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Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Canion impresses on opening weekend

By Graham Hays

An uncertain future might not sound like cause for celebration, but it beats the bleak variety.

Whitney Canion is a welcome sight in the circle for Baylor.

Coming off a campaign in which it missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, Baylor opened the 2011 season by sweeping five games at home to win the Getterman Classic. The sweep not only marked the program's best start since the Bears advanced to the Women's College World Series in 2007, but also included two wins against No. 24 Illinois, matching the number of wins against ranked opponents the team had all of last season.

It's no coincidence that both wins against the Illini came with Whitney Canion in the circle. As a freshman in 2009, Canion won 27 games, struck out 415 batters and pitched Baylor to a super regional against Michigan. But a stress fracture in the southpaw's pitching arm shut her down before the unhappy finale of that series in Ann Arbor and eventually cost her all but eight starts and 48.2 innings of last season before she took a medical redshirt.

Baylor coach Glenn Moore said it wasn't until about three weeks ago, seeing Canion throw all pitches and seeing her speed pick up, that he "started kind of getting excited" about the prospect of the third-year sophomore being ready for the start of the season. But even after she struck out 22 batters and allowed just six hits in 14 innings against one of the Big Ten's better lineups, her coach sounded like a man looking for some wood upon which to knock.

"It's still yet to be seen how she'll do down the stretch," Moore cautioned. "The doctors seem to be confident that she's going to be OK, and I think we've done everything possible. She feels good now. But after Michigan, the year before last when we took her out up there, she laid off the length of time they told her to, [they] said she'd be fine, ready to go. And then she went through last season and couldn't go; the second weekend she started feeling a little pain.

"So we're not over the hump with her."

The Bears scored 26 runs in beating Illinois (twice), McNeese State (twice) and Texas-San Antonio. They have an elite-level leadoff hitter in Kayce Walker, a promising No. 2 hitter in Kathy Shelton, who totaled eight hits in 17 at-bats, and power both proven and promising in senior Dani Leal (four home runs) and highly touted freshman Shelbi Redfearn (6-of-15, including a double and a home run), respectively.

But there is no substitute for an ace like Canion, even if she needs to be rationed -- Moore said she was available for Saturday's doubleheader after pitching on Friday, but he certainly didn't mind holding her out and giving her a day of rest before her second and final appearance.

With a three-run lead in the fifth inning of the finale, Canion allowed back-to-back soft singles and then looked the part of rusty returnee by loading the bases with a throwing error and forcing in a run by hitting a batter. But as quickly as trouble flared, she doused the flames with a foul pop to the catcher and a two-out strikeout.

Great pitchers can get themselves out of trouble on the field. Baylor hopes the season's first weekend suggests Canion's injury troubles off the field are a thing of the past.

"When her back was against the wall, she looked like the old Whitney Canion," Moore said.

News and notes

• Baylor wasn't the only team that welcomed back a pitcher with the talent to change the course of a season. Ashley Brignac ended the weekend as the only Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher who allowed an earned run during a dominant start by the Sun Belt team, but you get the feeling people in Lafayette will focus a bit more on the two wins and 14 innings she pitched.

A much-hyped prep prospect who lived up to the billing and them some during a 2008 freshman season that culminated with a 15-strikeout performance in the World Series, Brignac was limited to 79 innings in 2009 and didn't pitch at all last season because of injuries. As the Lafayette Daily Advertiser's Joshua Parrott reported, the Ragin' Cajuns are counting heavily on her return.

• So what was that about the team to beat? UCLA looked very much like the defending champion in outscoring its first five opponents 59-6 in comfortable wins against Utah State, North Dakota State (twice), Central Florida and San Diego State. Donna Kerr struck out four in her first inning of work in the opener, courtesy of a dropped third strike with two outs, and finished off Utah State with a no-hitter. For more on UCLA's big weekend -- and other stats standouts -- check Erin Quinn's weekly blog.

• Stephanie Brombacher now owns two of the five perfect games in Florida history after five unblemished innings in a 9-0 win against NC State. Like a lot of top teams, the Gators had no trouble scoring runs, piling up 53 in five wins. Brittany Schutte reached base in 14 of 19 plate appearances and had two doubles and two home runs among six hits.

• Some potential top-10 showdowns at the Kajikawa Classic took a bit of a hit because of pitching matchups. Oklahoma run-ruled Arizona 11-1, with Sooners ace Keilani Ricketts getting the best of Wildcats freshman Shelby Babcock. The Sooners then lost a 4-3 decision against Arizona State freshman Dallas Escobedo, with Ricketts only coming on late in relief of Michelle Gascoigne.

• Speaking of Escobedo, the freshman didn't disappoint in her first weekend, winning four games (three starts and one relief appearance) and striking out 28 against three walks in 18.1 innings, including the aforementioned win against Oklahoma and another against Oklahoma State.

• Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said during the preseason that freshman Ellen Renfroe might be the team's most impressive pitcher. Well, Renfroe got two of the first four starts for the Lady Vols and didn't allow a run in 10 innings. Not that any of Tennessee's pitchers needed to be perfect behind an offense that put up 44 runs in wins against Michigan State (twice), Boston College and Stetson. A team that hit 51 home runs last season is already sitting on seven this season.

Spotlight on …

Washington: The most notable offensive explosion of opening weekend deserves the spotlight. Washington put up 88 runs in 27 innings, piling up a 5-0 record against Illinois-Chicago, UC-Riverside (twice), Mississippi State and UNLV. If you're looking for individual numbers, take your pick. But Morgan Stuart's opening weekend bodes particularly well for the Huskies. One of the country's best defensive third basemen, she's an asset no matter what she does at the plate. But after a dip in her offensive production last season, she opened her senior season by going 9-of-14 at the plate with three home runs and five walks.

North Carolina: Every pitcher would love to have a debut like UCLA's Jessica Hall, who threw a two-hit shutout against North Dakota State, but the real test for every freshman hurler is how she responds to the inevitable bumps in the road that come in college softball. On that count, North Carolina fans have to be pleased about the start of the Lori Spingola era. The first Kansas batter the freshman faced reached on a bunt single and advanced to second on Spingola's throwing error. The second batter hit a home run. But from that point on, Spingola allowed just four earned runs in five appearances and 21.2 innings, striking out 28 and walking just three batters.

Texas Tech: Texas Tech had already achieved the best start in program history before Sunday's finale, but Emily Bledsoe's walk-off home run against Appalachian State made it a perfect weekend. A 10-9 slugfest against the Mountaineers, who otherwise struggled to score runs in Arizona, doesn't jump off the page as a signature win, but beating California, BYU and Indiana -- the latter with Morgan Melloh pitching -- qualify. A junior transfer Salt Lake Community College, after starting her career at BYU, Cydney Allen led the way with 10 hits in her first five games for the Red Raiders.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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