Arizona State set for title defense
Rare is the NCAA tournament in which all 16 national seeds advance to the super regional round. With more than 90 games awaiting in regional play this week, ESPN.com's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
Friday: Arizona State vs. Long Island; Syracuse vs. Long Beach State
Seed: No. 3 Arizona State
With a chance to become the first three-time champion other than Arizona or UCLA and the first back-to-back champion since its in-state rival did so in 2006 and 2007, Arizona State's repeat bid doesn't lack for historical significance. That said, this isn't the same team that won a year ago. Dallas Escobedo has split the pitching load all season with senior Hillary Bach. Freshmen pop up throughout the lineup; three and sometimes more regularly start. But if who they are is sometimes different, what the Sun Devils do looks very similar -- they hit for power and speed with staggeringly low strikeout totals (165 in 53 games), and they field the ball better than almost any other team. A big part of both of those traits is senior shortstop Katelyn Boyd, the best pure position player in the country this season.
Strongest challenger: Syracuse
The Orange surely hoped for a less daunting draw than a regional that includes the defending champion and overall No. 3 seed, but this is the postseason they have been building toward for some time. Two years ago, they were the surprise Big East tournament winners who were just happy to be in the NCAA tournament. A year ago, they earned their way in with an at-large bid and beat LSU for the program's first NCAA tournament win. Opportunity beckons with Jenna Caira, the best pitcher in the program's short history, now in her final season and better than she's ever been. Backing Caira is an offense that isn't spectacular on contact but led the Big East in walks and home runs. Syracuse loaded its nonconference schedule in hopes of testing itself, so don't expect it to look nervous in Tempe.
Player to watch: Erin Jones-Wesley and Taylor Petty, Long Beach State. The combination of Jones-Wesley and Petty fueled the team's run to the Big West title after the latter missed the first 30 games of the season while recuperating from illness and injury. Petty strikes out better than a batter per inning, a potential bonus against a Syracuse offense that has the aforementioned patience and power but also led the Big East in strikeouts. And Jones-Wesley, who started or came on in relief of Petty in 16 of 21 conference games, offers a different look and has a history of holding her own against quality lineups, including Arizona and Stanford this season.
Friday: Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Mississippi Valley State; Stanford vs. Baylor
Seed: No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette
Louisiana-Lafayette stumbled coming to the finish line in the regular season, losing a game to Louisiana-Monroe in the final series of the regular season and the Sun Belt championship game against South Alabama, but it is still a major team in everything but conference affiliation. That starts with Christi Orgeron, the senior slugger with 21 home runs, 91 RBIs and a 1.343 OPS who is the linchpin of a lineup with seven on-base percentages of .400 or better. Among seeded teams, only Alabama can match ULL with at least 60 home runs and 100 stolen bases. Freshman Jordan Wallace and senior Ashley Brignac, she of the memorable 2008 Women's College World Series, split the innings in the circle almost equally and equally effectively.
Strongest challenger: Stanford
The good news for at least the opening game is Stanford was 14-1 in neutral-site games this season, including wins against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, San Diego State, Northwestern and Long Beach State. (A 5-10 record in true road games is more problematic should the Cardinal eventually face the hosts.) Reigning USA Softball Player of the Year Ashley Hansen wasn't quite as prolific as last season, which is saying something for a shortstop who posted an 1.146 OPS with 25 extra-base hits, but the team as a whole is actually scoring more runs this season. The key to any success in Louisiana remains pitcher Teagan Gerhart. She's a tenacious competitor when at her best, but she has struggled to keep the ball in the park.
Player to watch: Kaitlyn Thumann, Baylor. Better late than never for Baylor. Thumann has only 46 at-bats this season and didn't claim a regular starting spot until April 21, but she's been making up for lost time ever since. After going 3-for-3 in a losing effort in the season finale at Texas, she's hitting .478 with 10 stolen bases, one home run, one double and 10 runs scored, the bulk of her production coming in the 11-game starting stretch to close the season. The team needs to support its pitchers with ace Whitney Canion out for the season, but Baylor has nonetheless struggled to score runs, making Thumann's emergence a boon.
