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Monday, May 22, 2006
Updated: May 23, 3:25 PM ET
Questions and projections for the super regionals

By Graham Hays and Mary Buckheit
ESPN.com

ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit and Graham Hays take a look at the five biggest questions as we head into the super regional round of the NCAA softball championship.

1. Which early exit was the most surprising?

Hays: Seeing Texas A&M, which finished the regular season in a bit of a pitching funk, struggle on the road in Amherst, Mass., wasn't a huge surprise. Neither was seeing Florida, a team which appeared to be a notch below the top four SEC teams, stumble at home against a collection of local teams unintimidated by the surroundings in Gainesville. But Georgia losing twice at home to Florida State was a shocker.

Caitlin Benyi
UCLA senior Caitlin Benyi led the Bruins to the super regional round.
The Bulldogs were one of the four supposedly elite SEC teams, posting a 24-6 record in conference play and narrowly losing the regular season crown to Alabama. Nobody mistook anyone on Georgia's pitching staff for Lisa Fernandez, but pitchers Kasi Carroll and Jessica Doucette usually made up for any runs they allowed as part of a thunderous lineup that hit 58 home runs this season. But aside from one 11-run outburst against Georgia Southern, the bats failed to support some excellent pitching performances from Carroll in the Athens Regional. And with three times as many errors (6) as runs (2) in the two losses to Florida State, the defense didn't help matters.

Before the tournament began, predicting an early Georgia exit would have been a statement about the value of pitching over offense in the postseason. But as it turns out, the Bulldogs went home early because they didn't play like an offensive juggernaut.

Buckheit: Georgia gets my vote too, and I'll tell you why No. 16 Texas A&M does not.

The Aggies were giving up an enormous amount of runs in both their wins and losses all year -- 12 runs to Arizona, 13 to Oregon, 13 to Oklahoma, eight to BYU, eight to Oklahoma State, five to Texas Tech -- heck, they handed five to the University of "Smallbany" this weekend. No one doubts that A&M is a very talented softball team whose bats wowed us with flashes of brilliance, but elite programs simply do not shell out runs by the dozen.

There were reasons we could all be excited about the Aggies; they were fun to watch, gutsy and animated. They played with moxie ... when they came to play, that is. And that was really the question all year; would the Aggies show up?

You never knew what you were going to get from these girls. They seemed to ride emotions good and bad. Consider the two wins over Cat and Co., which earned the Aggies their nationally recognized stripes. There was the 4-2 win over Lone star State rival in front of 1,423 fans at McCombs Field in Austin, and the 5-0 win over the Longhorns in the Big 12 tournament in front of more than 900 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. When the stakes were high and the fans showed up, so did the Aggies. But that very ability to ham it up and rise to the rivalry was matched by their inability to play with an even keel no matter who was in the other dugout.

2. Taking a mulligan, which team did you most underestimate entering the regionals?

Hays: Arizona State found the weather to be the toughest challenge on Long Island, in cruising to a win in the Hempstead Regional. To be fair, Hofstra gave the Sun Devils a fight behind freshman ace Kayleigh Lotti in an eight-inning game on Saturday, but that was the best Hofstra, Penn State and Long Island University could muster. Arizona State pitchers Katie Burkhart and Desiree Serrano allowed just nine hits while striking out 37 in 22 scoreless innings. With an unpredictable defense behind the pitchers, having Burkhart and Serrano dealing strikeouts could be crucial for the Sun Devils against Florida State.

Power and pitching will hide a lot of blemishes in the postseason, and with Burkhart and Serrano dealing, and a lineup that produced the most home runs in the Pac-10, the Sun Devils look like they'll be in on the action in Oklahoma City.

Graham Hays is convinced Northwestern ace Eileen Canney is the read deal.
Buckheit: You'll recall I had my doubts about Stanford advancing past Fresno, Calif., but I guess seniors Lauren Lappin and Catalina Morris just couldn't walk away from softball by the Bay without a free trip to scenic Tuscaloosa.

As predicted, the Cardinal had their hands full, dropping Game 1 to Tulsa 9-0, but it is time I gave them some credit. If you had told me they'd have to win two games on Sunday against Fresno State at Fresno to survive, I never would have thought they had it in them. Hats off to a hard-fought regional win.

3. Which seeded team in the super regionals is the toughest to project?

Hays: It wasn't all sunshine for the Pac-10 in the regionals, as No. 12 seed Stanford was nearly bounced by Fresno State. Something of enigma for much of the conference season, losing games against basement dweller Oregon by 9-2 and 9-0 scores, but sweeping UCLA in the final weekend of the regular season, the Cardinal survived thanks in large part to two clutch starts from senior Laura Severson.

Although Severson had the best ERA of Stanford's three regular pitchers and boasted an unblemished record, a case could have been made that she was the No. 3 starter behind sophomore Becky McCullough and freshman Missy Penna. All of which means it's difficult to guess exactly how coach John Rittman will deploy his pitchers when the team travels to Tuscaloosa to face host Alabama. Stanford has plenty of offense to make up for some pitching mistakes, but they're also the only one of the 13 remaining seeded teams without a clear ace.

Buckheit: I know Northwestern is talented -- everybody keeps telling me so, including Hays, who promises pitcher Eileen Canney is the real deal -- but I still can't swallow the idea that the team that lost the Big Ten tournament championship by six runs is now the No. 4 seed overall.

