Oklahoma heavy favorite at WCWS
Starting with No. 1 Oklahoma, here are the players to watch and storylines to follow at the Women's College World Series:
No. 1 Oklahoma (52-4)
Three Sooners to watch
Keilani Ricketts: What, you've heard of her? The reigning national player of the year, who may have back-to-back awards by the time you read this, Ricketts is the most galvanizing player in the college game and arguably the biggest such presence since at least two-time player of the year Danielle Lawrie. In the past two seasons, Ricketts is 68-10 with 768 strikeouts and a 1.14 ERA as a pitcher and is hitting .386 with 30 home runs, 103 RBIs and 112 walks. What she doesn't have, unlike Lawrie but like Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Angela Tincher, Michele Granger and more than a few other pitching greats, is a championship.
Shelby Pendley: Apparently, Oklahoma agrees with Pendley. A transfer from Arizona, where she was an all-conference selection as a freshman in 2012, the infielder is tied for seventh in the nation in home runs in her first season with the Sooners. It's not her fault that's only second on her own team, thanks to classmate Lauren Chamberlain. Pendley has hit in the No. 3 hole in front of Ricketts and behind Chamberlain, but mostly, she just hits.
Brianna Turang: If the name Adrienne Acton rings a bell, congratulations, you're either an Arizona fan or you watch a lot of softball. The No. 9 hitter on Arizona's 2006 championship team, Acton was a constant source of frustration for opposing pitchers who thought they could catch their breath at the bottom of the lineup. Enter Turang, the speedy senior outfielder whose slap-hitting acumen adds up to a .489 on-base percentage. Just what a pitcher wants to deal with when Chamberlain waits on deck.
Two storylines for the Sooners
Emotions of the moment: Softball is softball, and real life is real life, but the World Series will take place a short drive from the Moore, Okla., community devastated by the recent tornado. It's inescapable that the shadow of the disaster will in some way fall across the softball proceedings, especially with a local team not just involved but favored to win. Whatever role a softball team can or even should play in such a situation, the Sooners will surely feel they are playing for more than themselves. That can be powerful, but it isn't necessarily easy.
The other pitcher: As good as Ricketts remains in the circle, she doesn't lead the Sooners in ERA or strikeouts per seven innings. Those leads belong to senior Michelle Gascoigne, who was one of the final 10 players in the running for national player of the year. She didn't pitch in either of Oklahoma's run-rule wins in its super regional against Texas A&M, but she worked 5 2/3 innings of relief in the regional round and struck out nine. She's an asset, but how does she fit in the format of the World Series that so often seems to favor sticking with the hot hand?
No. 2 Florida (57-7)
Three Gators to watch
Hannah Rogers: All Rogers has done to this point in three seasons is go 97-21 with a 1.56 ERA in the circle. It's hard to pinpoint one specific asset that sets her apart, but she's simply good across the board -- she strikes out enough batters, she doesn't give up home runs, she's difficult to hit in general, and she doesn't walk too many batters. She's reliable, tough to rattle and durable, all things that make her the perfect metronome for such a young team.
Lauren Haeger: Florida's power game has struggled to get going in recent games against good pitching from South Florida and UAB, but Haeger showed what lurks in the lineup when she drove in seven runs with a double and a home run in the tournament opener against the same South Florida team. The sophomore, who is also a viable second pitcher, was responsible for 30 percent of Florida's home runs and 21 percent of its RBIs in SEC play.
Kelsey Stewart: When was it clear Florida was going to exceed expectations? Maybe it wasn't as early as when Stewart went 2-for-3 with a triple, a home run and a walk in her first college game, but it's a good place to start. The team's success depended on contributions from newcomers across the board, but Stewart quickly emerged as a star at second base. Her power numbers dropped once conference play began and have yet to tick back up, but she's a handful simply as a leadoff hitter, with a .455 on-base percentage and 36 stolen bases.
Two storylines for the Gators
Nerves or naive bliss: The other seven teams in Oklahoma City start a total of nine freshmen with any regularity (10 if you count Nebraska pitcher Emily Lockman). Florida starts four, in addition to a junior transfer and a sophomore who totaled 32 at-bats a season ago. This is the fifth World Series in the past six seasons for the Gators, but only three current players were around for the most recent trip in 2011. This team got here because it never looked like it realized it was supposed to be inexperienced. Will that continue on the biggest stage?
Walking to a title: Only Oklahoma walks more than Florida, but it's less a run-generating tool for the Sooners than a concession by opponents. In addition to the obvious stars, the Gators thrive with players like Briana Little, who is hitting just .258 but renders that batting average meaningless with a .449 on-base percentage and .570 slugging percentage. That kind of plate discipline shouldn't come and go, but the World Series will test it.
