5 Striking Statements In Week 3 Of The NCAA Softball Season
What went down in the third week of college softball? The aim each week is to bring you five stories that defined the week in college softball or help navigate the long road to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
1. The showstopper you missed Saturday
You thought Stephen Curry had the most jaw-dropping performance from Saturday's sports schedule? It was, to be fair, a safe assumption. And undoubtedly a few more folks saw Curry's long-distance brilliance during a nationally televised NBA game in Oklahoma City than saw University of Indianapolis senior Morgan Foley pitch earlier that day against Hillsdale College during a softball tournament in Tennessee. Yet for the sheer video-game-quality of the numbers involved, Curry's closest peer is a Division II ace.
Though not a perfect game by the definition of these things, it was pitching perfection.
It takes 21 outs to complete a softball game. Foley got every one of them by strikeout. And she got them all before Hillsdale got a hit (she did walk four batters). No hits, no runs, 21 strikeouts.
Foley's strikeouts, six looking and 15 swinging, broke the NCAA Division II record for most in a seven-inning game. According to NCAA records, she joins former Cal All-American and U.S. Olympian Michele Granger and Jennifer Martinez of Division III St. Joseph's College as the only pitchers in history to strike out 21 batters in a seven-inning game (Martinez did it twice).
Nor is it likely to bother Foley that the game ended before she got a chance to break the record for most strikeouts in a game in any NCAA division. She holds that mark, too, 30 strikeouts in a 13-inning game during her sophomore season.
Foley is 6-0 with 68 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings for the Greyhounds this season. She is locked in a race with conference rival Hannah Perryman of Missouri-St. Louis as both chase down the Division II career strikeout record that appears theirs for the taking (she also displaced Perryman, who had a share of the previous Division II seven-inning strikeout record with 20). But against Hillsdale on Saturday afternoon, Foley was without equal. Just like the guy who shimmies after 3-pointers.
2. Gators cruise in California
Officially there is no champion of the Mary Nutter Classic, the annual softball extravaganza held on five fields near Palm Springs, California, that traditionally features much of the Top 25 (split this year over two weekends). But, well, No. 1 Florida won. It wins everything.
The Gators were the only one of 10 ranked teams involved in the tournament's second week to emerge without a loss, beating No. 8 Washington and No. 10 UCLA in addition to Nebraska, NC State and Utah teams that all reached the NCAA tournament a season ago.
That Florida's margins of victory were slimmer than those of the first two weekends did more to highlight its pitching depth than raise concerns about its lineup. Kelly Barnhill, Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio combined to allow just three earned runs and 19 hits in 33 innings.
The balance, both through the use of multiple pitchers within games and across weekends, is daunting for opponents, but so is the prospect of the balance at some point tipping toward Barnhill. She struck out 14 batters and allowed two hits against NC State and threw a five-inning one-hitter a day later against Nebraska. In 29 2/3 innings across seven starts this season, she has allowed one extra-base hit. That's not unhittable, but it's close enough to be unbeatable.
Others teams were successful in the desert. After its marathon 16-9 loss against No. 2 Michigan, No. 12 Oklahoma beat No. 20 Fresno State, giving ace Jill Compton her first loss of the season, and No. 10 UCLA. Down seven runs, No. 7 Oregon rallied to beat No. 12 Missouri. But none of them were as successful as Florida. We're getting used to that theme.
3. Meanwhile, back in Florida ...
If Foley came close to perfection and Barnhill was unbeatable, what superlatives are left to describe a weekend in which No. 13 Florida State was this good?
Hosting a tournament in Tallahassee, the Seminoles played like they needed to be elsewhere. When it was over, which didn't take long, they had outscored their opponents 51-0 in five games and used the bare minimum 25 innings to do so in run-rule wins. It's not unusual for teams to pad stats with an easy weekend at home in February, but Florida State did its damage against UAB, Bradley, and Hofstra, not championship material but programs solidly in college softball's middle class. So if the results suggest this season may not offer those programs at their best, they also speak well of a host that a week earlier also beat ranked Minnesota twice.
Florida State didn't even score eight runs in five consecutive games in any stretch a season ago, let alone complete five consecutive run-rule wins. They had 12 run-rule wins a season ago. They have nine already this season. How does a team move on from Lacey Waldrop, the former national player of the year? It helps to have Jessica Burroughs, already the de facto ace in the postseason a year ago and now 8-2 with a 1.71 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 45 innings. But it also helps to have a lineup with five players slugging better than .500, including BYU transfer Sydney Broderick and freshman Carsyn Gordon, who combined to drive in 17 runs this week.
4. Fortress Tuscaloosa holds for Alabama
Fourth-ranked Alabama earned its most impressive win of the season without even having to play a seventh inning, the run rule halting Saturday's 9-1 win against 15th-ranked Arizona.
The Crimson Tide were grateful for the full complement of innings the rest of the weekend.
Other than Florida, no team did its resume more good this week than Alabama, which hosted Arizona, No. 19 Tennessee and Marshall in a tournament that rivaled the Mary Nutter Classic in the quality if not quantity. The Crimson Tide won all four of their games, including two against Arizona and one against Tennessee (the two teams won't meet in conference). The SEC schedule offers plenty of opportunities to help or hurt the cause, but three wins against teams likely to rank well in the RPI could clinch the case for postseason home-field advantage.
All that will matter then is that Alabama finished with more runs.
In its first game of the weekend, Alabama erased a seventh-inning deficit with help from two Arizona errors. Tied with Marshall entering the seventh inning (the host played as the visitor in the game), Alabama went ahead with two runs on one swing, a walk preceding Leona Lafaele's game-deciding home run in a 4-2 win. And down two runs against a familiar rival in the seventh inning of Sunday's finale, the Tide scored three runs with two outs to beat Tennessee 6-5.
5. Sister act sequel
Among the sights on display at the Mary Nutter Classic was the first, and potentially only, college meeting between the Romero sisters, Michigan senior Sierra and Oklahoma freshman Sydney. Both contributed, Sierra scoring four runs and driving in three while Sydney reached base three times and scored a run, but Sooners freshman Shay Knighten was among those who upstaged the siblings in the slugfest. Knighten hit two home runs and drove in four runs, giving the Sooners the lead in the third inning and tying the game in the fifth inning.
A long foul away while that was taking place on one field, Nebraska junior MJ Knighten hit the first pitch she saw against Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins over the fence for a home run. The Huskers went on to claim a surprise 6-5 win against the Ducks.
As you may have guessed by now, Nebraska's MJ is the older sister of Oklahoma's Shay.
Come March 20, the Knightens will have their own showdown when the Sooners and Huskers meet in the finale of a tournament in Fullerton, California. And at least through the season's first three weeks, the Knightens are giving the Romeros a run for their money as top siblings.
Compare the numbers so far, excluding Michigan's late game Sunday.
Romero sisters: .432 BA, 7 HR, 34 RBIs, 34 R, 17 BB
Knighten sisters: .451 BA, 12 HR, 35 RBIs, 31 R, 5 BB
The real winner in all of this? The Sooners, who have the younger sibling for four years.