Notebook: Freshman duo lifts Stanford
When Oklahoma handed the ball to Michelle Gascoigne to start the second game of the best-of-three championship round against Tennessee in the most recent Women's College World Series, it changed the championship math in college softball.
One was no longer greater than two in Oklahoma City.
Never since the introduction of the best-of-three final round in 2005 had a champion willingly split its starts between multiple pitchers as a matter of strategy. With one of the best college pitchers of all time in reserve, Keilani Ricketts, the Sooners, handed the ball to someone else. It helped that the someone in question led the nation with a 0.88 ERA.
And now Stanford is out to prove the new equation works.
The hope is that Carley Hoover plus Madi Schreyer plus four years of opportunity adds up to a first national title.
In the shorter term, there are plenty of reasons the Cardinal put together one of the most impressive opening weekends in the nation, winning all six of their games in the Kajikawa Classic in Arizona, and by a combined 60-6 margin. And a lot of those reasons carried bats to the plate. Four players drove in at least seven runs, led by sophomore Kayla Bonstrom, the reigning Pac-12 newcomer of the year a season, and freshman Kylee Sorenson. The lineup as a whole hit better than .400.
But the Cardinal also got 28 innings, 38 strikeouts and a 1.25 ERA from two pitchers who debuted together.
"I think that both of us are very competitive individuals and competitive players," Schreyer said. "So, having each other to kind of push off of is really helpful because it makes both of us focus more and compete. We know that both of us have each other's back, so we can rely on that. Carley's an awesome girl. I love her to death; we're like sisters."
Hoover is the taller of the two by three inches at 6-foot-2 and throws a little harder, consistently hitting 70 miles per hour, according to coach John Rittman. Both have the ability to change speeds and work all planes, moving the ball up and down and in and out. Hoover said she is more prone to emotional highs and lows in the circle -- whereas Schreyer said her first appearance actually produced fewer nerves than she expected in fulfilling a lifelong dream, Hoover admitted the excitement of getting out there for the first time surprised her. She struck out 22 batters in just 15 innings, evidence of what kind of stuff she's working with, but she also walked 13 batters.
Both were outstanding. Both are just getting started.
"It's just a different level," Hoover said. "It's not travel ball, and it's not high school. It's hard to be dominant. You have to be OK with giving up a hit, and you have to be OK with someone beating you in an at-bat because you know the defense has your back or you know we're going to go in there and score some runs or you know you can strike out the next kid. You have to be able to let things go easier."
Hoover and Scheyer also share a common bond as highly touted high school recruits: Hoover, the national Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior out of South Carolina, and Schreyer, the state winner in Washington and a first-team prep All-American. That is part of what makes them such an intriguing experiment for sport itself.
Ricketts and Gascoigne were two of many reasons Oklahoma was almost unbeatable last season, but Gascoigne came into her own just last season as a senior. Teams such as Oregon have had a senior ace and a younger heir apparent, as was the case a season ago with Jessica Moore and Cheridan Hawkins, respectively. But two such quality pitching prospects signing on to spend four years together is, if not unique, at least outside the norm.
They knew each other a little from travel ball encounters, but they decided independent of each other that Stanford was the right fit. Even with another ace.
"It never really crossed my mind as, like, a negative aspect of it," Schreyer said. "I thought that it would be really good, that we would both be going through the same thing at the same time and we could learn from each other. And also we could challenge each other and kind of compete."
This isn't how the sport usually works. Coaches perpetually talk about pitching staffs but rarely actually mean the second word. Softball is a game of aces. Pitchers carve out legends with Oklahoma City soliloquies. Taryne Mowatt won an ESPY for throwing every pitch for Arizona, more than 1,000 in all, in the 2007 Women's College World Series. LSU's Kristin Schmidt earned Most Outstanding Player honors without winning a title in 2004, in part by pitching three games in one day. Alicia Hollowell, Katie Burkhart and Danielle Lawrie all cemented legacies with solo efforts in the best-of-three era, not to mention all-time greats such as Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman and Angela Tincher who carried teams as far as they could.
"I think, as there are more pitchers developed, you're going to see more programs going after more than just one or two pitchers," Rittman said. "It takes its toll on everybody when you don't have depth at key positions.
"It takes a special person who wants to buy into being part of a staff."
Special people, actually. Softball might need to get used to speaking in the plural when it comes to pitching. Stanford hopes so with Hoover and Schreyer.
"It's a long season, but it's a great start," Rittman said. "And we have a lot to build on after this weekend."
Players of the week
Cheyenne Coyle, Arizona State: Now that's how you start an encore. Coyle put all of her skills on display opening weekend. She hit for power, collecting three home runs and three doubles among nine total hits. She showed discipline at the plate, walking four times and striking out just once in six games. She was a threat on the bases, stealing three bases in as many attempts (one fewer than she stole all last season). And she was as adept with her glove as she was with her bat, going without an error all weekend. It's scary to think she might still be improving.
Griffin Joiner, Kentucky: The ironwoman who appeared in all 62 games behind the plate as an all-conference defensive selection for Kentucky a season ago hit as if she was rested and ready for the new season. Joiner totaled 10 hits in 15 at-bats across five games for the Wildcats at the Mizuno Invitational in California, and she wasn't just blooping in singles. She hit three home runs and two doubles and drove in nine runs. Nor did she ignore her duties behind the plate. The Wildcats won all five of their games, and their pitchers allowed just five runs in 34 innings.
Sara Moulton, Minnesota: Since we're talking Stanford this week, keep an eye on what former Stanford assistant coach Jessica Allister is doing at Minnesota. The Gophers opened the season 5-0, and the two biggest wins came courtesy of Moulton's arm. The senior ace allowed just four hits and struck out 21 batters in matching shutout wins against LSU and Oklahoma State (she also blanked Southern Illinois-Edwardsville for a third win). Her next win will make her Minnesota's career leader. Freshman Sara Groenewegen, a member of the Canadian national program, was also sharp in the circle for Minnesota, a development that could help keep Moulton fresh all year.
Taylor Thom, Texas: Along with Coyle, this is why selecting All-American shortstops was such a headache-inducing exercise this season. It was a strange weekend for Texas, which won four straight games against LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette (twice) and North Carolina and then lost two in a row against Northern Iowa and Purdue, but Thom was in form throughout. In six games, five against teams that made the NCAA tournament a season ago, she hit .500 with a .600 on-base percentage. In addition to a home run, she stole five bases, par for the course for one of the few players to total at least 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases a season ago.
Hallie Wilson, Arizona: We can save some space by talking about the one time Wilson didn't reach base for Arizona this past weekend. The sophomore had four hits in five official at-bats, including a home run, walked five times and stole a base in three wins against Southern Miss. There were a lot of positives for the Wildcats, including a 10-RBI debut weekend for high-profile UCLA transfer Kellie Fox and two appearances in the circle from Kenzie Fowler, who missed last season with injuries. But it's difficult to do better than Wilson's .900 on-base percentage.
Honor roll: Aimee Creger, Tulsa; Kassi Farmer, Indiana; Haylie McCleney, Alabama; Nicole Morgan, Texas A&M; Maddie O'Brien, Florida State; Alyssa Tiumalu, UCLA; Chelsea Wilkinson, Georgia.