Early tests help Texas form new identity

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It turns out there is life after Cat Osterman.

The Texas Longhorns entered the season without Osterman on the roster, but with the legendary ace still at the center of the team's outlook for 2007.

As in, how in the world could these Longhorns win without Osterman?

Despite an improved offensive performance last season -- including a school-record 46 home runs -- the Texas lineup again left Osterman with no margin for error in the biggest games. The Longhorns scored just 11 runs in 11 Women's College World Series games during Osterman's four seasons, including two runs in three games last season.

All of which is why few things at the Kajikawa Classic were more surprising than the Longhorns knocking off a pair of highly-regarded Pac-10 teams in the span of 24 hours, showing that they have both a capable pitcher in the circle and some dangerous bats to back her up.

Friday's opener against UCLA was Meagan Denny's chance to shine. After two years as Osterman's apprentice, she looked every bit an ace in outdueling UCLA's Anjelica Selden in a 1-0 win. Denny allowed just one hit in seven innings, striking out 11 (albeit against a generous strike zone) and walking two. The hard-throwing right-hander showed off plenty of her trademark heat, but she also mixed in enough offspeed accuracy to suggest an evolving approach.

Denny was at her best against the Bruins when the pressure reached its peak. Staked to a one-run lead, she found herself facing UCLA slugger Kristen Dedmon with one on and one out in the seventh inning. As suggested by all three Texas outfielders playing with both feet solidly on the warning track, there are few more fearsome sights in college softball than Dedmon coming to the plate when UCLA needs a long ball. But after battling Dedmon to a full count, Denny crossed her up for a called third strike. Even a muffed potential third out on a long foul fly from Whitney Holum couldn't unnerve her, as she calmly came back and got Holum to ground out to end the game.

It was a calm, cool and collected performance from a pitcher who wasn't always in control of her emotions last season.

"I figure last year, I was a little all over the place, because I was so excited," Denny said. "So just to harness that excitement, I'm doing some techniques that's trying to calm that down. Between each pitch, I take a deep breath, I grab a handful of dirt, I shake it around and I throw it away. And the throwing away the dirt symbolizes throwing away that last pitch I threw."

The results look good so far, but of course, nobody expects Denny to throw one-hitters every time out or match Osterman's contributions. As good as Friday's win was, Saturday's start against Stanford -- a 7-6 Texas victory -- was evidence that she's still a work in progress. Bailed out of a bad first inning in part by Megan Willis picking a Stanford runner off second base on a tremendous snap throw, Denny pitched unevenly, allowing eight hits and two walks in 4.1 innings.

The bigger news for Texas was the Longhorns didn't need perfection from their pitcher against a highly-ranked Pac-10 foe. Texas pounded out seven runs on nine hits, and a lineup that includes talented freshmen Loryn Johnson (two RBI against Stanford and two more in a 10-3 win against Long Beach State later on Saturday), Tallie Thrasher and a fully healthy Kelly Melone looks to have more than enough depth to overcome the graduation of Tina Boutelle, Chez Sievers and Amber Hall.

Even a 10-inning loss against Utah in Sunday's finale, in which Texas struggled to advance runners from second base in the extra frames, didn't completely overshadow a successful weekend. For the Longhorns, the trip to Tempe offered an early chance to forge their own identity.

"Yes, Cat's a legend," Denny said. "She's going to live in that history book for ever and ever. I mean, no one here, especially me -- I'm not here to try and break her records or anything. We're not trying to take anything away from her, but yes, we're trying to form an identity with this team. And I think this was a great start."

The defending champions likely lost their hold on the top spot in the polls during the season's opening weekend, but the Wildcats are more interested in where they stand in early June. And despite a stunning upset at the hands of Florida and a slightly less monumental upset at the hands of Texas A&M, the champs are hardly reeling.

