5 questions ahead of super regionals
1. Which team made the biggest statement in regionals?
This looked for all the world like it would be a season that tested the patience of Florida fans. It turns out patience is a big reason the Gators will spend the week preparing to host a super regional.
And why those fans have reason to start thinking about travel arrangements to Oklahoma City. For extended stays.
The No. 2 national seed, Florida barely broke a sweat getting through the Gainesville Regional. It won all three of its games, never trailed and scored 20 runs, 11 more than the rest of the regional field scored combined.
One of the youngest teams in the tournament, a team with just three players who have been around more than two years, Florida appeared perfectly at ease on the postseason stage. That was never more the case than when one of the nation's most disciplined lineups beat one of the nation's best pitchers without swinging the bat.
Four walks, a sacrifice bunt and a hit batter produced two runs in the fourth inning Sunday against South Florida's Sara Nevins, the only runs Florida ace Hannah Rogers needed to wrap up a win. Some might put that sequence down to good fortune, the Gators the beneficiaries of a pitcher's control problems. Except that it sure seems like a lot of pitchers run into control problems around Florida.
The Gators have drawn 308 walks through 62 games. The only team even in the same zip code in total walks among conferences represented in super regionals is Oklahoma. And the latter is because everyone who plays Oklahoma knows all too well what happens if they pitch to Lauren Chamberlain, Keilani Ricketts, Shelby Pendley, Jessica Shults and the rest of a star-studded lineup. Nobody is similarly scared of the Gators because nobody knows who most of them are yet. And still, the Gators bide their time at the plate, refusing to beat themselves the way young teams -- and a lot of old teams -- so often do.
Freshmen Kirsti Merritt, Taylor Schwarz and Taylore Fuller were part of the hitless rally Sunday, as was junior transfer Stephanie Tofft. As early as August, Florida coach Tim Walton was preaching plate discipline to Gators new and old. One of his teaching tools was to place six softballs side by side across home plate.
"We started to number those balls and have our players tell us what numbers -- closest to you being one, farthest away being six -- what number balls do you think you handle and is your pitch," Walton said. "And as soon as they've learned how to grasp what their pitch is, that's where discipline starts to come in. Even if you throw strike one, if it's on the edge -- maybe on ball No. 6 or ball No. 7 away -- they're not swinging at it.
"When you can learn how to do that, that's when you don't throw as many at-bats away."
The Gators can do plenty when they swing the bat, as they demonstrated by hanging 11 runs on South Florida on Saturday. But it's the plan they take with them to the plate that encapsulates how the controversy and disappointment of a regional exit a season ago could so quickly turn into the dominance of this past weekend. It's a new day and a new team for Florida, a team that has proved too poised and too talented to patiently wait its turn at a championship.
Even if they prefer to think of themselves the way the rest of the country did in January.
"How many times have I coached at Florida and I'm an underdog?" Walton asked. "When you're picked seventh in the league -- and I've made no bones about that; I would have picked us seventh or eighth, too, if I could vote for my own team. So to be honest with you, we're an underdog, and we're playing like it. We're playing like we have nothing to lose. Our players don't want to lose. There's some intensity with our team that you just can't coach."
2. Which player made the biggest statement in regionals?
Walton's program got to try on the role of underdog for a season, but Louisiana-Lafayette lives it every season. And against all logic, as the SEC rises around it and more programs across the country backed by football money devote more resources to the sport, a program in a distinctly mid-major setting remains a major fixture in May. Mostly because it keeps finding players like Jordan Wallace, who spent her weekend proving she is an Oklahoma City kind of pitcher.
This is what the Ragin' Cajuns do. Among teams who reside beyond the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, only Fresno State and Cal State Fullerton have been to the Women's College World Series more often than Louisiana-Lafayette, and neither of the California schools has been to Oklahoma City this century. In addition to three appearances in the 1990s, Louisiana-Lafayette made the trip in 2003 and 2008. And it now finds itself two wins away from continuing that five-year cycle after winning the Baton Rouge Regional and eliminating archrival No. 9 LSU without allowing a run in three games.
Not allowing runs is becoming something of a habit for Wallace, the sophomore who pitched all three regional games and is now 31-7 with a 1.73 ERA this season and 58-9 in a career not yet at its halfway point. Over her final two starts in the Sun Belt tournament against South Alabama and Western Kentucky, both regional finalists, and her three weekend starts, she allowed 10 hits and three earned runs in 36 innings. Louisiana-Lafayette doesn't just throw Wallace out there and hope to win 1-0. In Nerissa Myers, Brianna Cherry, Sarah Draheim and others, there are bats aplenty. But it was Wallace who made this past weekend her stage.
3. Who were the other most outstanding players in regionals?
Kaitlin Inglesby, Washington: In two starts at designated player, Inglesby had a double and a home run among four hits and drove in four of the 10 runs No. 11 Washington scored in wins against Portland State and Hawaii. How did she spend her other game of the weekend? Pitching a two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts against Hawaii.
Sara Driesenga, Michigan: Only twice during the regular season did No. 8 Michigan have back-to-back shutouts, and the most recent instance was in March in games separated by almost a week. Driesenga pitched back-to-back shutouts to open the Ann Arbor Regional and allowed just 12 hits and one earned run in 21 innings for the weekend.
Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma: Want to know what's crazy? Oklahoma scored 41 runs in three regional wins -- and it wasn't the team's best three-game stretch in the past month. Always one of the chief architects of such numbers, Chamberlain went 6-for-8 with four walks, hit two doubles and two home runs and drove in 13 runs.
Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State: She pitched a no-hitter in the only one of three starts in which any runs were scored against her. So No. 5 Arizona State's ace had a nice weekend. And those Georgia bats that some (like me) hinted might test her long-ball susceptibility? Georgia managed four hits -- none for extra bases -- in 14 innings against her.
Meagan May, Texas A&M: Take your pick of slugging Aggies. A case could be made for Cali Lanphear, Nicole Morgan or Amber Garza. But the best case is for May, who went 5-for-9 with four home runs and seven RBIs in four games for No. 16 Texas A&M, including two home runs in an 8-0 clinching win after Baylor forced the winner-take-all game.
Taylor Thom, Texas: The tournament's fourth seed hasn't earned a mention yet, but that's partly because Texas made such easy work of its regional. Thom continued a breakout season at the plate by going 5-for-9 with eight RBIs. The hits included a pair of home runs Sunday, one of which was her fourth grand slam of the season.
4. Which program will most savor next weekend?Maybe it's a trick question. From unseeded Florida State, which rallied for a dramatic extra-inning win to eliminate No. 13 South Alabama, to No. 1 Oklahoma, no team takes a super regional for granted. But let's just say no group is going to savor a super regional appearance more than the UAB contingent heading to Florida.
All but two of the 16 programs that advanced out of regionals have been to the WCWS at least once. And while No. 12 Kentucky has yet to make that trip to Oklahoma City, this is the second super regional appearance in three seasons for the Wildcats, who inhabit the newest of the sizable and well-appointed stadiums that dot the SEC map.
And then there is UAB, four years removed from playing its home games in a Birmingham city park.
So, yes, it took a long time Sunday to wrap up matters in Louisville. It took 20 innings of softball against UCLA, including 13 innings in a winner-take-all final game that wasn't decided until Whitney Fletcher laced a triple that scored Heather Pearson for a 3-2 win after the teams traded runs in the 11th inning. And maybe there were times before Fletcher's big moment, as UCLA piled up 16 hits to UAB's four, when the team with two NCAA tournament wins prior to this season wondered if it was really in the cards for it to eliminate a team with 11 NCAA championships.
"As mentally tough of a team as we've worked on to become, there were times when they were doubting themselves," UAB coach Marla Townsend said. "It killed me because they've got to believe. They're sitting here in a championship game on Sunday and they've got to believe in themselves. And they just kept fighting and pumping through all the highs and lows of it."
But a long Sunday is nothing compared to the decade-plus it took to get to Sunday. UAB's only coach, Townsend graduated from the University of Alabama before it had a softball program. She coached high school softball in the state and saw it go from state-sanctioned slow pitch to state-sanctioned fast pitch. All of which makes her sound a great deal older than she actually is in a state in which "The Simpsons" has been on longer than softball has been fashionable.
Including Fletcher and Lannah Campbell, Leigh Streetman and Lauren Webster, the three pitchers who worked Sunday, there are 10 Alabama natives on the roster. Townsend said it "hurt my heart" this season to have a freshman class without any Alabamans for the first time, nonetheless a fact of life as a program making its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament grows. It's a program that values where it comes from, which is why you'll see UAB players working on the field in their new stadium after games. Opened in 2010, it isn't an SEC stadium, to be sure, but it's on campus, and they don't have to share it with slow-pitch recreational leagues or pick broken glass from the outfield.
All of which is why they will value where they're going this weekend a great deal.
5A. What is the showcase super regional?
No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Alabama: Yes, it's a conference rematch, and those don't always make for the most interesting super regionals beyond the involved fan bases. But this one is the defending national champion going on the road for the first time since 2007 in a super regional and facing a team still looking to prove its seeding isn't an accurate reflection of its place as one of the top championship contenders. And with 13 WCWS appearances between them since 2000, it's the super regional with the most Oklahoma City history this century (which is what happens when neither UCLA nor Arizona makes it for the first time since super regionals were added in 2005).
Like conference rematches, No. 1 versus No. 16 isn't usually a super regional combination with a lot of luster, but Oklahoma against Texas A&M reunited two long-standing rivals a year after the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC. Plus, while there has to be concern about Texas A&M ace Mel Dumezich pitching at what might be less than 100 percent, the Aggies will take the national lead in home runs with them to slug it out with the Sooners.
5B. What is the most intriguing super regional?
No. 6 Missouri vs. No. 11 Washington: As mentioned, Inglesby was in beast mode in regionals, but what made Washington's success doubly fascinating was how little she had to pitch. Bryana Walker started two of her team's three games in Seattle and struck out 25 batters in just 12 innings, including a five-inning no-hitter in the finale against Hawaii. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine played an excellent game of chess to get his team through its regional without extending ace Chelsea Thomas, all but ceding one game Sunday but further tiring Hofstra ace Olivia Galati.
But if Washington brings two effective arms to Columbia, along with a more dangerous offense than either Hofstra or the LSU team that beat Missouri a season ago in a super regional, will the home team be able to keep up the juggling act?