UCLA's Camuso hopes to put injuries behind her
As recently as a few weeks ago, UCLA second baseman Samantha Camuso thought her body would keep her off the field when the Bruins opened the regular season.
It turned out neither her own problematic hips nor the healthy arms of opposing pitchers had much luck on that count.
The Bruins won all four of their games during the opening weekend of play, including three wins against a Kentucky team that advanced to a super regional last season, one round deeper in the NCAA tournament than UCLA. The Bruins outscored Kentucky and Pacific by a combined 35-5 margin, so perhaps no one player made the difference, but no one player spent more time on the field than Camuso. She hit .545 (6-for-11) with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs and accumulated a team-best 15 total bases.
In three days, she piled up more doubles, home runs and RBIs than she had in the previous 19 months.
"I was just out there having fun," Camuso said. "No real expectations other than just getting a chance to get out on the field again with my teammates and just enjoying that opportunity to be in uniform again."
The limited production in 22 appearances a season ago, and in turn the concern she had about her availability to start this season, are tied to the injuries that have plagued Camuso as a collegian. While she can't recall missing even a game because of injury before arriving at UCLA, staying on the field has been a constant challenge ever since. After starting 60 games as a freshman in 2008 and showing off star potential with a .366 batting average and .983 OPS, she missed the entire 2009 season following shoulder surgery. She bounced back from that to rank among team leaders in home runs and RBIs en route to a national championship in 2010, but hip surgery wiped out the first two months of last season and left her less than 100 percent physically and mentally when she returned in April.
Two surgeries already in the books, she makes at least a couple of trips to the training room during the course of an average day. To make matters just that much more perilous, she recently began to feel some of the same symptoms in the supposedly healthy hip that led to surgery on the other.
"I don't even know if I could define what healthy is for Sammy," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "She's getting out there and she's grinding every day. Is she 100 percent? Probably not. But I think she'll give everything she has, and she's a threat at the plate and she's also a solid defender."
One of the ironies of the situation is that in saying Camuso has learned how to deal with the physical limitations, you come closer to the truth than mere cliché. A psychobiology major with an interest in becoming a nurse or physician assistant if she doesn't follow the premed track to medical school, she is fascinated by the interplay of the brain and body, how everything we do is the result of so many complex interactions, and how, as she well knows, one breakdown throws everything off. At this point, she jokes, she could teach a class on the inner workings of the hip.
A relatively healthy Camuso, who did her damage last weekend from the bottom of the order, would be a major asset for a Bruins team that will need its offense to shoulder a significant load in support of unproven pitchers in the circle. A veteran glove, she could also help stabilize a defense that too often let its pitchers down a season ago.
But given the toll the past has taken on her body, future possibilities weren't on Camuso's mind over the weekend.
"I was mostly just excited because I've been through a lot the last couple of years," Camuso said. "I just wanted to be out there again with my teammates, just enjoying softball, nothing more than that. I wasn't worried about hits or winning or losing, it was more about just enjoying the game and enjoying being out there with my friends and having a good time."
Bison hit the ground running
Confined to the inside of a gym for the duration of preseason back home in Fargo, North Dakota State coach Darren Mueller is rarely sure exactly what he'll see when his team digs its cleats into dirt and grass for the first time.
At least he has the right pitcher for getting down to business.
In her first start of the season, junior Whitney Johnson struck out 19 batters in eight innings against Toledo and allowed just one hit and no earned runs to earn the win. She wasn't done. Johnson finished the weekend with a 3-1 record and piled up 44 strikeouts and six walks in 26 innings. In her lone loss, she allowed just one hit in six innings in a 1-0 defeat against tournament host Fresno State.
It's just the latest example of Johnson's ability to make quick transitions, whether from indoor to outdoor or high school to college. Johnson had all of one week off between the end of high school and joining the Bison for the 2010 season, in time to start against Arizona in her first weekend as a collegian. She graduated a semester early from her Minnesota high school, meaning that while she's beginning her junior season at North Dakota State, she won't turn 20 until the middle of March. It isn't the most common route to college softball, but for someone who excelled academically and wasn't going to get top-tier pitching instruction in her small hometown of Lake Crystal, 100 miles south of Minneapolis, it was a head start that made sense on multiple levels.