Although most of the focus in Arizona this winter has been on replacing graduated ace Alicia Hollowell, the weekend's game offered just as much insight into the state of their batting order. Namely, the supporting cast around Caitlin Lowe and Kristie Fox.

"This is a good test for us," coach Mike Candrea said. "Early in the year, you know, you normally don't come out and play teams of this caliber. Florida is a good team and they played well today, and we just didn't help ourselves offensively. But normally at this time of year, the pitching is a little ahead of the offense, and it takes at-bats for our kids to get prepared for that. So I'm hoping as the season goes on, that we get a little better."

Freshman outfielder K'Lee Arredondo struggled out of the gate, hitting .100 while starting all six games, but she brings a new dimension to the lineup hitting second.

Instead of moving up Adrienne Acton, a proficient left-handed slap-hitter, to replace Autumn Champion in the second spot in the order, Candrea left Acton at the bottom of the order and inserted the freshman. Arredondo didn't have a great deal of success slapping the ball in Tempe, but Candrea likes her work ethic and she should be fine after more time working with Arizona slap-hitting guru Larry Ray. And unlike Champion, Arredondo appears to have dangerous gap power when she hits from the right side and swings away.

As good as Acton is, she isn't as good as Champion, one of the all-time great slappers. By leaving Acton ninth and inserting a hitter who offers a slightly different package than Champion behind Lowe, Candrea actually might be able to improve the top of the order rather than hope for a best-case scenario of maintaining the status quo.

Without highly regarded freshman Amanda Williams in uniform -- she didn't travel with the team for personal reasons -- it was tough to get much of a read on Arizona's pitching. But whatever happens with Williams, freshman Sarah Akamine proved she's more than just an emergency fill-in. Expected to play mostly at third base this season, Akamine picked up two wins in three starts in the circle. She wasn't overpowering, but she earned Candrea's praise for battling and eating up innings behind Taryne Mowatt.

"Sarah did a great job, and I'm really proud of her," Candrea said. "She came out [against Northwestern on Saturday], and we put her in a tough situation and she battled. And that's all I asked her to do, is take it one inning at a time and throw as long as you can, and we've got Taryne to bring in if we need to."

The SEC was largely absent from the Kajikawa, with heavyweights Tennessee, LSU, Alabama and Georgia opting to open their seasons in slightly less competitive settings.

Tennessee picked up an easy title in the North Carolina Classic, LSU won six in a row to capture the Easton Tiger Classic and Alabama cruised to victory in the four-team Texas State Tournament. Only Georgia had any trouble, losing twice to host Louisiana-Lafayette in the Louisiana Classic.

As it turned out, all of that just gave Florida an opportunity to show the rest of the country that the SEC's supposed middle class has some punch of its own.

Although New Mexico's 13-1 drubbing of UCLA ultimately ranked as the Kajikawa Classic's most shocking score, Florida's 3-1 win against top-ranked Arizona raised a lot of eyebrows when word of the score began to circulate at the Tempe Sports Complex on Saturday afternoon (the Gators and Wildcats played several miles away at Farrington Stadium on Arizona State's campus).

After beating the Wildcats in extra innings early on Saturday, the Gators dropped an extra-inning game against Wisconsin in the afternoon. For coach Tim Walton, the loss offered an opportunity almost as valuable as the win against Arizona.

"How you respond to the lows is really going to define you," Walton said. "It might not be how we respond tomorrow; it might benefit us at the end of this year, it might benefit us at the end of next year. That's the most important thing for us, is just to somehow find a way to continue to get better mentally each and every season."

To their credit, it didn't take the Gators any longer than a day to respond. They blanked New Mexico 5-0 on Sunday to close out their stay in Tempe with a 4-1 record. A day after beating Arizona, sophomore Stacey Nelson (who was also in the circle when Florida beat defending champ Michigan last season) allowed just six hits and a walk in seven shutout innings against the Lobos.

