A-Sun shines on tourney's Day 1
For the fifth time since the NCAA tournament took its current form in 2005, all 16 national seeds won their opening games in double-elimination regonals. That doesn't mean the first full day of competition lacked drama. What did we see?
Five things to know from Friday
1. The Atlantic Sun can play some softball.
We can debate the merits of the Pac-12 and SEC in the days to come. We will wonder if a team or two from the ACC, Big 12 or Big Ten will find a way to Oklahoma City. We might marvel at the continued success of a Sun Belt dynasty in Louisiana.
There is plenty of time for all the usual conversations. Friday offered a chance to have a different conversation.
The Atlantic Sun played entertaining softball on the first day of the NCAA tournament.
More importantly, a conference with a lot to prove also played winning softball.
It raised eyebrows when the Atlantic Sun earned three spots in the field of 64 teams, one spot less than either the ACC or Big 12. But after Stetson rallied past UCF in extra innings and S.C. Upstate held off South Alabama's comeback in extra innings, the Atlantic Sun is also the only conference beyond the five heavyweights that will have multiple teams wake up Saturday a win away from a regional final.
Only Lipscomb came up short among the league's entrants and that after it lost a 4-3 nail-biter against Virginia Tech.
"We've got great softball in the A-Sun, and all of us are busting our butts to beat each other," Stetson senior Meredith Owen said. "After that, we all come together and we cheer each other on. We're so happy for everyone in the A-Sun because we know what special teams we have here and how hard we've been working.
"It's exciting that people are starting to see what the A-Sun is about."
It's about players like Owen, which is a pretty good selling point. She chose Stetson over LSU four years ago because the Atlantic Sun school offered her the opportunity to pitch as well as hit. She knew at the time her pitching needed work, and went 7-14 with a 2.46 ERA as a freshman, but she didn't want to give up that part of the game.
She was one of the league's top sluggers as a senior. She was also 26-7 with a 0.84 ERA in the circle, then went the distance against UCF -- and hit a home run at the plate -- for the first NCAA tournament win in program history.
It was a dream ending to a game that at times felt like a nightmare unfolding in real time.
Stetson fell behind by a run in the first inning, then another in the fourth. At the plate, the Hatters twice left the bases loaded in the first four innings. In the circle, Owen couldn't find her rhythm against a team that had faced her twice in the regular season and knew what it was looking for. It's how a season of work can vanish in a few bad innings in May.
"On a scale of one to 10, my frustration level was 100," Owen said.
She cut the deficit to 2-1 with a home run in the top of the sixth, but UCF pushed across two more runs against her in the bottom of the inning. Then, Brittany Hawn walked, Jessie TenBroeck beat out a bunt single and Demi Meza drove them in with a hit and eventually scored the tying run on Jessica Griffin's two-out hit. Two more runs followed in the top of the eighth on RBI hits from TenBroeck and Morello. Owen retired UCF in order in the bottom of the eighth.
On a day when its star couldn't carry the team on her back, Stetson won anyway.
"I didn't have the game I am used to having, and my team was there for me," Owen said. "They just backed me up. It gives us so much confidence going into the rest of the weekend. We've worked so hard for this, and just to know we have each other's backs, it gives us all the confidence in the world to relax and play our game."
Teams that have been through battles in conference play do that, just as S.C. Upstate had ace Anna Miller's back after she gave up a game-tying home run in the sixth inning against South Alabama. The Spartans won 5-3.
Saturday will bring even bigger challenges, No. 5 Florida for Stetson and No. 2 Alabama for S.C. Upstate. That's for another day. Friday, the Atlantic Sun met its challenge. It proved it belonged.
2. Auburn, Nebraska and half the field won't have history on their side.
The NCAA tournament operates with a double-elimination format, but the second chance is frequently just a consolation prize. How much does that first win mean? Only three times in the past five tournaments did a team lose its opening game and still win the regional. That's three times out of 80 regionals in that span. And in only one instance -- Jacksonville State in 2009 -- was the team that took such a scenic route to a super regional unseeded.
That's bad news for half the field, of course, but particularly for Nebraska and Auburn, teams that were in the running for national seeds until the very end and had high hopes of spoiling the fun for the seeds in their respective regionals. Nebraska couldn't solve Kansas ace Kelsey Kessler in the Columbia regional, while Auburn ran into a familiar postseason hurdle in the Minneapolis regional.
3. North Dakota State did it again.
The NCAA women's basketball tournament has Marist as the spoiler who spoils too often to be a surprise. The softball tournament has North Dakota State. After Friday's 5-2 win against Auburn, the Bison are now 5-8 in five NCAA tournament appearances, an impressive record for a team out of the Summit League (that's as many wins as Wisconsin, which added another Friday against Albany, and NC State, which did the same against UAB).
Bison ace Krista Menke was an escape artist against the Tigers, going the distance in her team's win despite walking eight batters and giving up extra-base hits to two of Auburn's prime run producers, Kasey Cooper and Morgan Estell. Then again, that Menke worked her way out of trouble over 154 pitches shouldn't be too much of a surprise. She took it on the chin in North Dakota State's opening game in the conference tournament, then spent the rest of the weekend working herself and the team out of the hole to clinch the automatic bid. This time it was Amanda Grable who supplied the helping hand, her three-run home run in the sixth inning breaking open a tie game.