Johnson struck out better than a batter per inning in each of her first two seasons, but she battled a high walk rate and control issues that kept her ERA above 2.00. As she continues to work with former Iowa ace and current Bison pitching coach Brittany Weil (the latter's full-time position a sign of improving times for a program that reached a super regional in 2009), that makes the six walks from opening weekend as impressive as the 44 strikeouts.
"We always talk about working ahead on batters and things like that, and if she can continue to do that, that's something we can build on as a team, and for her as a pitcher," Mueller said of a team with games upcoming against Alabama, Arizona State, Baylor and Texas A&M. "That's something that Brittany Weil has been working with her on a lot in the preseason and it's paid off. If she can continue that for the next couple of weekends and through the season, we're going to be pretty excited about the position we think she can put us in."
Player Q&A: McNeese State's Kim Kennedy
McNeese State stunned many when it beat defending champion Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz., where the Sun Devils were 36-3 last season. The Cowgirls also beat Oregon State earlier the same day and finished their stay in Arizona with a 4-3 record. I checked in with sophomore Kim Kennedy, whom I last saw nervously asking Jennie Finch for a photo after Kennedy volunteered in the press box during last summer's NPF playoffs in Louisiana.
Graham Hays: When you first saw the schedule with Arizona on the first day and Oregon State and Arizona State on the second, what goes through your mind?
Kim Kennedy: The first thing that went through my mind was excitement, just getting to play the big schools and proving ourselves and being able to be competitively great, because that's our motto this year.
GH: Did you watch Arizona State play in the World Series last season, and if so, what were your impressions of them?
KK: Watching them play last year, they couldn't be beat, nobody could touch them, nobody could get them out. To only give up three hits was phenomenal. [McNeese State pitcher Tiffany Denham] did an awesome job, and we played very solid D and got clutch hits when we needed them.
GH: You guys took a 3-1 lead in that game in the fourth inning; did those final three innings feel more nerve-wracking than a normal game, trying to hold that lead?
KK: Not really, we were very relaxed. We came to play that game. It was a completely different atmosphere. It was not as nerve-wracking as you would think, but the last inning was for sure, nerve-wracking. I don't know if you've seen the YouTube video of us, but I think I jumped like eight feet off the ground when it was over. It was definitely a lot more intense than nerve-wracking.
GH: What is Friday night like after that? It's always a short turnaround at those tournaments [McNeese played two games the next day], but were you able to savor it that night?
KK: We're in charge of equipment, and I'm in charge of bats and I just threw them in my bag -- I didn't even put them neatly; I just wanted to go hug my dad and see my uncle and my cousin and celebrate with them. We all went out to eat at Outback. It was a lot of fun; I'm never going to forget that night, receiving text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter notifications. So many people were supporting us back home, and that's what makes it really great.
GH: You hit your first career home run earlier that day against Oregon State. What do you remember about the at-bat?
KK: I remember my first at-bat she threw me an inside rise ball and I swung at it and I think I flew out to the third baseman. So they knew I was going to be aggressive coming off the plate [the second time], so I knew the rise ball was coming and I laid off that. The next pitch was just a screwball, and I just let it go and it went over the center-field fence. I didn't even realize their assistant coach was Laura Berg, a former Olympian, and I thought that was pretty cool. She told me "Good hit."
GH: What is [first-year coach Mike Smith's] coaching style?
KK: Our practices are super, super organized. We know what we're doing, we know what our goal is. A lot of his philosophy is hitting style, and it's helped us tremendously, especially against the teams we faced this weekend. I guarantee people thought we were going to go 0-7 this weekend, and we surprised the softball world this weekend, which is awesome. I can't wait to keep surprising them as we go along in the season.
