Expect an unpredictable postseason
Is there a favorite in the field?
The Roman Empire once went through four emperors in one year. In a setting more recent, if only marginally less imperial, the late George Steinbrenner cycled through four managerial changes in two seasons with the New York Yankees. All of which is to say that sometimes No. 1 is just a number.
The No. 1 ranking in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 changed hands nine times this season, including each of the first six weeks. In all, seven teams held down the top spot for at least one week. By way of comparison, No. 1 changed hands during the regular season a total of eight times the previous three seasons combined.
Alabama, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame won conference regular-season titles but failed to reach the championship game in each team's respective conference tournament. Ranked No. 1 in the final RPI released to the public last week, although it never ascended to that spot in the polls, Texas lost a share of its first Big 12 title by losing four of six down the stretch, including a home game on the final day of the regular season. Georgia was seeded fifth in the SEC tournament, just one spot better than it is in the national tournament.
It's a season best summed up by the fact that after winning its 11th NCAA championship last season, UCLA isn't even among the 16 national seeds in the tournament. Instead, the unseeded Bruins are heading to Gainesville, where they could face fourth-seeded Florida -- in a regional battle between teams ranked No. 1 earlier this season.
As the NCAA tournament begins, what's most clear in college softball is what isn't clear. There is no iconic pitcher, a role played so capably by former Washington ace Danielle Lawrie the previous two seasons. The sport's two most famous programs are wobbling, at least by their admittedly lofty standards. UCLA endured its first losing record in conference play since 1998 and hits the road for a regional for the first time since 2003. Arizona is seeded eighth with a chance to host a potential super regional, but continues to confound even coach Mike Candrea as it simultaneously tries to keep ace Kenzie Fowler healthy.
All of which adds up to what could be the most compelling, unpredictable NCAA tournament in memory, one in which opportunity increases as certainty decreases. No iconic ace? With eligibility to spare, Missouri's Chelsea Thomas or California's Jolene Henderson could prove she deserves the label. Wobbling giants? A year after meeting for the title, Arizona and UCLA might prove at least as interesting as wild cards, particularly in the potential early clash between the Bruins and Gators.
Against that backdrop, Arizona State is a perfect fit for the No. 1 seed, a favorite that still might feel it has doubters among those who tried out so many other teams before finally handing the top ranking to the Sun Devils. With a lineup that punishes pitchers by working counts and hitting for power, paced by arguably the best position player in the country in shortstop Katelyn Boyd and a freshman ace yet to bow to inexperience, this season may yet even yield a juggernaut.
Which pitchers could control the postseason?
Kelsi Dunne, Alabama: Dunne is so overdue for some good fortune on the field that a perfect game's worth of diving catches might not fully balance the scales. So when Alabama coach Patrick Murphy compares his senior ace to the monster in a horror movie, he means it in the best possible way -- for all their faults, they are pretty darn resilient. The pitcher on the other end of Hawaii's ESPYS moment in last season's super regional, Dunne simply came back this season and went 24-3 with a 1.17 ERA in the regular season.
Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State: A year after Arizona's Fowler nearly broke through to become the first freshman ace in more than a decade to win a national championship, a freshman the Wildcats passed on will try to improve on that finish. Escobedo lived up to every bit of hype that accompanied a celebrated prep career in Arizona. The Sun Devils aren't known for playing the most arduous nonconference schedule, but Escobedo didn't shrink from the challenge once Pac-10 play rolled along. She was 12-2 with a 1.55 ERA in conference play, trailing only the next pitcher on this list in both wins and ERA. Overall, she was 27-3 with a 1.40 ERA.
Jolene Henderson, California: Pitching depth was supposed to be Cal's selling point as a championship contender. Instead, with All-American Valerie Arioto sidelined all season by injury, Henderson has stepped up to shoulder as hefty a load as any other ace in the title race. She threw 85 percent of the team's regular-season innings and went 34-7 with a 0.81 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 277.1 innings.
"We've all jumped on her back, and she has carried us the entire season," teammate Jace Williams said. "She could be sore, in pain and none of us would ever know it because she never complains. She goes out there, she works her tail off every single day. She's really strong, mentally and physically. And I would say her mental game is probably stronger than her physical game, which as a pitcher is huge."
Jordan Taylor, Michigan: Dunne isn't the only senior looking to go out with a title to cement a legacy. As recently as late April, such a scenario looked unlikely for Taylor. She missed a week with an injury and already had given up a surprising number of home runs, by her standards, in Big Ten play. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins noted at the time that a pitcher who excels on control was giving hitters too much to hit with two strikes. But in 47 2/3 innings since her return, Taylor has allowed four earned runs, struck out 74 and walked eight. Oh yes, and nary a home run allowed.
Chelsea Thomas, Missouri: With a tale of discovery like something out of a W.P. Kinsella novel (the short version has Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine following a blurry recruiting video to a small Iowa town to watch her throw to her dad on an otherwise-empty diamond), Thomas already has the makings of a star. What the hard-throwing right-hander didn't have on that recruiting visit, at least not to the degree she does now, was a world-class changeup. Thomas went 27-5 with a 0.81 ERA, 323 strikeouts and 39 walks in 208 innings this season. She led Missouri to the World Series as a freshman in 2009. The Tigers then proved they were more than one pitcher by getting back to Oklahoma City last season without Thomas, who missed most of the campaign with an injury. Reunited, the combo looks compelling.
