Florida can make waves
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: Florida vs. Florida Gulf Coast; South Florida vs. Central Florida
Seed: No. 5 Florida
It's worth reiterating that Florida owns 46 wins, had a chance to win a share of the SEC title on the final day of the regular season and reached the SEC championship game. Then again, it is also necessary to reiterate those accomplishments are reminders that this team lost momentum in recent weeks. The Gators scored three or fewer runs in nine of their last 11 games. The pitching of Hannah Rogers and Lauren Haeger generally kept them in those games, but those two endured roller-coaster rides of their own against Alabama the past two weeks. With SEC player of the year Michelle Moultrie, improved team defense and the potential for good pitching, there is plenty left to like if the confidence returns.
Strongest challenger: South Florida
There is still a place in college softball for pitching, defense and the short game, and the Bulls build a strong profile around that core. Sophomore Sara Nevins emerged as one of the nation's best pitchers after a solid freshman season. A finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year, she has a 1.06 ERA and doesn't often help opponents exploit her mistakes -- she's allowed just six home runs and 44 walks in 210 1/3 innings. The offense has limitations, but four players recorded double-digit steals, and third baseman Jessica Mouse is among the best defenders at any position in the country.
Player to watch: Mackenzie Audas, Central Florida. One of the top freshman performers in the country, Audas already beat Florida once this season, throwing a two-hit shutout against the SEC team on April 11. All of 5-foot-5, Audas patterned herself after former Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt, a pitcher who hardly towered over opponents but used a masterful changeup to win a national title and an ESPY. Audas didn't fare well in an opening-round loss in the Conference USA tournament, but the extra days of rest could prove beneficial for a freshman at the end of a long college season.
Los Angeles regional
Friday: UCLA vs. Hofstra; Florida State vs. San Diego State
Seed: No. 12 UCLA
The seed tells the story of an up-and-down season, but a team with UCLA's pedigree, which also brings an offense that leads the nation in slugging percentage and is tied for fifth in runs per game, can't be dismissed. Freshman Stephany LaRosa is the most prolific of many big bats (.815 slugging percentage, 60 RBIs), but five players in all have double-digit doubles or home runs. The question with the Bruins always seems to be how many runs will it take to win? Pitchers Jessica Hall and Ally Carda don't get a lot of help from a defense that ranked in the middle of the Pac-12 and had difficulty slowing opposing running games, but only Utah's arrival prevented the Bruins from finishing last in ERA in the league.
Strongest challenger: San Diego State
This isn't solely because when the teams played in February, UCLA came away with nothing more commanding than a 1-0 win in a game in which the winning run scored on an illegal pitch. But it doesn't hurt to know the Aztecs can compete on that level. Led by Hayley Miles (20 HRs, .952 slugging percentage), San Diego State has more power than in the past, not to mention more than opening opponent Florida State. Pitcher Bailey Micetich gave up some runs in conference play, but she was the pitcher who tamed the Bruins in February and pitched well in relief in regional play the past two seasons.
Player to watch: Olivia Galati, Hofstra. When last we saw Galati in the NCAA tournament, she worked deep into the night against Arizona in a 2010 regional. Her final line that night showed seven earned runs allowed, but she held the Wildcats in check for seven innings of relief before finally yielding. Two years later, she remains one of the best pitchers beyond the big conferences and finished the regular season with a 30-5 record, 0.90 ERA and 331 strikeouts. She struggled in a start against UCLA earlier this season, but whether with her arm or her bat (she's hitting .370), she can change a game.
Friday: Arizona vs. North Dakota State; Hawaii vs. Notre Dame
Seed: No. 13 Arizona
Ignore the name on the uniform and what do you have? An above-average offense that can score multiple ways but struggled to win away from home and is its own worst enemy in the circle thanks to a propensity for walks and home runs. Coach Mike Candrea said he wanted more of a running game this season, and the trio of Karissa Buchanan, Chelsea Suitos and Brigette Del Ponte has combined to steal 42 bases in 44 attempts. That hasn't come at the expense of much power, particularly given that power numbers are down across the board this season in college softball. The challenge for Arizona will be for its pitchers, presumably mostly ace Kenzie Fowler, to avoid giving away bases. Despite playing fewer games than any Pac-12 team, the Wildcats issued more walks than any other team in the league.
Strongest challenger: Hawaii
Hawaii advanced to the World Series in 2010 on the strength of a lineup that set a season record for home runs, but the young pitchers who went along for the ride that season now appear capable of doing the heavy lifting themselves. Hawaii can still hit, entering the tournament with 73 home runs and a .510 slugging percentage behind the familiar tandem of Jessica Iwata and Kelly Majam, but pitchers Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby combine to give the team the fifth-best ERA in the country, behind only Oklahoma, South Florida, California and Louisville. It was Ricketts who got the best of Cal ace Jolene Henderson to hand the top-ranked team its first loss of the season.
Player to watch: Krista Menke/Whitney Johnson, North Dakota State. It's not often a pitching conundrum for the fourth seed in a regional is a good thing -- teams from one-bid leagues are often lucky to have even one pitcher they feel comfortable throwing against top teams. But in freshman Menke and junior Johnson, the Bison have positive options. Johnson fared well in starts against Alabama and Florida State this season, and clinched the team's NCAA berth in the conference tournament, but Menke stepped up when the upperclassman missed time with an injury and earned pitcher-of-the-year honors in the Summit League. In the tournament for the fourth year in a row, North Dakota State shouldn't be a pushover no matter who it starts.
Friday: Oklahoma vs. Lehigh; Oregon State vs. Tulsa
Seed: No. 4 Oklahoma
The Sooners finally made it back to the World Series last season after a seven-year absence from the event held in their backyard. In that case, making it to Oklahoma City was the accomplishment, particularly when done without ailing All-America catcher Jessica Shults and by winning a super regional at Arizona. But this time around, Shults is healthy, freshmen Lauren Chamberlain and Georgia Casey have turned the lineup into a murderers row and the Sooners won't have to leave the state at any point in the postseason. With a shaky recent history in home regionals (they lost a game last season and were eliminated at home in 2009), they need a strong start. That's an opportunity for All-America pitcher/slugger Keilani Ricketts to take command and prove she's the most intimidating player in the bracket.
Strongest challenger: Tulsa
Conference USA might have been the fourth-best conference in the country this season after the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, and Tulsa swept the regular-season and tournament titles. The Golden Hurricane have power; Samantha Cobb leads a trio of starters who slugged better than .500 in the regular season. They have speed; Caitlin Everett stole 34 bases and gave herself chances with a .423 on-base percentage. And they have pitching. Minnesota transfer Lacey Middlebrooks went 20-5 with a 1.87 ERA, including a one-hitter to clinch the conference title, and Aimee Creger, still rounding into form after an injury sustained in last season's regional in Norman, is a dominant power pitcher when she's on top of her game. The setting won't scare Tulsa. It beat Oklahoma in Norman in regional play in both 2009 and 2011, going 2-2 overall against the hosts in those events.
Player to watch: Elizabeth Santana, Oregon State. Oregon State is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, and the big difference is an offense that has scored 283 runs in 55 games after managing just 135 runs in 47 games a season ago. The biggest difference is Santana, a 5-3 junior in her first season with the Beavers after playing two seasons at UC Davis. She leads the team in RBIs and trails Dani Gilmore by small margins for the lead in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Notably, she hit just as well in her first trip through the Pac-12 as she did out of conference.