Power Rankings: Ducks perched at No. 1
For much of this millennium's first decade, as this map illustrates, Madison was the most popular girl's name in Tennessee.
So if there is to be a second name added to the metaphorical marquee attached to University of Tennessee softball, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that it is this one, even if Madison Shipman's Smoky Mountain drawl is newer than those of some with whom she shares a name.
With the possible exception of Texas, no college softball program is as synonymous with a single name as Tennessee is with Monica, as in Monica Abbott, the 2007 USA Softball Player of the Year, Olympian and holder of more than a few NCAA records. The Lady Vols moved on after she left, first reaching the Women's College World Series without her and last season returning to the event's championship series. But it remains a program defined by that name.
Becoming the first program to have a second name selected as USA Softball Player of the Year might change that.
Even in a season in which the race is as crowded with worthy candidates as it has ever been, as the list of finalists is trimmed this week to 10, Shipman deserves that distinction.
Nobody wins player of the year with defense alone, but it's a good place to begin building the case. The lanky, 6-foot-1 shortstop plays the position as well as anyone in the college game, maybe better than anyone else. Traditional defensive statistics have their flaws. Still, for someone with the range she consistently demonstrates, it is telling that she has committed just six errors this season and 17 in the past three seasons combined, a span of 181 games.
"She can move," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "Her arm -- I've never seen a college arm better."
But Shipman was always special with the glove and always an asset on the bases (12 stolen bases this season, 49 in the past three seasons). It's her growth at the plate that pushed her to new heights.
As the final week before the NCAA tournament began, Shipman ranked eighth in the nation in slugging percentage at .868 and seventh nationally in on-base percentage at .554. She did that from the SEC, and while there is very much an argument as to which conference is better at the top between the SEC and Pac-12, there is no argument that the SEC is deeper, especially in a season in which pitching in the bottom half of the Pac-12 was particularly poor. No other SEC player ranked in the top 10 nationally in both categories.
On raw numbers alone, Shipman had among the most prolific seasons in the country. Factoring in the conference in which she played, it grows more difficult to argue anyone was a demonstrably more valuable offensive player.
And all of that came with the pressure of carrying a lineup. Not only did Shipman become the face of a batting order that lost All-Americans and national team starters Lauren Gibson and Raven Chavanne, as well as Kat Dotson, but she also inherited that role under the weight of expectations that came with a preseason No. 1 ranking for the Lady Vols.
Shipman had every excuse in the world to force the issue, to compound what Weekly described as a natural tendency to swing at every pitch she saw. Instead, she matured from a hitter with great potential into a great hitter.
Through 51 games and nearly 200 plate appearances, she has just eight strikeouts.
Her offseason work was less about batting practice than patience practice, as Tennessee assistant coach Marty McDaniel and others threw her a steady diet of the borderline pitches she shouldn't swing at.
"For some reason, I've just totally bought into the ideas that walks are OK," Shipman said. "It's OK to get walks, and I don't have to get a home run every time up to bat. I've really just taken that approach and just waited and gotten my pitch. If I get a walk, that's OK; my teammates have my back. It's definitely clicked in for me a lot this year."
It doesn't hurt that Tennessee found replacements for the run production it lost, namely freshman Annie Aldrete, whose .814 slugging percentage gives opponents pause before they pitch around the senior shortstop.
"She's so awesome," Shipman said. "I could just tell right from the beginning, with her swing, that she's going to do big things here. It takes a lot of pressure off me, too, because I don't feel like I always have to get it done. I know she's got my back."
A Californian born and raised, Shipman nonetheless at times rolls through words with an unmistakably Southern lilt. After four years in Knoxville, the place has left a mark.
"My parents make fun of me, and I get home and my friends make fun of me," Shipman said. "It's all right. I get a little Southern drawl going."
She has done enough to make her mark on the place too.
The list of finalists will next be cut to three, with the award presented in Oklahoma City. My other finalists at the moment would be as follows:
Haylie McCleney, Alabama: She doesn't have a weakness. It's harder to speak in defensive absolutes than it is about any other facet of the game, but it's difficult to imagine there is a better defensive outfielder. She runs the bases aggressively but adeptly. Even as a sophomore, she is a leader who commands respect. And that's all before getting to what she does at the plate. Perhaps not since Caitlin Lowe has there been a hitter with such a combination of speed, bat control and power when she drives the ball. And even Lowe didn't put up .750 slugging percentages.
Sierra Romero, Michigan: There isn't much more she can do at the plate, given that she leads the nation by healthy margins in batting average and on-base percentage and ranks in the top 10 in slugging percentage. The one thing holding her back is completely out of her control, a schedule that wasn't as grueling as those faced by McCleney and Shipman. She isn't quite the same defensive presence as those two players either, but she has terrific range at shortstop and dramatically cut her errors in her second season.
The rest of the ballot, in order: Ally Carda, UCLA; Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma; Lacey Waldrop, Florida State; Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon; Maddie O'Brien, Florida State; Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State; Alex Hugo, Georgia.
Now on to this week's power rankings.
1. Oregon (47-6-1, 18-2-1 Pac-12)
The Ducks finally had a weekend that didn't include multiple wins, but if you believed they deserved the No. 1 ranking a week ago, nothing that happened in the series against Arizona State contradicted that assessment. If anything, getting some quality innings out of Karissa Hovinga and Jasmine Smithson-Willett is cause to be reassured that there are viable options if Cheridan Hawkins has a rare off day at some point in the postseason. The Ducks are perfect on the road in Pac-12 play this season, but this week's trip to Arizona is a new kind of test away from home.
