Power Rankings: ASU leads the way
Take a look at the winter storm warnings and Valentine's Day candy displays and it's clear that softball season is a long way from reaching the heat of Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series. February weekends crowded with doubleheaders and travel lend themselves to stumbles, while commanding wins amid the comforts of home breed a false sense of security. Results matter later. Process matters now.
Still, it doesn't hurt to start strong. Oklahoma won 17 games in a row to start its championship campaign a year ago. Alabama opened with 26 wins in a row the season before that.
Not that an early loss is more mountain than mole hill, as Arizona State proved with national championships in 2008 and 2011 after opening-weekend losses.
But even if what we don't yet know trumps what we do, hundreds of softball games from the season's opening weekend mean we know enough for some rankings.
1. Arizona State (6-0)
It may be a new coach handing in the lineup card, but it's business as usual. Arizona State cruised through hosting duties in the Kajikawa Classic with six wins by a combined 48-3 margin. And while we didn't see the Sun Devils play any national championship contenders, a schedule that included NC State and Fresno State offered at least modest resistance. Splitting starts with Mackenzie Popescue, who didn't allow an earned run, Dallas Escobedo avoided the problems that plagued many aces across the country. She allowed just four hits and one earned run in 19 innings and struck out 32 batters against four walks. Friday's game against Oklahoma is the month's biggest test.
2. Florida (6-0)
Florida wasted little time a season ago showing it was both ready and able to put a rough 2012 campaign behind it. Here we go again. Staying closer to home to start this season, the Gators came away from a perfect opening weekend in Tampa with wins against South Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin (twice), all NCAA tournament teams a season ago and all teams that returned proven pitchers. Interestingly, Tim Walton split up his six starts evenly among Hannah Rogers, Lauren Haeger and freshman Delanie Gourley. And it was the freshman who went all eight innings in the signature win against Michigan, in which Florida rallied for four runs in the top of the seventh to force extra innings.
3. Alabama (5-0)
The competition was modest at a tournament in Troy, Ala., but a 48-3 cumulative score was impressive, including a strong start from Danae Hays with three home runs and 1.556 slugging percentage in four starts. Like Florida, Alabama used three pitchers to great effect, but the big news was Jackie Traina piling up 19 strikeouts in 11 innings, suggesting the ace is healthy and ready to go as advertised. Both Alabama and Arizona play two games on Saturday, so there are no guarantees it will be Traina against Kenzie Fowler when Alabama visits Hillenbrand Stadium, but that would rank as one of the most intriguing matchups of the season if it materializes.
4. Michigan (3-1)
The Wolverines were one out away from a 4-0 win against Florida and strong case for No. 1, but the lead slipped away. All the same, Michigan played the part of serious title contender in both that game the wins that followed against South Florida (matching the Gators with a win against Team USA pitcher Sara Nevins), Illinois State and Bethune-Cookman. Freshman pitcher Megan Betsa got the start in the win against South Florida, and the Georgia native responded with the kind of performance that makes you think Michigan will have some quality depth in the circle. Two games at Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend bear watching in a rematch of last year's super regional.
5. Washington (5-0)
The marketing slogan that "what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas" often proves true for softball teams that pile up offensive numbers in favorable early-season conditions, but Washington's 39 runs in five wins still represent a positive start. Although curiously, for all the runs it scored, Washington still had the second-fewest extra-base hits per game of any Pac-12 team over the weekend. After host Arizona State gets its shot at Oklahoma on Friday, Washington plays the defending champion on Saturday in the Littlewood Classic in Tempe.
6. Georgia (5-0)
As good a lineup as Georgia may have this season, the standout performance of the team's opening weekend went to a pitcher. Sophomore Chelsea Wilkinson went 4-0, winning all three of her starts and picking up an additional win in relief, and struck out 23 against just two walks and three hits allowed in 17 innings. The competition wasn't what the Bulldogs will face in the SEC or deep in the postseason, but Winthrop, North Texas and James Madison are solid programs at their respective levels. Two games at home this weekend against South Alabama will offer resistance.
7. Tennessee (4-0)
If you had Tennessee No. 1, and a lot of voters did in both major polls, the Lady Vols did little to dissuade you after piling up 31 runs in four wins against Northern Colorado (twice), Georgia Southern and Oakland. Ellen Renfroe pitched like an All-American, as expected, but the new-look lineup did its part, too. Freshmen Shaliyah Geathers, Megan Geer and Taylor Koenig combined to go 17-for-32 at the plate with five extra-base hits, and sophomore Lexi Overstreet stepped into a starting role with two home runs and eight RBIs. The competition improves this weekend in Tampa.
8. Stanford (6-0)
Other teams were equally impressive, but no team did more to lift its profile during the opening weekend than Stanford. The pitching efforts of freshmen Carley Hoover and Madi Schreyer, who replaced transfer Kelsey Stevens in the circle, have been discussed, but the Cardinal also piled up runs against a competitive schedule in the Kajikawa Classic. They led Pac-12 teams with 25 extra-base hits, including four doubles and two home runs from junior Cassandra Roulund and seven extra-base hits from freshmen, but also finished 10-for-10 on stolen base attempts.
9. Kentucky (5-0)
Where do you go after you start the season with a win against the defending national champion? That's the challenge for Kentucky, which rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to force extra innings against Oklahoma and earned a 5-4 win three innings later on Christian Stokes' RBI double. The Wildcats only allowed one run in their other four games in Arizona, getting good innings from ace Kelsey Nunley but also strong debuts from freshmen Shannon Smith and Meagan Prince. Up next is another test with a trip to Austin and a game against Texas.
10. Oklahoma (3-2)
Would the Sooners be here as the only two-loss team on the list, ahead of teams that almost inarguably had more successful weekends, if not for the national title that a different group won a season ago? Quite possibly not. But the generally good returns from Stanford transfer Kelsey Stevens' first weekend in the circle for her new team and the power still on display, including three home runs from Georgia Casey, keeps them around despite losses to Kentucky and Cal State Fullerton. And with games this week against Arizona State and Washington, they will sink or swim on their own merits.
Next five: Oregon, Nebraska, UCLA, Texas A&M, South Alabama.