4. Tiarra Davis made a name for herself.
It's not as if Texas fans are unfamiliar with postseason shutouts. This past June, Blaire Luna threw a one-hit shutout against Florida in the Women's College World Series, and a lefty by the name of Cat Osterman threw her share in the not-too-distant past. But what Tiarra Davis did Friday should still have people in burnt orange grinning from ear to ear. A freshman making her first postseason start, Davis struck out seven, walked one and allowed just four hits in a 1-0 win against Mississippi State. The only other Texas pitcher to win a regional game 1-0? That Osterman person again.
The Longhorns entered the tournament ranked fourth nationally in batting average and 22nd in runs per game, but they continue to reside outside the top 25 in the polls in part because of instability in the circle. Counting Friday's gem, three of Davis' past five starts were shutouts, and she allowed a total of three earned runs in the other two starts. Saturday brings a different kind of test against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette, one of the most productive lineups in the country, but Friday was a heck of a way for Davis to get her own postseason history started.
5. Injuries take their toll on top teams
The game of the day might have been the upset that didn't happen. Down 4-0 with two outs in the top of the seventh, a Bradley team that had a losing record rallied for five runs to take the lead against No. 15 Missouri. But a Missouri team that might have needed its spark reignited even more than it needed an easy win got just that. Corrin Genovese came through with a one-out double in the bottom of the seventh and eventually came around to score the tying run, then won the game an inning later with a bases-loaded single to complete a 4-for-4 day at the plate. That's the good news for the Tigers. The bad news is they won't have their ace to give the ball to Saturday to capitalize on the momentum. Freshman Tori Finucane didn't pitch Friday because of a thumb injury sustained this week, and coach Ehren Earleywine indicated he wouldn't have her against Kansas.
A few hours away, Oklahoma began its postseason campaign without Lauren Chamberlain in the starting lineup. The All-American suffered a partially torn PCL in the final week of the regular season, and her status remains unclear (she was described as a "game-time decision" in the regional opener against Bryant).
Friday's honor roll
Sammy Albanese, Northwestern: It was Albanese who pitched Northwestern to its best win of the season against Washington in February. And it was Albanese who ensured the Wildcats will get to play the Huskies again. After Northwestern run-ruled Iona in the first elimination game in the Seattle regional (which began play Thursday), Albanese pitched six innings of near-perfect relief for just her sixth win of the season and hit just her second home run of the season in an 8-3 win against BYU in another elimination game.
Aimee Creger, Tulsa: We will get to see a Saturday matchup between Creger and Baylor's Whitney Canion, barring a surprise lineup selection, but it was a close thing. Tulsa got 13 strikeouts and a two-hitter from its ace and still only came away with a 2-1 win against Houston when Haley Henshaw homered and Catherine Horner hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh.
Delanie Gourley, Florida: It was a run-rule win in five innings and it came against a team that historically hasn't fared well in the tournament, but caveats aside, Gourley threw a no-hitter in her first ever postseason start. That's the first ever NCAA tournament no-hitter for the Gators. It also kept ace Hannah Rogers fresh for Saturday's action.
Whitney Jones, Washington: Speaking of the Seattle regional, the home team is a win from both coach Heather Tarr's 400th career win and a super regional. She probably won't be offended if players are more excited about the latter. Jones helped keep the No. 12 seed in the driver's seat by hitting two home runs and driving in five runs in a 9-0 win against BYU. She and Ali Aguilar have 12 of the team's 17 RBIs in the regional.
Kelsey Kessler, Kansas: Aside from first-time winner Stetson, none of Friday's winners went longer between NCAA tournament victories than Kansas. Absent from the tournament since 2006, the Jayhawks beat Nebraska behind a five-hitter from Kessler. She flirted with trouble at times, full counts and runners on base in later innings, but largely stymied the Huskers for the second time this season (she allowed three hits and one run in a 1-0 loss in March).
Brittany MacFawn, Albany: The America East ace came out on the wrong end of a 1-0 decision against Wisconsin, but she did all she could to put the Great Danes in position for an upset by throwing a two-hitter. It's not the first time she's done this. As a freshman, MacFawn held Oregon to three runs in a narrow defeat to open a regional.
Cassie Tysarczyk, Texas A&M: The senior just wasn't going to let the Aggies dig themselves a hole in the Norman regional. With her team down a run when she came to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, she hit a home run to draw level. With the score tied when she came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth, she singled, took second in a wild pitch and scored on Nicole Morgan's double. In all, Tysarczyk went 3-for-3 with a walk and scored three runs.
Haylie Wagner, Michigan: It's difficult to know quite what to make of Wagner's day, as it is for the Wolverines in general. She didn't make it through the second inning as the starting pitcher, but after returning later, she ended up allowing just two hits and no walks in 4 1/3 innings. And she made herself the winner when she delivered a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth. All in all, Michigan's struggles persist as Dallas Escobedo and Arizona State await, but a win is a win.