If Nelson emerges as an ace on par with the likes of LSU's Emily Turner, the Gators could be right in the thick of the SEC race.

"She's a very relaxed individual," Rittman said, scoffing at the fact that Nelson jokingly listed her coach as her favorite sports figure in the team's media guide. "That's the kind of kid she is. She's just a happy-go-lucky type of person. She's a really good competitor when she gets in the circle. I think she takes her game up a little bit when she's been asked to or been challenged a little bit. She's a sophomore, but you wouldn't know it. She's going to be a big-game pitcher for us."

You get the feeling Northwestern coach Kate Drohan has never dipped a foot in the pool or slowly inched off a Band-Aid in her life.

Northwestern touched down in Tempe around 6 p.m. Thursday. Roughly 15 hours later, the Wildcats were playing softball outside for just the second time all year (the first being a practice on Thursday night that had the team changing from travel clothes to practice clothes on the bus). Moving from the team's indoor "turf room" practice facility to games against four ranked opponents and a fifth that will be ranked this week was almost as much of a shock as stepping outside in Evanston in February.

The results were not entirely surprising given the cold-weather training, but still mildly disappointing for a team that opened the season ranked fourth in the nation after advancing to the final series of the Women's College World Series. Northwestern did get two wins against ranked teams, knocking off Fresno State and Stanford, but the Wildcats finished the weekend 2-3 after losing to Texas A&M, Arizona and Cal State Fullerton.

The good news for the Wildcats is they had a great opportunity to introduce several new faces to the demands of big-time college softball. And the great news is one of those freshmen, pitcher Lauren Delaney, might be one of the nation's top newcomers.

Delaney picked up both of Northwestern's wins, striking out 16 and allowing just four walks and 10 hits in 17 innings. That's an impressive line for any freshman pitcher, but it's absolutely remarkable for someone who opened her college career against two ranked opponents.

"We recruited her for this," Drohan said. "I think she chose Northwestern because of the way we play, and so she was ready for it, she was expecting it all the way. I'm very, very pleased with how she's responded."

Like her teammate, senior Eileen Canney, Delaney appears to have all the talent of a true ace with little of the pretension or arrogance (another positive for the Wildcats came in the form of Canney urging the bench to show some energy in the moments before the team rallied against Fresno State).

"She's a workhorse," Drohan said of Delaney. "Her work ethic is incredible. She loves to throw, and she listens well. She wants to get better, she has a lot of trust in the system. So she's made some big strides, but she came in very, very talented. She came to us with a lot of great tools."

In the field, freshman outfielder Kelly Dyer delivered the game-winning hit in extra innings against Fresno State, while fellow freshman Nicole Pauley overcame some first-day jitters with the glove to play solid defense and hit .294.

Northwestern will fall in the rankings, but making the trek to Arizona was hardly a losing proposition for Drohan's team.

Stanford offers plenty of evidence to support whatever argument you want to make for or against the Cardinal.

Is Stanford, picked to finish just fourth in the Pac-10, a flawed team in the national title picture? The Cardinal appeared that way on Saturday, losing 3-1 against No. 4 Northwestern and 7-6 against No. 18 Texas.

Or are the Cardinal one of the favorites to make it to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, as suggested by the fact that they arrived for the Kajikawa Classic ranked ninth in the nation? Coach John Rittman's team put on a hitting display worthy of contender status in beating Western Michigan, Utah and Northwestern State by a combined score of 24-3 over the weekend.

As good as the offense is, paced by the expected brilliance of sophomore Maddy Coon (.500 with one home run and six RBI) and the intriguing excellence of junior Erin Howe (.429 with two home runs and nine RBI after hitting .185 last season), Stanford's fate might rest in the hands of pitchers Missy Pena and Becky McCullough.

"I think we need to see some good pitching, and see how we're going to react against good pitching," Rittman said. "We need to play defense, and we need to pitch. Those are the keys. I think our offense will come around, and we'll find ways to score runs -- we have enough depth and talent in our lineup."