2. Arizona State (43-8-1, 14-5-1 Pac-12)
One of the identifiers of the Arizona State teams that had so much success under Clint Myers was the lack of holes in the lineup. Well, Nikki Girard entered the Oregon series as Arizona State's only regular who didn't have either a .500 slugging percentage or .400 on-base percentage (most of her teammates had both). But it was Girard who hit a two-run home run to put her team in front in the finale, albeit briefly. This is still Arizona State, and everyone in the lineup can still hurt you. The Sun Devils closed the regular season a year ago by taking two of three games from Oregon, which undoubtedly helped them overcome RPI issues to claim a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament. They have the same opportunity and the same need this season as UCLA visits.
3. UCLA (46-5, 17-4 Pac-12)
Cause for concern? No, but coming out of a weekend in which it won the series but dropped the opener against Stanford, it's worth noting that since the beginning of April, UCLA has allowed 68 runs in 16 games, or nearly 4.3 runs per game. That's in contrast to the 58 runs it allowed in its first 35 games, or 1.7 per game. Now, some of the former is skewed by a tough couple of games at Oregon, but Stanford, California, Oregon State and Long Beach State all put runs on the scoreboard against the Bruins. The Cardinal were the first team to win one of those games and the Bruins clearly have the offense to win the occasional shootout, but it's something to note. Doom and gloom aside, what you love about the Bruins is embodied in Ally Carda bouncing back from a tough start in the opener against Stanford to hit home runs in each of the next two games and pitch a shutout in the middle game.
4. Florida State (47-6, 24-3 ACC)
The Seminoles had the week off and should be rested as they travel to Maryland for the ACC tournament (a curious site, given that school's impending ACC departure). The best scenario for Florida State, which opens against Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals, would be to beat NC State in the semifinals and Notre Dame in the final, quality RPI wins that would improve the odds of an opportunity to host both a regional and super regional in the NCAA tournament.
5. Alabama (44-10, 19-5 SEC)
The Crimson Tide left Columbia, Missouri, with the outright SEC regular-season title, kept ace Jaclyn Traina rested and got quality starts from both freshman Sydney Littlejohn and junior Leslie Jury. It would have been difficult to do better. Now comes a trip to the other Columbia, the one in South Carolina, for the SEC tournament. And truth be told, there isn't a whole lot to play for. The Tide will be at or near the top of the seedings in the NCAA tournament regardless, so coach Patrick Murphy has some options when it comes to how much he wants to use Traina this week.
6. Tennessee (42-9, 17-7 SEC)
A series sweep against Mississippi that clinched second place in the conference was not without drama, as Tennessee had to rally from six runs down and overcome five errors in the opener and then needed a Cheyanne Tarango home run late to complete another comeback in the second game. The Lady Vols are in an interesting situation. It wouldn't be the worst thing for Ellen Renfroe if she didn't have to pitch three days in a row against what would likely be three ranked teams, as might be needed to win the SEC tournament. On the other hand, unlike Alabama's, Tennessee's RPI is such that it can't take for granted one of the top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament.
7. Oklahoma (43-10, 14-2 Big 12)
No, the Big 12 isn't what it used to be, but winning it three times in a row is still impressive, especially when the most recent came in what appeared to be a transition season. Fittingly, Shelby Pendley picked up her first career win in the clincher, a five-inning run-rule shutout against Texas Tech on Sunday. Kelsey Stevens has carried the Sooners in the circle this season, but Pendley's ability to pitch effective innings -- in addition to playing third base and hitting like one of the best players in the nation -- has been a tremendous asset. One downer: Outfielder Kady Self injured a knee in the series opener and didn't return for the remainder of the weekend.
8. Arizona (40-11, 13-8 Pac-12)
The Wildcats have played 14 games against teams ranked in last week's USA Softball Top 25. They scored 39 runs in those game, or 2.8 runs per game. Runs are going to be harder to come by against that level of competition -- that's why those teams are ranked -- but as a comparison point, Oregon averaged 4.9 runs in 13 games against similar teams. Clearly the Wildcats can hit any pitching. Just look at what Chelsea Goodacre and Hallie Wilson did in the first game of the Washington series. And against a good Washington lineup, pitcher Estela Pinon's shutout in the series finale showcased another dimension. But offense will need to be this team's ticket back to Oklahoma City.
9. Louisiana-Lafayette (41-7-1, 19-1 Sun Belt)
Louisiana-Lafayette swept three games from Louisiana-Monroe last weekend to wrap up a dominant run in a league that should have offered some competition. The Ragin' Cajuns continued to improve throughout the schedule. Case in point: Samantha Walsh, who drove in six runs in the ULM series. Walsh entered a three-game series against Oklahoma in the middle of March hitting .135. She enters the conference tournament hitting .266. Much the same is true of Shellie Landry and Corin Voinche, giving the lineup depth beyond Natalie Fernandez, Lexie Elkins and Haley Hayden. An NCAA tournament seed is all but assured. As the Sun Belt tournament begins in Lafayette, the question is just how strong a seed will it be?
10. Florida (45-10, 15-9 SEC)
Not that they wouldn't trade it for the SEC title Alabama claimed or the No. 1 national ranking Oregon holds, but there are worse positions to be in than that currently occupied by the Gators. Bouncing back from a disappointing series at home against Missouri, they closed the regular season with three comfortable wins at Arkansas and have scored at least three runs in each of their most recent 13 games. There is an up-and-down quality to the run production this season, more than most for Tim Walton's teams, but the "up" remains really good. These and other human rankings aside, the RPI all but assures they will be in Gainesville throughout the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Next five: Missouri, Washington, Michigan, Georgia, Nebraska.