Early in the season, Northwestern gave up six runs to Cal State Fullerton for a loss. Later that same day, the Cats came out and shut down the Titans 10-0. How's that for enigmatic?

Northwestern has been blanked by Michigan twice -- once in regular season play and once in the conference tournament -- but that first shutout was the only game of regular season play that an opponent was able to hold the Cats scoreless.

Can catcher Becky Marx defy Mary Buckheit's predictions and get Michigan back in the title game?
Everyone points to the Wildcats' win over UCLA as proof of their worthiness, but that was back in March. Examine the details of that 3-2 win -- complete with an unearned run for Selden -- and it makes me wonder just what kind of a statement win it really was.

There are just too many variables for me to make sense of Northwestern. Maybe my squabble with the Wildcats' No. 4 ranking has me down on Northwestern, but the Cats have a lot to prove to me in Oklahoma City -- where they'll be in two weeks after they walk over UMass in two games. (The only thing I trust about Northwestern is its winning ways in front of the Evanston, Ill., faithful.)

4. Which team is most likely to score an upset in the super regionals?

Hays: Likely is a relative term in a bracket that leans heavily toward the favorites right now, but in dismissing its regional opponents in remarkably easy fashion, Washington made a statement about just how good a "mediocre" team in the Pac-10 is compared to the rest of the country. Granted, Southern Utah, BYU and Kansas didn't offer the stiffest competition, but the Jayhawks at least were riding a seven-game winning streak and had a legitimate ace in Kassie Humphreys.

It simply didn't matter with Washington ace Danielle Lawrie on the mound. The freshman allowed just five hits while throwing three shutouts and striking out 29 in 17 innings during the regionals.

The Huskies managed a seemingly lackluster 6-15 record in the Pac-10, finishing with fewer runs than any team but Oregon. But the offense held up fine in the Provo Regional, backing up Lawrie with 17 runs in three games. And with the freshman ace coming into her own, the Pac-10's also-rans look pretty good as they head to Austin to face Cat Osterman and Texas. Of course, for her part, Osterman struck out 52 batters in 21 innings during the regionals.

Buckheit: If likely is a relative term, then so is upset. For instance, if No. 10 seed Cal beat No. 7 seed Oregon State, would you call it an upset? I wouldn't. The Beavers are three seeds ahead of the Bears, but they fell to Cal two out of the teams' three meetings this season. The same goes for No. 9 seed Michigan vs. No. 8 seed Tennessee -- it's a dead heat. And the three "unlikelies" that lay in the super regional round are entirely too suspect for me. I say there's no way Stanford takes two from Bama in Tuscaloosa, no way LSU beats coach Mike Candrea's Wildcats at Hillenbrand Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., and Graham Hays, there's no way the Huskies beat Texas. They're sleepless in Seattle just thinking about facing Cat in her Austin home finale!

Rock chalk, all the big names are headed to Oklahoma City.

5. Are you sticking with your title pick?

Hays: I'll stick with Michigan to defend its national title. The Wolverines weren't spectacular on offense against an Oklahoma pitching staff that struggled for most of the season, but they came through with key hits in big situations ... almost as though they have been there before.

Tied 2-2 after seven innings with Oklahoma, and staring at the prospect of an elimination game if they lost, the Wolverines got eighth-inning home runs from Grace Leutele and Tiffany Worthy to extend the lead to three runs. The Wolverines remain dangerous behind pitcher Jennie Ritter, who was typically brilliant against Oklahoma, striking out 34 and allowing just two runs in 17 innings against one the nation's most potent lineups. The only concern is the middle of the order, where Becky Marx and Samantha Findlay followed up outstanding performances in the Big 10 tournament by going 2-for-17 in regional play.

Buckheit: Ab-so-lutely. If I had a farm (instead of a rent check bigger than my studio apartment here in Los Angeles), I would still bet it on the Bruins. I was at the games at Easton Stadium this weekend and couldn't find anything to make me sweat my postseason pick. The Bruins' performance in Sunday's regional clincher against a very solid San Diego State team said it all.

The Bruins beat the Aztecs 7-0, but the win was a lot more intriguing than it may have appeared. The Bruins scored first in the top of the second on a sacrifice fly, but SDSU immediately threatened to answer in the bottom half of the inning, loading the bases with no one out. Poised and directed, the Bruins brought their infield in and went to work. UCLA ace Anjelica Selden tallied the first out by herself on three pitches, then forced a chopper to Pac-10 Player of the Year Andrea Duran for the rally-killing 5-2-3 double play.

All Bruins. All business.

I find even more justification of my prediction in the Bruins' unlikely hero. While Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Christina Ross was holding the usual suspects of Duran, Krista Colburn and Tara Henry hitless, left fielder Ashley Herrera -- who bats in the eight hole, often slapping from the left side of the plate and came into Sunday's game averaging .180 and slugging a meager .266 -- dug in on the right side and drove the game-sealing grand slam to left field.

You're money baby. You're money from both sides of the plate and you don't even know it.

The Bruins' lineup can sting, their infield is automatic and Jelly Selden isn't a freshman anymore. That is why UCLA will win this year's Women's College World Series.