No. 4 Texas (49-8)
Three Longhorns to watch
Blaire Luna: When you win 30 games and strike out 404 batters as a freshman, it's going to create a certain expectation. When you do it at Texas, well, you're going to hear the name Cat Osterman a lot. Already assured of finishing in the top 15 in career strikeouts, Luna made sure of her own legacy by getting the Longhorns back to the World Series for the first time since Osterman was around. She's the hardest ace to hit in the World Series (3.1 hits per seven innings) and the national leader in strikeouts per seven innings. Her kryptonite remains walks and hit batters.
Taylor Hoagland: Honestly, it bordered on an embarrassment that Hoagland wasn't among the final 10 players in the running for USA Softball Player of the Year. The senior is having as good a season at the plate as just about any other player in the nation and one of the better seasons in recent memory. She's a slugger -- 14 home runs, 28 extra-base hits and an .844 slugging percentage, the last good for 12th in the nation. But she's also a short-game star, with 27 stolen bases and a .615 on-base percentage. The OBP is good for third in the nation and one of only three above .600.
Taylor Thom: When Texas made the World Series in 2005, the entire team hit 15 home runs for the season. Thom has already matched that. A double-double player as a freshman with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases, she endured a tough sophomore season in which she hit just two home runs and committed 21 errors at shortstop. To say she bounced back is an understatement. Her 15 home runs and 21 stolen bases this season make her the only player in Oklahoma City with at least 15 of the former and 20 of the latter. And she's been a terrific glove, with just seven errors in 56 games.
Two storylines for the Longhorns
House money: Texas didn't catch any breaks in its return to the World Series. As the No. 4 seed, it's nominally the favorite in its first game, but it's hard to think of a better "underdog" in the annals of the tournament than Arizona State. And then there is old nemesis Oklahoma lurking in the same half of the bracket. But maybe, just maybe, the act of getting to the World Series and erasing so much recent postseason disappointment will set the Longhorns up to be the loosest team.
Running into trouble: Texas has power, but coach Connie Clark also turns her players loose on the bases more than any other team in this World Series field. The Longhorns stole 120 bases through the super regionals, with Hoagland, Thom, Brejae Washington and Torie Schmidt all stealing at least 20. But will their speed trump Arizona State's Amber Freeman and potentially Oklahoma's Jessica Shults, two catchers who have strong arms? Opponents successfully ran on Arizona State and Oklahoma just 20 times this season.
No. 5 Arizona State (50-10)
Three Sun Devils to watch
Dallas Escobedo: Good luck finding a better demeanor for a pitcher who spends a lot of time on the big stage. Escobedo keeps her visible emotions in check without looking like she's trying to keep them in check and yet at the same time manages to pitch with a distinct intensity. On the more tangible side of the ledger, she dramatically cut her walk rate this season, which at least ameliorates the Achilles' heel we'll get to in a moment. She's good, she's tough, she can be unhittable, and she may well become the first ace to pitch a team to multiple titles in almost a decade.
Amber Freeman: Oklahoma's Jessica Shults remains a dynamic leader, Texas' Mandy Ogle and Nebraska's Taylor Edwards are special, but it doesn't get better behind the plate than Freeman. Just a sophomore, the Pac-12 player of the year offers the complete package of power at the plate, poise behind the plate and leadership in the dugout. When the team needed someone to step up in conference, she hit .394 with a 1.295 OPS in 24 Pac-12 games.
Cheyenne Coyle: A World Series participant with Florida as a freshman, she's back with a new team this season. And the new team is back in part because of what she brought. Stepping in for All-American Katelyn Boyd at shortstop, which seemed like a hole the Sun Devils would struggle to fill, she hit 20 home runs, drove in 66 runs and posted a team-best 1.313 OPS. It was a messy end to her stay in Gainesville, but she made the most of the fresh start.
Two storylines for the Sun Devils
The secret weapon: All right, Alix Johnson isn't much of a secret. Still, the All-America outfielder experienced a tough conference season in which she was briefly suspended for a violation of team rules and hit just .250 when she was in the lineup against Pac-12 opponents. That's increasingly a distant memory. She's hitting .467 in the postseason, including going 5-for-7 with a triple and two stolen bases in the super regional against Kentucky. If the Sun Devils effectively added an All-America hitter with power and speed in time for the postseason, it could tilt the balance of power this week.
