Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Freshman powers Florida to 5-0
By Graham Hays
The college softball season is off and running, the first week highlighted by big games at the Kajikawa Classic hosted by Arizona State and big crowds for defending national champion Alabama indoors in Iowa. Each week in this space, you'll find one take on the identities of the top 10 teams in the land.
1. Oklahoma (5-0)
The Sooners played like a team that waited seven months to erase the disappointment of losing two in a row in the championship series last season. Senior Keilani Ricketts opened her campaign with back-to-back no-hitters against ranked opponents Stanford and Oregon, and the Sooners outscored their first four opponents 43-3. Only Northwestern got to Ricketts and pushed Oklahoma on the final day of the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. But the offense hit 13 home runs in five games to carry the Sooners home. Another challenging schedule awaits, with Kentucky, Washington and host San Diego State among the opponents at this week's tournament.
2. Alabama (5-0)
The competition wasn't what some of the other top teams faced, but Alabama made generally quick work of the field at the UNI-Dome Classic in Cedar Falls, Iowa -- some late-inning drama in an eventual 10-7 win against Green Bay as the lone exception. Freshman outfielder Haylie McCleney made a big splash, but she wasn't alone among the Tide's newcomers. Rated by some services as the nation's top recruit, Andrea Hawkins totaled seven at-bats in her first weekend and finished with six hits and five stolen bases. After drawing more than 5,000 when it played host Northern Iowa, Alabama heads to Florida, where its game against host Florida Gulf Coast is already sold out.
3. Arizona State (7-0)
The notable result was an 8-1 win against Kentucky, but Arizona State impressed on quantity of wins alone. Stepping in for All-American Katelyn Boyd at shortstop, Florida transfer Cheyenne Coyle hit five home runs and drove in 10 runs. Junior ace Dallas Escobedo was dominant in four starts, and Mackenzie Popescue didn't allow a run in three starts as the No. 2 pitcher. Northern Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois-Chicago, Illinois State and Minnesota are up next, with Gophers ace Sara Moulton presenting the most intriguing matchup.
4. Tennessee (5-0)
Tennessee opened the season with three consecutive run-rule wins, outscoring Southern Utah, Idaho State and Utah State by a total of 42-5. Co-coach Ralph Weekly said before the season that he wanted to use all four of his pitchers, and each started at least one game in the Red Desert Classic in Utah. The highlight this weekend is at least one game -- potentially two -- against fellow World Series participant South Florida on that team's home field in Tampa, Fla.
5. Texas A&M (4-0)
Texas A&M arrived safely in California to open the season. So did its bats. The Aggies showed off a powerful lineup in sweeping four games against Long Beach State, Cal State Bakersfield, Wright State and UCLA. The 7-6 extra-inning win against the Bruins adds to one of the more curious historical notes in college softball, as Texas A&M improved to 4-0 all time in games at UCLA. (The most recent win before Sunday was in 1986.) Mel Dumezich was splendid as both ace and hitter, and one other positive note for the Aggies came from sophomore pitcher Lauren Ainsley, who struck out 10 and allowed two hits and no walks in eight innings.
6. Florida (5-0)
The team of the week in college softball, Florida won all five of its games at the Kajikawa Classic, taking down a ranked Pac-12 team on each of its three days of play (Oregon, California and Arizona). Freshman Kelsey Stewart understandably claimed the headlines, but classmate Kirsti Merritt also made a strong debut with three extra-base hits, six RBIs and a .526 on-base percentage. Florida's jump from No. 15 to No. 5 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 was the biggest first week move since Texas went from receiving votes to No. 15 in 2010 and the biggest move into the top 10 since Texas A&M went from No. 14 to No. 3 in 2007.
7. Oregon (4-2)
An imperfect weekend shouldn't raise questions about Oregon's championship credentials. A 1-0 loss against Florida in a pitching duel between Jessica Moore and Hannah Rogers could have gone either way. Only a 12-0 loss against Oklahoma in which the Ducks didn't manage a hit against Keilani Ricketts was worthy of wincing. Hawaii is the only ranked opponent this week in Las Vegas, but Ohio, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton could prove pesky.
8. Missouri (0-0)
The Tigers have a habit of starting their schedule late. Chelsea Thomas and her teammates open their season in California this week with two games against UC Santa Barbara, two against Fresno State and one against San Diego. Those three teams finished the first week of play a combined 10-2.
9. California (2-2)
Yes, Cal is the lone entry here without a winning record, but the Bears' recent pedigree and returning talent provides them with some capital to live on after losses against Kentucky and Florida. Las Vegas, where Cal heads this weekend, has a habit of producing some crazy games, but the Bears should make headway against Nevada, Utah Valley, San Jose State and Portland State.
10. Texas (5-0)
As one of only two teams here to open at home, along with Arizona State, Texas breezed through most of a tournament that included Memphis, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and North Texas (but give the Mean Green credit for pushing the Longhorns in the finale). Blaire Luna struck out 28 batters in 14 innings of work and opened her season with a no-hitter, while Taylor Hoagland appeared in midseason form with a home run, five walks and four stolen bases.