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Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Cal faces challenging stretch

By Graham Hays

Jolene Henderson
Cal ace Jolene Henderson was the No. 3 pick in the NPF draft, but she's got more pressing concerns to deal with this week: a three-game road series vs. Arizona beginning Wednesday.

Here's this week's college softball power rankings:

1. Oklahoma (30-2)

It was a light week for the team that has occupied the top spot in these rankings all season -- two comfortable wins against Wichita State are all that were on the schedule. Things get more interesting this week. Wednesday's doubleheader against Louisiana-Lafayette and a three-game weekend set against Baylor brings to town three pitchers ranked in the top 13 nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Jordan Wallace and Baylor's Whitney Canion and Heather Stearns. With Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne also in that top 13, start printing "K" cards.

2. Arizona State (34-3, 5-1 Pac-12)

The Sun Devils rolled to a sweep against Oregon State, scoring five runs in all three games. A team ranked second nationally in slugging percentage has now scored at least five runs in 30 of 37 games this season. That's ahead of last year's prolific pace, when it took 44 games to accomplish the same feat. Factor in travel, and it's possible that the Sun Devils could spend just seven days outside the state of Arizona between now and a potential trip to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma. One of those excursions comes this weekend for three games in two days at Stanford.

3. Florida (35-3, 10-2 SEC)

Florida has an offense, too, but Hannah Rogers continues to pitch like a championship-caliber ace. She picked up complete-game wins in the first two games of a weekend series against Mississippi, one a four-hit shutout and the other a two-hitter in which she allowed just one earned run. Then she went out and picked up a three-inning save in the finale, the second game of a Sunday doubleheader. All of that came on top of her midweek win against Florida State.

4. Tennessee (30-6, 6-3 SEC)

Make it four wins in a row against ranked SEC opponents, even if the past week's edition didn't count in the conference standings. Tennessee shut out Kentucky on Friday in a non-SEC game to bolster an otherwise light week. Now comes a trip to Georgia and a rematch of the super regional Tennessee won a season ago. With the Bulldogs reeling after a surprising 0-3 weekend in Arkansas, it's an important series for two teams trying to keep up with Florida and Missouri in the SEC East.

5. California (27-3, 3-0 Pac-12)

Cal had some time to rest last week, hopefully allowing ace Jolene Henderson to enjoy being the No. 3 pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft (she did find time to strike out 15 in a two-hit shutout against Sacramento State). But she and her teammates are going to be busy this week with three midweek games at Arizona and a weekend three-game series at home against Oregon. As good as Henderson is, both series feature scheduled doubleheaders. So Cal needs freshman No. 2 pitcher Nisa Ontiveros to rise to the occasion or risk falling off the pace in the Pac-12.

6. Texas (32-4, 4-0 Big 12)

Along with Oklahoma, Arizona State, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee, Texas is one of six teams that ranks in the top 15 nationally in ERA and runs per game -- a nice combination. That ERA took a bit of a hit in a weekend series at Kansas with the Longhorns allowing four runs in back-to-back games for just the second time this season, but that was a blip on the radar en route to three more wins. It was a tough sophomore season for Taylor Thom, whose run production dropped off and errors spiked, but how has she responded as a junior? How about All-American numbers: a .716 slugging percentage, team-high 42 RBIs and just four errors in 36 starts.

7. Alabama (32-5, 8-4 SEC)

The single best performance of the weekend series between Alabama and Texas A&M might have belonged to Mel Dumezich, the Texas A&M star who pitched a four-hitter and hit the eventual game-winning home run Friday. But like its own star, Alabama persevered. The Crimson Tide won two out of three games on the road against the Aggies, in addition to a midweek win at Houston. All-American Jackie Traina finished the week with four home runs at the plate and 20 strikeouts in 15 innings in the circle. Her 1.346 OPS on the season leads the defending champions.

8. Oregon (28-5, 5-1 Pac-12)

The Ducks suffered their first conference loss of the season, but it came after they had already clinched a series win at Washington. Given their brutal road schedule in the conference this season, that's a successful week. With six games in six days this week, including doubleheaders against both Utah and Cal, it's a good time to have two ace-quality pitchers like Jessica Moore and Cheridan Hawkins. It also helps to have a defense that is solidly in the middle of the Pac-12, a major improvement over recent seasons.

9. Missouri (20-2, 7-1 SEC)

The Tigers return to the rankings after sweeping South Carolina to run their winning streak to 10 games. Coach Ehren Earleywine said before the season he expected a lineup loaded with returnees to produce more power, even after losing slugger Ashley Fleming. It seems he knew what he was talking about. Angela Randazzo put up the big numbers against South Carolina, but it's a team effort that has the Tigers slugging .598 this season, third in the nation and a huge improvement over last season's .416 slugging percentage.

10. Michigan (28-7, 6-0 Big Ten)

It's a coincidence that Michigan debuts in the rankings this week, but it works out nicely to recognize coach Carol Hutchins for her 1,300th win. She's only of only three coaches to reach that mark, joining Arizona's Mike Candrea and former Fresno State coach Margie Wright. And if you spend even a couple of minutes talking to her (or if you saw her interrupt a morning run to shag fly balls while Jessica Mendoza took batting practice during last year's super regional in Alabama), you know there are many more wins ahead of her. As for her current team, 34 runs in a three-game sweep at Penn State means the Wolverines are averaging 8.8 runs per game over the past 10 games.