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With the first week of the NCAA tournament in the book, it might be wise for everyone to take a deep breath -- that goes double for you folks out in Berkeley. While it isn't the mangled mess it looked at times it would be, the bracket took a beating as the field narrowed from the initial 64 teams to just 16 left standing for next weekend's super regionals.
On the brink of elimination earlier than any previous No. 1 overall seed, California rallied for two wins Sunday against Arkansas and lives to play another day, specifically against No. 16 Washington in a best-of-three super regional. Four other seeds weren't so fortunate: No. 5 Florida, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 12 UCLA and No. 15 Louisville all were eliminated.
For the Gators, the end of a streak of four consecutive trips to the Women's College World Series at the hands of in-state rival South Florida wasn't even the low point. That came when three starters were suspended on the eve of the tournament. All three appear likely to transfer. And in a bittersweet rite, the tournament moves on without stars like Stanford's Ashley Hansen, Florida's Michelle Moultrie and Northwestern's Adrienne Monka, senior All-Americans who played their final college games in regional defeats.
As the actions pauses and allows us to catch our breath, what are we to make of what we saw and what's ahead?
1. Where did Olivia Galati and Hofstra come from? New York, actually, which made the other side of the country the perfect place to spring the weekend's biggest upset.
What the old Yankee Stadium was to generations of kids growing up across the country, Easton Stadium in many ways remains for softball's youth. UCLA's home is neither the largest nor the best appointed venue in the country, and it's certainly not the newest, but it has history newer parks can't duplicate. History in the form of 11 NCAA titles and legends from Dot Richardson to Lisa Fernandez to Natasha Watley and more.
|Hofstra's Olivia Galati, shown here during Friday's game against UCLA, has 31 consecutive wins, two shy of the NCAA single-season record.|
As a Long Island native with an affection for all things Yankees, Galati has a certain appreciation for teams and stadiums that define a sport. As it was to so many girls, UCLA was more than just a team to her. It was the team.
"Growing up, before I really started getting recruited by different colleges across the country, the name UCLA -- you lose your breath," Galati said. "You really do, just because of the tradition that they have and just the success the program has."
None of which stopped Hofstra's ace from making Easton her personal stage over the weekend, leading her team to its first super regional and reinforcing the notion that talent is talent no matter where it grows up.
Galati's first NCAA tournament experience came two seasons ago in a regional at Arizona, the sport's other iconic program. She pitched the Pride to a regional final in that instance but couldn't stop the Wildcats in a pair of outings. Older, stronger and equipped with a changeup that she added to her repertoire before this season, she shut down one of the nation's most potent lineups in a 7-2 win against No. 12 UCLA on Friday, striking out 14 batters and sending the host school into a tailspin that ended with it exiting the NCAA tournament winless for the first time ever.
She wasn't intimidated by her surroundings in Tucson as a freshman, but she was better equipped to thrive in them as a junior at Easton.
"Once we stepped out onto this field, they're just like us," Galati said. "They put on a different uniform; that's all. So we just had to really maintain our composure and go out there like it was any other team and beat them."
Beating UCLA in Easton, even if this Bruins team was not the juggernaut of old, would have provided an invitation to lose focus and get lost in the moment. Galati and the Pride instead shut out San Diego State 2-0 less than 24 hours later, the ace striking out 12 and allowing just two hits. And if she didn't have her best stuff in her third start in three days in Sunday's final, she had enough to hold the Aztecs to five singles in a 2-1 win. One of Hofstra's best hitters, she also provided a key hit to keep the rally going that tied the game after San Diego State got to her for the opening run.
Hofstra's roster is almost entirely comprised of players from New York, New Jersey and adjacent states. There isn't one player from west of Pennsylvania or south of Virginia, let alone the talent pools in California and Arizona that still feed some cold-weather programs. She was a high-school All-American in West Babylon, N.Y., but while colleges in the cradle of softball out West seem slow to expand their recruiting base to gems coming out of the Midwest, Northeast or South, the skepticism that still greets some players based on nothing more than geography never bothered her.
She knew she was good enough to play anywhere, even Easton, whatever jersey she wore. If a 33-5 record and 0.91 ERA this season don't make that clear, her performance in Los Angeles should.
"I never really worried about that because I don't like to get wrapped up in that," Galati said. "When I was playing travel ball, and even when I started to play college, whoever we stepped out on the field with, it was honestly just another game. I didn't care what publicity this pitcher got or this player got. I just really wanted to go out there and beat them and then show them what we've been doing this whole time."
Welcome to the super regionals, Hofstra.
2. Which team made the biggest statement in regionals? Texas provided its own pressure by losing its regional opener at home against Northwestern, but self-inflicted though the challenge was, the Longhorns still met it and then some. One of two teams, with Tennessee, to win a regional by winning four consecutive games after an opening loss, the Longhorns outscored Auburn, Houston and Northwestern by a combined 26-2 margin in those wins to reach their first super regional since 2006 (otherwise known as Cat Osterman's final season).
It would be convenient to spin the results to suggest this program needed to win the hard way to exorcise the demons of past disappointments. In truth, coach Connie Clark probably would have been just fine with winning three in a row and dispensing with the drama. But as Osterman herself tweeted Sunday, these Longhorns proved their doubters, which is really all their doubters wanted to see.