Friday: Texas vs. Northwestern; Auburn vs. Houston
Seed: No. 6 Texas
The main reason Texas wants to win this regional is to reach a super regional and get one step closer to Oklahoma City. But as secondary reasons go, getting the rest of us to shut up about the program's sketchy postseason history would surely feel good. Last year losses to Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette eliminated the Longhorns at home. The year before that it was losses to BYU and East Carolina in Austin. On paper, this team should end that streak. Texas was one of only four teams in the nation's three toughest conferences (Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to hit at least 50 home runs and steal at least 80 bases, joining Alabama, California and Georgia. And if Blaire Luna is not as dominant in the circle as she was as a freshman or sophomore, she is still 18-4 with 219 strikeouts in 150 2/3 innings.
Strongest challenger: Auburn
Getting into a scoring contest with Texas isn't a recipe for success, and if it's pitching you want, Auburn is clearly the best bet of the three teams looking to prolong the Longhorns' postseason drought. The Tigers don't have one ace to hand the ball to in Austin, but the flip side of that is they have three pitchers they can realistically count on to get outs in the senior trio of Jenee Loree, Lauren Schmalz and Angel Bunner. Look for Loree to take the lead, helped in part by her ability to keep the ball in the park, with Schmalz and Bunner ready if needed.
Player to watch: Haley Outon, Houston. Who is the leading home run hitter among the six Texas teams in the tournament? It's not any of the Longhorns with All-American aspirations or Texas A&M slugger Meagan May. It's Outon, who heads to Austin with 22 home runs in 56 games. The Cougars struggled away from home this season, going just 9-15 in road/neutral games, and ranked in the middle of the pack in pitching in Conference USA (with a staff that includes Diedre Outon, Haley's twin sister). But with Outon as the cleanup cornerstone, they can score runs.
Thursday: Oregon vs. Portland State; Mississippi State vs. BYU
Seed: No. 11 Oregon
Oregon checked in at No. 8 in the last publicly released RPI rankings, then went and took two of three games against UCLA to close the regular season, so the Ducks must be wondering how they wound up stuck with this seed. That said, a chance to host a regional is a first for a team previously consigned by geography or record (or both) to go on the road. The current edition earned its home games with one of the most balanced offenses in the Pac-12, hitting a collective .312 with 59 home runs and 65 stolen bases (although a season-ending ACL injury for Courtney Ceo was a blow), and the workhorse innings of ace Jessica Moore. Defense remains the team's one bugaboo. Only 85 of the 127 runs scored against Moore in the regular season were earned.
Strongest challenger: BYU
Considering BYU already beat Oregon and Portland State on neutral fields in the regular season, it's difficult to go any other direction for the unseeded team with the most potential to bust brackets. BYU's Hannah Howell got the best of Moore in that February game against the Ducks, and if she's unlikely to dominate in the circle, there is evidence to believe that she isn't out of her depth. Led by Delaney Willard, whose 88 RBIs, .512 on-base percentage and .880 slugging percentage rank among national leaders, BYU has a patient offense that puts runners on base. That's a big deal against teams like Oregon that have a propensity for giving away outs and runs with defensive miscues.
Player to watch: Brittany Bell, Mississippi State. Mississippi State feels like a program going places, the enthusiasm with which first-year coach Vann Stuedeman does everything from sending runners to turning in the lineup card spreading throughout the roster. That helps, but scoring runs helps more, and Bell is the most productive hitter for a team that can manufacture runs in a regional short on dominant pitching. Even in the grind of conference play in the SEC, Bell managed a .316 batting average and .460 on-base percentage. (She hit .381 with a .533 OBP overall this season.)