Games to watch this weekend
Friday, Feb. 17
Tennessee at Texas
The Longhorns looked like a team with something to prove this season in routing Cal State Fullerton, Texas-San Antonio and Colorado State by a combined 60-0 margin in five games last weekend (including a 23-0 win against Fullerton). They get another weekend at home, but even without Raven Chavanne and Kat Dotson because of injury, Tennessee is a different kind of test.
Saturday, Feb. 18
Alabama vs. Oklahoma
The season's first top-five matchup will take place on a neutral field in Auburn, Ala., as part of the ACC/Big 12/SEC Challenge. It's the second game of the day for Alabama and the first for Oklahoma; there's no telling what that may suggest about the likelihood of getting a Jackie Traina vs. Keilani Ricketts matchup.
Michigan vs. Kentucky
The two teams that played for last season's Ann Arbor Regional title reconnect in Boca Raton, Fla. Kentucky won that last meeting, but it is coming off a rough weekend in Los Angeles (dropped three against UCLA). The Wolverines got one strong start apiece from freshmen Haylie Wagner and Sara Driesenga in their first weekend.
Oklahoma State vs. Georgia Tech
Both teams also face big games against top-five opponents Alabama and Oklahoma (though in Oklahoma State's case, only Alabama), but their encounter Saturday evening could be the difference between a good and bad weekend. It's the only game of the day for both teams, which would seem to favor Oklahoma State and ace Kat Espinosa, except that Australian Simone Freeman was the Cowgirls' more impressive pitcher last weekend (2-0, 0.00 ERA, 24 strikeouts, 14 innings).
Sunday, Feb. 19
California vs. LSU
The nation's new No. 1 team faces LSU's deep pitching staff in Las Vegas, where scores in recent seasons have sometimes drifted toward football territory when the wind blows. Cal also faces DePaul to open its tournament slate, but facing either Brittany Mack or Rachele Fico on Sunday will be an interesting test.
Player of the year watch
Louisiana-Lafayette, UT, Sr.
Stock up: Weather shortened Louisiana-Lafayette's opening weekend to three games. A force of nature at the plate took it from there. The Ragin' Cajuns needed just 16 total innings to run-rule Rutgers, Tulsa and Mississippi Valley State by a combined 55-5 score, and Orgeron led the charge. The All-American had nine hits in 11 at-bats, including three doubles and two home runs, and drove in 12 runs.
Alabama, P, So.
Stock up: It was a good weekend for SEC aces, with Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe and Florida's Hannah Rogers also off to quick starts, but Traina comfortably handled the bulk of the innings without Kelsi Dunne around. Facing decent competition against NCAA tournament regulars like Memphis and Jacksonville State, Traina struck out 30, walked four and allowed four hits in 16 scoreless innings.
By the numbers
16: Oregon State wasted no time in getting its offense going this season. In the second inning of the Beavers' season-opener, they scored 16 runs en route to a 22-5 win against BYU. In that inning, the Beavers set school records for runs scored in an inning and home runs hit in an inning (5). If the first weekend of play is any indication (59 runs in five games), Oregon State should eclipse its 2011 run total of 135 in 47 games before it even begins Pac-12 competition.
2: Feb. 10 was a good day at the ballpark for McNeese State, as it recorded two wins against the Pac-12 (Oregon State and Arizona State). While the 3-1 win over Arizona State did not come against ace Dallas Escobedo, it did snap the Sun Devils' 13-game win streak, which dated back to 2011.
27: Tennessee sophomore pitcher Ellen Renfroe threw 27 consecutive shutout innings to start the season. She finished the weekend 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 31 innings. Her 3-0 win against then No. 1 Arizona State was her fourth career win against a team ranked No. 1 or 2.
814: Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts' 16 strikeouts against UNLV on Friday brought her to 814 for her career, a new school record. Ricketts, just a junior, has the chance to leave OU with a significant lead in this category, but Monica Abbott's (Tennessee 2004-2007) NCAA career record of 2,440 looks to be out of reach.
-- Erin Quinn
Preseason All-American Team