The home run conundrum: It's what makes Escobedo that much more intriguing. She has allowed just 163 hits in 243 innings this season, putting her in the same company as Florida's Hannah Rogers and Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe in hits per seven innings. The problem is 37 of those hits went for home runs, pushing her ERA above 2.00 and sometimes pushing the Sun Devils into trouble. It's part of the tradeoff for her phenomenal rise ball, and it rarely seems to rattle her beyond the point of recovery, but it does make things interesting.
No. 7 Tennessee (49-10)
Three Lady Vols to watch
Ellen Renfroe: Or Ivy Renfroe. Take your pick, but younger sister Ellen comes first alphabetically. The statistical accounting of the Renfroe era in Knoxville is impressive. In three seasons together and one in which Ivy was on her own, the family name has a combined 166-39 record with 1,451 strikeouts. One or both Renfroes have also led the Lady Vols to three World Series appearances, matching those the program made with Monica Abbott.
Madison Shipman: There is lots of talk about Raven Chavanne and Lauren Gibson, and for good reason, but the shortstop who sits between those two in the infield fits right in. The 6-foot-1 junior reached double-digit home runs for the second season in a row, and she did it with a .438 on-base percentage, nearly 70 points better than a season ago. She's been charged with just 10 errors over the past two seasons, one fewer than her freshman season alone.
Kat Dotson: For Dotson, 100 percent is a relative term. The senior outfielder, who has battled knee problems for much of her college career, probably isn't 100 percent healthy by the usual standards. But 100 percent of what's possible at the moment is pretty darn good. She's the slapper complement to Chavanne, and has 19 steals in 20 attempts this season, but 19 extra-base hits also make her a power complement.
Two storylines for the Lady Vols
Those sisters Renfroe: The SEC is a league replete with lineups that wear out pitchers, but there's no getting around the fact that by the standards they set for themselves, Ivy and Ellen didn't pitch particularly well in conference play this season. Ivy's 2.90 ERA against SEC teams was two runs higher than her 0.90 ERA out of conference, but that was still less of a hit than Ellen took going from a 0.66 ERA out of conference to a 3.00 ERA in conference. Alabama's five runs in two super regional games are all Tennessee has allowed in the postseason, but it's something to watch.
The Florida hurdle: There is a scheduled break between the end of Thursday's afternoon game between Tennessee and Florida and the first game of the evening session, but history suggests the SEC rivals will erase it. The last four games between the Lady Vols and Gators went extra innings, including all three played this season during a series in Gainesville. The top five hitters in Tennessee's order can hold their own with any lineup. But the bottom four hitters went just 6-for-43 in those three games against the Gators.
No. 8 Michigan (50-11)
Three Wolverines to watch
Sierra Romero: Watch her now, because you're going to be hearing a lot about Michigan's freshman shortstop for the next three years. Coach Carol Hutchins likes to say Romero could play for the Detroit Tigers right now. And then she'll tell you she's not kidding. Whether or not that's a bit of hyperbole, Romero is a legit wunderkind, a prolific power hitter with range and a strong arm in the field. She's also scuffling just a bit in her first postseason, hitting .263 through Big Ten tournament and NCAA regional and super regional play. If she breaks through, look out.
Sara Driesenga: Success begat success. Driesenga put the maize and blue ribbons in her hair and decided she wanted to play for Michigan after she watched fellow native Michigander Jennie Ritter pitch the team to a national title in 2005. Now Driesenga is the pitching star of her own World Series team. She showed the physical stuff to excel all season, dramatically improving her strikeout rate and emerging as the ace. After some rough innings in the super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette, she showed the mental stuff to excel by throwing a gem in the finale.
Lauren Sweet: Michigan's catcher is third on the team with 10 home runs and sixth with 34 RBIs. Those are good numbers on their own, but they're great numbers when you consider she didn't get her second hit of the season until March 14, more than a month into the schedule. A brutal early slump now a distant memory (she's hitting .322 since March 14), she and standout freshman Sierra Lawrence extend the lineup seven deep with run producers.
Two storylines for the Wolverines
One pitcher or two: Impressive as the performance ended up being, Driesenga wasn't even supposed to start the super regional finale. Fellow sophomore Haylie Wagner was going to get the ball until an injury in warm-ups forced her to the bench. Hutchins has always preached the value of two pitchers (although Ritter threw all but two innings in the World Series in 2005), so it wouldn't be a surprise to see both pitch in the same game if Wagner is healthy.
