Cal takes No. 1 seed into regional
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: California vs. Iona; Arkansas vs. Boston University
Seed: No. 1 California
Road warriors who have been part of every NCAA tournament since 1986 but last hosted games in 1993, the Bears get an opportunity to play a regional at home as a result of facility improvements. The tournament's top seed may not be perfect, but it doesn't have any real weaknesses. Jolene Henderson is the caliber of ace who can put a team on her back for weeks at a time, but she doesn't need to in this case -- in part because she has help in the circle from All-American Valerie Arioto and in part because of a lineup that went from slugging .401 last season (en route to the World Series) to .529 this season, thanks in large part to Arioto's return from injury. Cal is the only team in the nation in the top 10 in slugging percentage, ERA and fielding percentage.
Strongest challenger: Boston University
The Terriers are not the typical small-conference, cold-weather minnow. Beyond winning the America East regular-season and tournament titles, they beat South Florida, Syracuse and Maryland this season and held their own in losses against seeded teams Louisville and Louisiana-Lafayette. They may not be Henderson and Arioto, but Holli Floetker and Whitney Tuthill have pitched well against that quality competition, and between the speed of Jayme Mask and the power of Brittany Clendenny, the lineup has some difference-makers.
Player to watch: Devon Wallace, Arkansas. Wins against Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama were likely responsible for getting the SEC's ninth-place team in the field. In the win against the Lady Vols, Wallace went 3-for-4 with a home run. In the Alabama win, she homered twice and drove in five runs. And she homered and drove in her team's only two runs to beat Georgia. You start to see why a freshman on a team that didn't make the conference tournament earned first-team, all-SEC honors.
Friday: Washington vs. Harvard; Texas Tech vs. Maryland
Seed: No. 16 Washington
The Huskies stumbled badly down the stretch after being ranked in the top five early in the season, losing seven in a row and 10 of 12 to close the regular season. But a well-timed bye week to close the Pac-12 season may have allowed them to slide into the final seed line after Florida State stubbed its toe in pursuit of the same. Seniors Nikia Williams and Kimi Pohlman are terrific hitters, and freshman Kylee Lahners looks like a star in the making, but this team will rise and fall with Kaitlin Inglesby. Bothered by an arm injury late in the season, Inglesby had a 1.19 ERA out of conference and a 3.60 ERA in conference. She's valuable as the team's best run producer at the plate, but she's invaluable as the ace in the circle. If the week of rest did her even some good, the Huskies will be a different bunch.
Strongest challenger: Texas Tech
After back-to-back appearances in regional finals in coach Shanon Hays' first two seasons on the job in Lubbock, the Red Raiders look to take the next step and reach a super regional for the first time. With that postseason experience on top of a series win at Missouri and wins against Oklahoma and Texas this season, it's a team with credentials. Washington native Cara Custer will be key in the circle. The freshman went 25-10 with a 2.36 ERA in the regular season and provided pitching stability alongside a balanced offense, but both Maryland and Washington could exploit her walk rate if she's not careful.
Player to watch: Rachel Brown, Harvard. Brown split starts almost equally with Laura Ricciardone, but wins against Oregon State, San Diego State and Long Beach State, along with 232 strikeouts in 172 innings, suggest she is going to be the key if the Crimson plan on being more than opening-game fodder. Although Harvard was outscored 17-0 in regional play last season, Brown did work 6 2/3 innings of one-hit shutout relief against Texas Tech.
Friday: Missouri vs. Illinois State; Massachusetts vs. DePaul
Seed: No. 9 Missouri
A fourth consecutive trip to the World Series is very much in play with Chelsea Thomas around. After a stint with Team USA last summer, Thomas has been her usual, dominant self for the Tigers: 23-7 record, 1.07 ERA, 262 strikeouts in 189 innings and just seven home runs allowed. The Tigers are not as productive a lineup as in seasons past, but that doesn't mean they need Thomas to do everything. Ashley Fleming and Nicole Hudson are championship-caliber hitters. Fleming, in particular, probably suffers from playing in Thomas' shadow, but is a middle-of-the-order cornerstone.
Strongest challenger: Massachusetts
Sara Plourde leads the nation with 520 strikeouts, setting up an enticing potential start opposite Thomas. Massachusetts hasn't come close to making the same kind of postseason splash with Plourde that it did with previous ace Brandice Balschmiter, but that has more to do with declining offensive numbers than its ace (although her 202 walks this season are problematic). Still no juggernaut, the Minutewomen are a more capable run-producing team this time around. Having speed like Cyndil Matthew (34 steals, .483 on-base percentage) helps, but Plourde largely took matters into her own hands with 11 home runs after rarely batting her first three seasons.
Player to watch: Kirsten Verdun, DePaul. All four teams in this region bring quality aces to the table, with Illinois State's Jordan Birch rounding out the quartet after piling up 221 strikeouts and 23 wins in the regular season. But if Plourde doesn't emerge as a threat to Missouri, it may only be because Verdun beat her to it. Verdun, too, is an ace who is her own best friend. She was responsible for 11 of DePaul's 35 home runs in the regular season and led the lineup by a country mile with a 1.134 OPS. As a pitcher, she made 39 starts and registered 32 complete games, striking out 247 in 250 innings.
College Station regional
Friday: Texas A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman; LSU vs. Texas State
Seed: No. 8 Texas A&M
As might be expected of a team good enough to earn this seed, Texas A&M can win games in a variety of ways. The Aggies clinched a series against Missouri this season when ace Mel Dumezich bested Chelsea Thomas with a one-hit shutout in a 1-0 win. But they also have the kind of offense that could put up 10 runs against Stanford, nine against Texas and 14 against BYU. The central figure is Dumezich, closing in on 300 strikeouts as a pitcher and a breakout hitting star, but the lineup is deeper than at any point since Texas A&M last visited the World Series in 2008.
Strongest challenger: LSU
LSU and Texas State embody the term "evenly matched," right down to both teams having two quality pitchers they can count on and scant little offense. But LSU's duo of Rachele Fico and Brittany Mack kept a team that slugged .294 -- that's slugging percentage, not batting average -- above .500 in one of the nation's best leagues. For that alone, the Tigers have to be taken seriously. If LSU is going to get the one or two runs it may need to win, A.J. Andrews needs to be involved. The freshman stole nine bases and finished with a .345 on-base percentage in SEC play.
Player to watch: Chandler Hall, Texas State. If LSU keeping its head above water in the SEC with a sketchy offense was impressive, Texas State rolling over the Southland Conference despite its own modest offensive production was only slightly less so. Hall was the key figure for the Bobcats, going 22-6 with a 1.56 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning in the circle and leading the team with a .420 slugging percentage at the plate (a mark that rose to .464 in conference play). The senior also showed a flair for the dramatic with a no-hitter to win the Southland tournament.