What the extra games did provide was an opportunity for Blaire Luna to prove that at her best she is there with Jolene Henderson, Keilani Ricketts, Chelsea Thomas, Jackie Traina and any other pitcher in the field.
Luna, who pitched extremely well in taking a tough-luck loss in the first game, finished the weekend with a 3-1 record and 52 strikeouts against just four walks in 26 innings. With her team needing to beat Northwestern twice Sunday to advance, she took the ball in both games and finished with 29 strikeouts on the day. It was a pitching performance worthy of, well, you know who.
As a freshman, Luna had eye-popping numbers with a heavy workload in the regular season but appeared to tire late in the campaign. She pitched less often and put up her least impressive regular-season numbers this season as a junior, but if that was an effort to ensure she had a weekend like this left in her tank, then well played, Texas.
3. Which team has the most to prove in a super regional? It doesn't feel right to type the words, but it's California. It's not that the Bears played poorly in their regional, close as they came to an exit. They won four games by a combined 29-2 margin, committed one error all weekend and lost once in three tries against an Arkansas team that beat Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia once each in SEC play. And they aren't the only top contender with a blemish. In the top eight alone, No. 3 Arizona State needed a winner-take-all game to get past Syracuse, No. 5 Florida is out, No. 6 Texas and No. 7 Tennessee went the distance and No. 8 Texas A&M is out. It's just that Cal was the one team that never looked vulnerable for even a moment in the regular season.
The Washington team Cal now faces in the super regional came through the Seattle regional without allowing a run, but it remains to be seen just how much it can count on ace Kaitlin Inglesby, who battled injuries late in the season and made one start and one relief appearance in the regional (extremely effectively, it should be noted). The Huskies gave the Bears as good a series as any team in the Pac-12 in the regular season, losing all three games but doing so by a total of five runs. One area of interest is how Cal divides up pitching duties after going with Jolene Henderson for all 12 innings in Sunday's two wins.
Is California still the favorite to win it all? Many, including this space, will still say yes. But it's a slightly more tentative yes than it was a few days ago.
4. Who were the most outstanding players in regionals? Galati and Luna obviously qualify, but they weren't the only ones to come up big.
Brigette Del Ponte, 3B, Arizona: It was an up-and-down regular season for the Wildcats, but it was up, up and away in a regional win in Tucson that saw the offense generate 26 runs in three games against North Dakota State and Notre Dame (twice). Del Ponte finished the weekend 7-of-9 at the plate with a home run, five RBIs and three stolen bases.
Jennifer Fenton, OF, Alabama: The only person, so to speak, who had a better weekend for Alabama than Fenton was the mysterious gnome (who also played a mean shortstop for the Tide last season) in the team's entry in the ongoing battle for YouTube supremacy among college athletes. Fenton and Kayla Braud are as good at the top of the order as any two hitters since Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion for Arizona, and Fenton chipped in seven hits, three walks, six stolen bases, six runs and three RBIs as Alabama rolled to three wins.
Haylie Wagner, P, Michigan: A year after the Wolverines thought they had the pieces in place to make a title run behind senior All-American pitcher Jordan Taylor, only to see the season end in stunning fashion at home in a regional, freshman ace Wagner helped Michigan become the spoilers in Louisville. Wagner allowed just 15 hits and two earned runs in 22 innings, beating No. 15 Louisville on back-to-back days to clinch the regional. Next up is No. 2 Alabama in the Tuscaloosa super regional.
Ivy Renfroe, P, Tennessee: She didn't light up the box score like Luna in leading a team on the scenic route to the super regionals, but the older of Tennessee's Renfroe sisters picked up four wins. That isn't easy to do in a single regional, and it's more impressive when you consider her best performance came in the game she didn't win -- a two-hitter in a 1-0 loss against Miami to open the regional. All told, she allowed 13 hits and two earned runs in 27 innings.
5. What is the showcase super regional? No. 13 Arizona at No. 4 Oklahoma: It doesn't really matter what the number is to the left of Arizona's name in the NCAA tournament; Mike Candrea's team is always going to be in the spotlight. And facing Oklahoma in a super regional for the third time in five seasons, but the first in Norman, Okla., makes for fascinating softball. As the site and seeds suggest, Oklahoma is the strong favorite. The Sooners played the part in cruising to a regional win, getting dominant pitching from Keilani Ricketts and 32 runs from the lineup (including a six-RBI game from the aforementioned Ricketts). This is an Oklahoma team that should be playing at the end of the month in Oklahoma City, but an Arizona team with power could make it an uncomfortable weekend a few miles down I-35.
5a. What is the most intriguing super regional? LSU at No. 9 Missouri: Half of the remaining teams rank among the top 20 in the nation in ERA, so this super regional between future conference rivals isn't the only one in which runs will be scarce. But if you're looking for the site most likely to provide a 1-0 pitching duel that goes 15 innings and makes you late for work the next day (and there are those of us that still enjoy that kind of thing), head to Columbia. Between Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas and LSU's duo of Rachele Fico and Brittany Mack, every base will matter, let alone every run. Thomas allowed just one earned run in three starts for the Tigers in the Columbia regional, but Fico and Mack matched that between them in leading the other Tigers to an upset in College Station, Texas (Fico throwing a pair of shutouts and Mack winning the clincher Sunday).