Tough road ahead: No matter what happens, Michigan is going to end up playing two of the tournament favorites in its first two games. It opens against No. 1 Oklahoma and is guaranteed to face either No. 4 Texas or No. 5 Arizona State in the second game, whether in the winners or losers bracket. There shouldn't be a fear factor -- Michigan played six super regional teams in the regular season, including a win against Arizona State -- but there is no margin for error (something that may be a concern for a team that has committed 74 physical errors).
No. 11 Washington (43-15)
Three Huskies to watch
Kaitlin Inglesby: She's been a model of consistency at the plate in her three seasons, and consistency is a good thing when it means statistics like this season's .627 slugging percentage and .469 on-base percentage. In the circle, she's not really a strikeout pitcher, but she's a good contrast to teammate Bryana Walker and someone you wouldn't expect to be flustered by her surroundings in Oklahoma City. It isn't fair to ask her to be former UCLA great Megan Langenfeld, but she plays a similar kind of all-encompassing role.
Hooch Fagaly: Washington's first baseman missed the 2011 season because of an ACL injury. Fagaly returned in 2012 but never really found her comfort zone offensively in the middle of the order. She slugged just .380 and drove in 25 runs. And now? She enters the World Series slugging .621 with 47 RBIs. Is that the only reason the Huskies average 6.0 runs per game this season, up from 5.3 runs per game last season? No, but it may be the biggest one.
Victoria Hayward: It wouldn't be Washington softball if the conversation at some point didn't turn to Canada. Hayward was a prep All-American in California, but like Washington greats Lawrie and Jenn Salling before her, she is a member of the Canadian national team (she was born in Toronto). An all-conference selection as a junior who was almost exclusively a singles hitter and stolen-base threat, Hayward upped her slugging percentage this season -- which paid off when she drove in the winning runs in both super regional games with a double and a home run.
Two storylines for the Huskies
Rotating arms: Asked why she went with her starting pitcher in one of the super regional games, Washington coach Heather Tarr said it was the pitcher's turn in the rotation. Simple enough. And indeed, Inglesby and Walker have alternated starts right through the postseason. Will that continue in Oklahoma City, where it would be Inglesby's turn to start the opener, or will Tarr be tempted to bow to World Series convention and pick a hot hand?
Defense first: Only Oklahoma committed as few errors this season as Washington among World Series participants, and the Sooners had far fewer opportunities for miscues with all the strikeouts their pitchers recorded. From outfielder Kylee Lahners' reaching over the fence to rob a home run, to second baseman Kelli Suguro's improvising a throw from her belly to get an out, aggressive and impeccable defense played a big role in Washington's super regional surprise.
No. 14 Nebraska (45-14)
Three Cornhuskers to watch
Tatum Edwards: Twin sister of catcher Taylor Edwards, whose power makes her a Husker to watch in her own right, Tatum is one of the best two-way talents as a pitcher and a slugger in the World Series. The Big Ten pitcher of the year, she is 30-9 with a 1.81 ERA and just eight home runs allowed in 240 innings, one of the best home run rates of World Series aces. In fact, she's hit more home runs (11) than she's allowed in all those pitching appearances.
Alicia Armstrong: The only Nebraska native likely to start for the Huskers, the freshman shortstop arrived in Lincoln without the accolades and experience of some of her teammates who played high-level travel softball on the West Coast. But Armstrong does have as much raw athleticism as any player who will be in Oklahoma City. She's a .347 hitter with gap power, but it's her range and arm in the field that make her a rising star and a must-see player.
Emily Lockman: Based on the pitching plan in the first two rounds, it's not even clear we'll see Lockman in Oklahoma City, but the freshman has done everything possible to earn innings. The first pitcher to beat No. 1 Oklahoma this season, and one of two to shut out the Sooners, she started Game 3 of the super regional against No. 3 Oregon after not pitching in the postseason. All she did was throw a complete game and allow just two earned runs.
Two storylines for the Huskers
Double trouble: Tatum puts runners on base. It's just a fact of life that the ace is going to walk batters and hit batters as she goes about her otherwise stellar work. She's got the right defense behind her. Nebraska has turned 48 double plays this season. No other team in Oklahoma City has turned even 30 double plays. Armstrong, Gabby Banda and Hailey Decker are adept at making sure Tatum doesn't pay for those free passes. That must continue.
Run production: Nebraska is a good offensive team, but it's in the company of lineups that are better than good. The Huskers are one of two World Series entrants not hitting at least .300 as a team, and while 56 home runs and a .444 slugging percentage represent big improvements over their power numbers for a good bit of the past decade, they aren't eye-popping. Nebraska needs continued production from the Edwards twins and Brooke Thomason, the senior who came up so huge at the plate in the super regional, but others need to outhit their stats.