Pena was very good at the Kajikawa, striking out 32 in 21 innings. She took the loss against Northwestern after the Wildcats made her pay for some misplaced pitches with a pair of home runs, but it was her best overall performance. She didn't show vastly improved control, averaging about the same number of walks per inning as last season, but it's worth giving her the benefit of the doubt on that count, considering the umpires appeared to be almost as rusty as the players.

"Missy has grown leaps and bounds from last year," Rittman said. "She made the transition to pitching in the Pac-10, the toughest conference in the country. She's been there, done that now. So I think she's got a lot more confidence with herself and her pitches. And she works hard at improving every day, and as a coach, that's all you can ask for."

On the other end of the spectrum, junior right-hander Becky McCullough struggled in her biggest test, allowing nine hits and seven earned runs in five innings against Texas. Yet her coach remains convinced she has the makings of a top-tier starter.

"Becky pitched through a lot of injuries last season and she's had offseason arm surgery," Rittman said. "Becky is going to get in a groove and she's going to be there. She's a competitor; she throws a wide variety of pitches and changes speeds really well."

The familiar axiom is that pitchers are ahead of hitters at this time of year, but it's possible that a pitcher who relies on movement and deception as much as McCullough has more in common with batters working on timing than many of her pitching peers.

With Sue Enquist looking on from the grass behind the center-field fence, rain began to fall in the desert during UCLA's 9-1 win against Nevada on Sunday.

At first glance, the drops seemed to represent a chance for the Bruins to wash away the memories of a rough weekend that included a 2-3 record and a stunning 13-1 loss against New Mexico. But upon closer inspection, the showers might have more accurately symbolized the growing process that will surround UCLA softball this season.

The Bruins staggered into unfamiliar territory on Saturday, losing first to Texas A&M and then to New Mexico. On top of a loss against Texas in the opener on Friday that included third baseman Ashley Herrera going down with what appeared to be a serious injury to her left knee (there was no official word on the extent of the injury, and Herrera did not return to the lineup during the remainder of the weekend), it seemed like an implosion was imminent. And the old legend Enquist was playing catch with the new coach's son, unable to do anything to stop it.

But with the rest of the tournament concluded and the adjacent fields empty and silent for the first time all weekend, something odd took shape against Nevada. The Bruins still seemed to be having fun playing softball. Granted, the barrage of home runs from Jaisa Creps, Jodie Legaspi and Julie Burney helped, but even after falling behind 1-0 in the top of the first, the Bruins looked and sounded loose.

Talking to their new coach, it quickly became apparent why.

"I think for us, it's simple: We've got to stick to our own game plan and stick to our philosophy," Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "Our philosophy is family comes first. We've got to take care of each other. It's going to be a little bit of a tough ride in the beginning. It's early, and for us, we're going to take this as a learning experience. … That's our game. We're going to learn from every experience."

The Bruins are a team in flux, with new players like Burney and Megan Langenfeld, who earned the win in the circle against Nevada, taking on key roles and old players like Lisa Dodd (now at second base) and Kristen Dedmon (now playing full-time) filling new roles. And Inouye-Perez's calm and confident demeanor is a perfect fit.

Herrera's loss for an extended period would be a significant blow to UCLA's hopes of returning to the Women's College World Series. But losing three games in February, even in a manner that is sure to have fans tired of Goliath gloating, is nothing to get worked up about.

"I'm led by nine seniors," Inouye-Perez said. "They have the experience to know that this weekend means nothing in the grand scheme of it. We've got four freshmen that got a lot of experience this weekend, and I try to keep them loose -- just have fun and play the game you know how to play. We now know what we need to work on. … No matter what was happening, and it got kind of tough there, we kept it positive and we're still learning."

If you don't like UCLA, soak in the weekend's results. Because the Bruins' roots are strong enough to bloom in May and June.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.