the opener, but they scored 18 runs in the next two games and still couldn't win the series. They are slugging .563 with a .451 on-base percentage in SEC play (both numbers better than a season ago). The issue is 3.48 team ERA in league play, with Renfroe being asked to carry 70 percent of the innings.
Welcome back, Sooners. Much of the success without injured star Lauren Chamberlain stems from the increasingly steady hand of Kelsey Stevens in the circle, and the always steady presence Shelby Pendley is at the plate, but the contributions Whitney Ellis, Kady Self and Brittany Williams made in the Red River Rivalry this past week are indicative of the overall improvement. If Chamberlain returns, and she indicated in interviews this past week that she has yet to resume batting practice, Oklahoma will be an extremely tricky postseason draw for someone.
Next five: Kentucky (39-9), Louisiana-Lafayette (35-7-1), Washington (25-12), Tulsa (41-5), Missouri (35-12).