Power Rankings: Michigan powered up
You know what college softball hasn't had since the Women's College World Series moved to a best-of-three championship format in 2005? A rematch. Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Tennessee and UCLA have all appeared in multiple championship series in that span, but none of them has played an opponent more than once. Might UCLA and Michigan, the teams that started us off in the new format nine years ago, change that?
(Note: Tuesday's games are not included in the rankings.)
1. UCLA (28-2, 5-1 Pac-12)
Can a team really suffer a run-rule defeat and retrain the top spot? Well, we're here, so it appears so. Yes, UCLA took one on the chin in the middle game of a weekend series at Washington, the 10-2 loss its first run-rule defeat in nearly two calendar years, but it also won the series in Seattle, never an easy task. Ally Carda posted what are fast becoming standard numbers for her, picking up a pair of wins, allowing just one earned run in 18 innings and striking out 20 batters. The Bruins also stole seven bases in the series, including five in the finale, after stealing 30 in their first 27 games. They stole just 38 bases in 60 games a season ago.
2. Michigan (22-6, 3-0 Big Ten)
Judging by the fits she gave Indiana this past weekend, we have entered the migraine-inducing phase of Sierra Romero's career. The Hoosiers tried walking Michigan's shortstop -- four times in the series opener. It didn't work. They tried pitching to her. That definitely didn't work. In four official at-bats in the final two games of Michigan's sweep, Romero hit two home runs and doubled. Given Lauren Chamberlain's unfortunate injury for Tennessee, Romero and Alabama's Haylie McCleney have to be at the front of the player of the year pack among hitters. Romero has a 1.532 OPS, and with apologies to the rest of the Big Ten, she's now entering the easier part of her schedule (she has also dramatically cut her error rate at shortstop). And the rest of the team is pretty darn good, too.
3. Tennessee (28-3, 5-1 SEC)
When was the last time Tennessee gave up 19 runs in a week? It certainly hadn't happened this season until opponents did it in four games this past week. The good news for the Lady Vols is they scored 31 runs in the same span to sweep a midweek game against Middle Tennessee State and an SEC series against South Carolina, paced by another fantastic week from senior Madison Shipman (who was as productive in the field as at the plate). Two tough outings for Ellen Renfroe shouldn't be too much of a concern, except for the fact that it was about this time a season ago that she entered a bit of a funk. Florida comes to Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend for the biggest home series on Tennessee's schedule, all the more so because the visitor is coming off a rare series loss of its own.
4. Alabama (27-5, 8-1 SEC)
Taking two of three games at Florida is a big deal, especially since the wins came by shutting down Florida's lineup and the clincher came at the expense of Gators ace Hannah Rogers. Senior Kaila Hunt hit her 54th career home run during the series in Gainesville, Fla. Only Charlotte Morgan and Kelly Kretschman have more for the Tide, and Hunt is seven away from sole possession of first place. The Tide now enter their last substantial homestand of the season, a conference series this week against LSU, with single games against South Alabama and UAB sandwiched around a series against Arkansas after this week.
5. Oregon (26-3, 3-0 Pac-12)
Come away from Salt Lake City with three wins and it's a job well done. That much has been established in Utah's short time in the league. So while giving up 17 runs in three games isn't quintessential Mike White softball on Oregon's part, the lineup more than picked up the slack with 34 runs of its own. And it's not as if ace Cheridan Hawkins had much to do with the runs allowed. The Ducks head home for what shapes up as their most important homestand of the season, beginning with a three-game series against Interstate 5 rival Washington this weekend.
6. Florida (30-4, 5-4 SEC)
In its first 22 games this season, Florida outscored opponents by 152 runs, or 6.9 runs per game. In 11 games since, it has outscored opponents by 27 runs, or 2.5 runs per game. Throw out the losses in that recent stretch, and even in its recent wins, Florida's margin is 5.6 runs per game, a significant drop. This is still a really good lineup, but it has hit tough times in conference play. The plate discipline that produced so many more walks than strikeouts out of league faltered against Alabama, LSU and Mississippi, reducing the opportunities to mix in the running game. Now comes a trip to Knoxville and the series against Tennessee.
7. Arizona State (30-5, 4-2 Pac-12)
What Arizona State did against Stanford may go down as one of the stranger sweeps of the season. The opening game will certainly linger as an oddity. Leading 13-7 entering the seventh inning, having scored in each of the first six innings, Arizona State found itself on the verge of defeat after eight runs for the Cardinal put them in front 15-13. But the home team plated two in the bottom of the seventh to tie the score and eventually won 16-15 in nine innings. A good day for RBI totals, not so much for Dallas Escobedo's ERA. A Mackenzie Popescue shutout and more run production made for an easy second win, but Arizona State had to come up with five runs in the bottom of the seventh in Monday's finale to escape with a 7-5 win, capped by Cheyenne Coyle's walk-off three-run home run.
8. Arizona (28-6, 3-3 Pac-12)
Well, the offense sure bounced back from the UCLA disappointment. Come to think of it, so did the pitching. Arizona took out some frustrations on Oregon State, sweeping the three game series in Tucson, Ariz., by a combined 36-2 margin. That came after a midweek road doubleheader against UNLV that was more difficult than expected. Take your pick of big weekends among Arizona's hitters, but Hallie Wilson has to be near the top of the list. The junior hit three home runs and drove in 11 runs in three games against the Beavers (on top of three walks and a hit against UNLV). Now comes the rivalry series against Arizona State. The last series win for the Wildcats in Tempe, Ariz., was in 2010.
9. Washington (21-7, 2-3 Pac-12)
Washington surely would have hoped for better than a 2-3 conference record out of back-to-back home series, but these things happen in the Pac-12. The Huskies will need to drop a few more games before they get bumped from this list. After all, we're talking about a team that has wins against Baylor, Michigan, Oklahoma and UCLA this season. One area of interest remains power hitting. It's tough to nitpick a 10-2 win against the Bruins, but Washington did that without the aid of an extra-base hit. And with a .501 slugging percentage this season, the Huskies are at least in sight of the border of what it takes to be an elite team.
10. Georgia (28-3, 5-1 SEC)
The Bulldogs certainly took some scheduling liberties getting to the third week of March before playing their first true road game, but they didn't look the worse for wear taking two of three from Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. Chelsea Wilkinson went the distance in both wins, including a 10-inning opener, and improved to 16-2 on the season. The formula was similarly familiar at the plate, where Anna Swafford continued a breakthrough season. As of March 23, her .577 on-base percentage ranked third among SEC hitters. But the road tests keep coming with a trip to Missouri this week.
Next five: No. 11 Baylor (23-5), No. 12 Kentucky (27-5), No. 13 Florida State (30-4), No. 14 South Alabama (25-3), No. 15 Minnesota (24-4).