Which team has the biggest gripe?
The tournament was denied a good story when Division I independent Longwood wasn't selected as one of 34 at-large teams. But more than that, the selection committee passed over a team that, even if judged by the unemotional coldness of statistics, earned a place in the field of 64 the only way it could.
Without a conference affiliation to give it access to an automatic bid, Longwood, a school of a little more than 4,000 students in Farmville, Va., depended on at-large consideration for the NCAA tournament. To build a résumé worthy of such consideration, coach Kathy Riley put together a schedule more challenging than one might expect for a program less than a decade removed from Division II, a slate that included games against Georgia, Hawaii, Liberty, Illinois, Illinois State, Maryland, Notre Dame, Penn State, Virginia and Virginia Tech, all schools that made the NCAA tournament or at least finished the season ranked in the top 100 of the RPI.
By the end of the regular season, the Lancers had more wins against RPI top-50 teams than Penn State. It had them in part because it swept a doubleheader at Penn State in April. But when the bracket was released, the Big Ten team was in and the independent was out.
In a video the team made and posted online in hopes of boosting its chances, Longwood players asked the selection committee to "give me a chance." That's tricky because someone like Penn State redshirt senior pitcher Jackie Hill merits a chance, too, if we're talking about an absolute scale. Hill spent four years toiling in State College before the program was finally able to inhabit a tremendous new softball facility this season and back her up to the tune of an 18-12 record and 2.12 ERA. The Nittany Lions, to their credit, also posted a 20-21-1 record against RPI top-100 teams; Longwood played fewer of those games, going just 12-10 against RPI top-100 teams.
But in thinking about Longwood senior Briana Wells, who went 34-13 while throwing more than 300 innings this season, more than 90 percent of the team's total innings, it's difficult not to wonder why she isn't getting a chance. It also leads one to wonder whether perhaps Penn State's ability to host, thereby easing travel concerns in a crowded Northeast picture lacking usual hosting options like Massachusetts and Hofstra, didn't have some influence on the final decision.
What's the toughest regional?
If Longwood has the biggest gripe when it comes to teams left out of the tournament, no team in the field has more reason to complain than Tennessee. The newly minted SEC tournament champions, who had a chance to win the regular-season title up until the final weekend, not only got buried at No. 14 overall but also have the privilege of hosting arguably the toughest regional in the country, with Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech among the three teams coming to town. (Big South champion Liberty is the third.) Both the Cowgirls and Yellow Jackets were fixtures in the top 25 (and the RPI top 20) this season and seemed to be contenders for national seeds themselves. Instead, one will be headed to the loser's bracket after they meet in an opening-day game in Knoxville.
For those counting at home, that's three of the top 18 teams in the last RPI released to the public in the same regional. And although geography can explain dispatching Georgia Tech to Knoxville, the NCAA needs to explain how it makes sense to include Oklahoma State, which will have to fly to Knoxville, in this grouping.
Tennessee might be hosting the toughest regional on record since the format changed to four-team regionals. But it's only "might" because the selection committee tried to top itself by sending Notre Dame and Kentucky to Michigan, along with geographically unlucky Western Michigan. In this case, at least there is the excuse that both Notre Dame and Kentucky are within NCAA-approved driving range of Ann Arbor, but once again a regional will include three teams that were viable contenders for national seeds all season.
Which teams could shake up the bracket on the road to Oklahoma City?
Sleeper to reach a super regional: Fordham
Timing may be on Fordham's side for a weekend surprise at a regional hosted by Penn State that also includes No. 13 Oregon and Albany. Slowed by a stress fracture in her foot early in the season, Rams pitching ace Jen Mineau came on strong late in the season. Just how valuable she can be in a postseason setting was apparent in the Atlantic 10 tournament, when she threw back-to-back-to-back shutouts, striking out 27 and allowing just six hits in 24 innings. Fordham took a few lumps early against a scheduled loaded with postseason-caliber teams, but it also beat Texas, DePaul, Indiana and Syracuse, among others, suggesting it won't be in awe of the competition in State College. (The Rams also pushed Oklahoma in a regional last season.)
Sleeper to reach the World Series: Tulsa
It would be cheap to pick UCLA, right? For all their problems, the Bruins have big bats and a viable path, particularly if Florida isn't able to call on senior pitcher Stephanie Brombacher as much as it might like after her short stint in the SEC tournament. Win in Gainesville, and the Bruins could get a Pac-10 rematch at Oregon in a super regional, an opponent they would at least know well. But another team familiar with the state of Oklahoma also bears watching.
A team from Conference USA, which deservedly earned five bids this season, will make some noise. The danger in picking Tulsa to advance out of a Norman regional that includes Oklahoma, Missouri State and Iona, let alone to escape a potential trip to Arizona for a super regional, is that on any given day, the Sooners can look like the best team in the country behind ace Keilani Ricketts. Such was the case when they run-ruled Tulsa 9-0 in early March. The upside is that on any given day, the Sooners can look beatable, as was the case when Tulsa earned a 1-0 win against Ricketts in late March. Tulsa freshman Aimee Creger struck out eight in a two-hitter in that win and provides a pitching presence for a team with offensive talent in Caitlin Everett, Samantha Cobb and Kelly Chapman.Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.