Pitching strength at forefront
Rare is the NCAA tournament in which all 16 national seeds advance to the super regional round. With more than 90 games awaiting in regional play this week, espnW's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
Thursday: Oregon vs. BYU; Wisconsin vs. North Carolina
The favorite: No. 3 Oregon
The Ducks returned almost everyone of consequence from the team that advanced to the Women's College World Series a season ago and played like a group intent on building off that performance en route to their first Pac-12 crown. They have the fourth-best team batting average among NCAA tournament participants, the fifth-best ERA, the fifth-best slugging percentage and, well, you get the picture. Janie Takeda and Courtney Ceo have 47 steals between them at the top of the order. Alexa Peterson, Kaylan Howard, Kailee Cuico and Janelle Lindvall each hit double-digit home runs. Senior ace Jessica Moore is rested and sharp because freshman Cheridan Hawkins handled so many innings alongside her.
What could get in the way: Wisconsin's momentum
No, it's not an objective measure or analytical proof, but sometimes programs just feel as if they're moving inexorably in the right direction. Oregon, for one, felt that way as soon as Mike White arrived. And now Wisconsin feels as if it has everything trending in the right direction under coach Yvette Healy and assistants Randy Schneider and Tracie Adix. Of course, tangibles help. Wisconsin has power in its lineup, but it drove teams to distraction -- and errors -- with its short game en route to a Big Ten tournament title. Oregon's defense vastly improved this season, but if there is an area where teams can at least probe the Pac-12 champion for weakness, it's that old bugaboo.
Player to watch: Lori Spingola, P, North Carolina
Only one pitcher in the ACC threw more innings than Spingola, the junior ace on whose right arm North Carolina's hopes depend. A strikeout-per-inning pitcher since she arrived in Chapel Hill, she's more prone to extra-base hits this season than in past seasons. That could be problematic against a Wisconsin lineup, and potentially down the line against an Oregon lineup, that hits the ball well. The Badgers hit two home runs against Spingola in a 4-2 win in March. But there are examples this season -- a three-hitter against LSU, a four-hitter against Texas A&M -- of a pitcher with the talent to tame even excellent lineups.
Friday: Nebraska vs. Northern Iowa; Tulsa vs. Stanford
The favorite: No. 14 Nebraska
Nebraska knows how to host. This will be the fifth regional in Lincoln in the past 11 seasons. But it's also the first time in that span that the home team is the top seed and the favorite to advance. This team's success is built on balance. Pitchers Emily Lockman and Tatum Edwards split starts in the regular season and conference tournament and likely will continue to do so. Both depend on a solid defense that turned 42 double plays, twice as many as any other team in the Big Ten. Tatum and twin sister Taylor Edwards can provide home run power at the plate, but the runs more often come from the cumulative effect of seven regulars with on-base percentages between .381 and .469.
What could get in the way: A loaded field
It's fair to say that the fans who come out in Lincoln are going to see good softball. A lot of good softball. Stanford had a chance at the final national seed until it lost its final series against Arizona. Cardinal pitcher Teagan Gerhart's walk and home run rates never look great on paper, but she's a tough competitor, and freshman pitcher Kelsey Stevens seemed to catch a bit of a second wind late in the Pac-12 season. Tulsa should just be thrilled it didn't land in the Norman Regional for the third season in a row, but the Golden Hurricane are also a top-30 RPI team with aspirations to advance. They hit, pitch and field well and played the kind of schedule that has them ready for this stage.
Player to watch: Aimee Creger, P, Tulsa
Among tournament teams, only three pitchers who can be described as staff aces average more strikeouts per seven innings than Creger: Texas' Blaire Luna, Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Louisiana-Lafayette's Jordan Wallace. The 5-foot-10 junior was brilliant two years ago as a freshman but struggled through a back injury last season that forced her to wear a brace that limited her motion. She's healthy again, and the experience led her to learn new pitches and to polish others that previously took a backseat to her power. She shut down North Carolina and Florida State this season, went toe-to-toe with Luna in a 1-0 loss in extra innings and held her own against Oklahoma in a 3-1 loss.
The favorite: No. 6 Missouri
Missouri got what it deserved, for once, with a No. 6 seed. Or so ever-sunny coach Ehren Earleywine would have us believe. But the man has a point, in that it's tough to come up with five teams better than the Tigers when ace Chelsea Thomas is in the circle. She's 22-4 with a 1.23 ERA this season and has allowed just 16 extra-base hits in 170 1/3 innings. Unlike last season, the lineup has her back. All seven regulars have on-base percentages of at least .410, and the team already has 136 extra-base hits in 46 games, more than it had in 61 games a season ago. The question remains what happens if a loss or a schedule condensed by weather asks too much of Thomas, who has dealt with arm issues in the past. There is no pitching depth.
What could get in the way: The other ace
A 12-inning, 2-1 loss at some point during the weekend is the kind of scenario that ought to keep Earleywine awake at night. And that's exactly the kind of scenario Hofstra's Olivia Galati is capable of bringing to life. Galati is going to have the ball for as long as the Pride are in Columbia. Heck, if fellow Long Islanders Stony Brook need someone to throw batting practice, she might do that, too. In 51 games this season, Hofstra pitchers were responsible for 351 1/3 innings. Galati threw 307 of them and piled up a 37-10 record, 1.39 ERA and 379 strikeouts. The same formula took Hofstra within a few outs of the World Series a season ago, and this team is actually better offensively.
Player to watch: Natalie Hampton, 1B, Oregon State
Teams from the Pac-12 aren't all that familiar with third billing in the postseason, but Oregon State probably will be just fine with flying under the radar. While Thomas and Galati highlight the pitching strength in Columbia, the Beavers counter with freshman slugger Hampton. No player in the regional has more than her 50 RBIs. Plate discipline proved to be an issue in Pac-12 play, resulting in 24 strikeouts against three walks, but she still hit five home runs. If runs are going to be precious, it's nice to be able to get a few with one swing.
Friday: Washington vs. Portland State; Hawaii vs. Minnesota
The favorite: No. 11 Washington
A slow start and losses in big games (two of three against Oregon and against Arizona State, as well as losses to Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas) add up to a low profile for a team that nevertheless tied for second in the Pac-12. Maybe the Huskies are just the best of the very good teams. But this might also be a group peaking at the right time. Hooch Fagaly enjoyed a breakout season at the plate and gives Washington a second elite run producer to pair with Kaitlin Inglesby. Victoria Hayward brings power and speed at the top of the order. The defense is terrific. And Inglesby can keep her team in games in the circle.
What could get in the way: Hawaii
Hawaii didn't even face the top seed in a regional a season ago, bowing out after losses against Notre Dame and North Dakota State. So it's wise not to live too much on the memories of a World Series run three years ago. That said, there's a lot to like about a team led by seniors who experienced Oklahoma City. The Rainbow Wahine split a pair of home games against Washington to start the season, beat Oregon on a neutral field and went 12-1 on the road in their first season in the Big West. Senior outfielder Kelly Majam is the NCAA active leader in career home runs, and her 1.214 OPS paces a good offense. Fellow senior Kaia Parnaby is 37-5 in the circle with 325 strikeouts.
Player to watch: Sara Moulton, P, Minnesota
Sharing the circle with Hawaii's Parnaby in Friday's opener will mark one of the first times all season Moulton can't claim workload bragging rights. Minnesota's ace has answered the bell time and again this season, making 42 starts and posting a 31-10 record. She has good control, keeps the ball low and doesn't give up many home runs (just nine in more than 255 innings). That's going to give the Gophers a chance to win against a powerful Hawaii lineup.