Top seed Oklahoma sets pace
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, espnW's Graham Hays breaks down the seeds, the sleepers and the players who could shake up the opening round.
The favorite: No. 1 Oklahoma
Oklahoma played 51 games in the regular season. Its opponents totaled 181 hits and 71 walks. You need to factor in errors and hit batters and all those good things, but the reality remains that the No. 1 seed averaged almost two more runs per game than its opponents averaged base runners. It's pretty tough to lose games when that happens. Or how about this? Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley and Keilani Ricketts combined to hit more home runs than 260 Division I teams. As for matters at hand, Ricketts started in the circle in all three regional games a season ago. Presumably, national player of the year finalist Michelle Gascoigne will get at least one start this time around.
What could get in the way: Well ...
Arkansas took a game from No. 1 overall seed California in a regional last season, so it's not like the Razorbacks will head to Norman thinking all is lost. But let's face it, this is a regional that could be over in a hurry. Arkansas beat the teams it should beat this season, a positive step for the program, but it also went 6-14 against teams in the RPI top 25. Someone with a budget and a job to fill this summer ought to talk to Fordham coach Bridget Orchard, who returns to the NCAA tournament a season after she lost the kind of pitcher in Jen Mineau that a mid-major program gets once in a lifetime. Both teams had great seasons. Extending them is just a bit much to ask.
Player to watch: Devon Wallace, 1B, Arkansas
Oklahoma may have more on its roster, but one thing fans in Norman will recognize this weekend are hitters who can mash. Fordham's Elise Fortier (1.316 OPS, 35 extra-base hits) fits the bill, but Wallace gives Chamberlain, Ricketts, Pendley and anyone else a run for their money as the toughest out in the nation. At this point, teams just don't pitch much to the sophomore, who leads the nation with 75 walks and a .635 on-base percentage. That she still manages a .727 slugging percentage despite seeing only a handful of pitches to hit most games is all the more impressive.
College Station regional
The favorite: No. 16 Texas A&M
Yes, Texas A&M has arguably the toughest regional field coming to town, but frankly, the host has to be thrilled just to get away from the SEC. The Aggies looked like championship material for much of the season's first month, crushing balls and piling up runs. Even now, a lineup card that includes seven players with double-digit home runs is scary stuff for opponents (led by freshman Cali Lanphear's 1.294 OPS, which doesn't seem to be earning her quite the traction in freshman of the year debates it perhaps should). But SEC play took its toll on the Aggies, who still hit the ball out of the park but became an all-or-nothing offensive team. They hit .243 in conference, with 25 percent of their hits going for home runs, compared to .350 out of conference with 20 percent of their hits for home runs.
What could get in the way: Anything and everything
Even the fourth team is tough. Among the 16 teams drawn against national seeds, only Longwood and Fort Wayne have a better RPI than Penn. But with apologies to the Ivy champ, the race for the super regional comes down to the other three teams. Baylor has Whitney Canion in the circle, and she can cover a multitude of deficiencies elsewhere. Arizona's Hallie Wilson and Chelsea Goodacre are special offensive players, but their team has no such luxury. There isn't a facet of the game in which the Wildcats are demonstrably better than either Baylor or Texas A&M. The exception, if the success of the past two weeks is to be believed, is institutional memory. It's May, and this is Arizona.
Player to watch: Kaitlyn Thumann, OF, Baylor
Baylor hoped it would have more power this season. In the sense that it at least exceeded last season's .334 slugging percentage, it does. But while the Lady Bears would love to repeat the day they had in a March win against Arizona State in which they hit three home runs, that outburst represents better than 10 percent of their total for the season. This is still a team whose best bet for two bases is a single and a steal. Thumann is an exception. She is a key part of the short game with 29 stolen bases and a .465 on-base percentage, but she also leads the team with 12 doubles and 19 extra-base hits. She's the first Baylor player since Kelly Osburn in 2005 to have at least 20 steals and 15 extra-base hits in a season. And sharing a list with Osburn is pretty good company for a sophomore.
Ann Arbor regional
The favorite: No. 8 Michigan
Michigan stumbled on a couple of occasions down the stretch, but that didn't prevent it from clinching a coveted top-eight seed. A run-starved lineup that overachieved when it reached a super regional a season ago matured into a juggernaut, its slugging percentage climbing from .415 to .535. Some of that comes down to freshman star Sierra Romero (1.369 OPS), but five regulars are slugging at least .500, up from two a season ago. The difference between a team that can get to the World Series and one that can do something there may come down to what the Wolverines get from Sara Driesenga and Haylie Wagner in the circle. The staff's 2.92 Big Ten ERA is dicey.
What could get in the way: Jolene Henderson's comeback
As of April 21, California was No. 12 in adjusted RPI, three spots behind Michigan and in position to host a regional. Then it lost eight games in a row, the first six without its senior All-American ace in any capacity and the final two with her availability limited. So which Cal team will take the field in Ann Arbor? Henderson isn't a one-woman team, but her absence highlighted not just the lack of experienced pitching depth but also a lineup that has struggled to score runs. At this time a season ago, Cal had 33 wins by more than three runs. It has just 21 such wins this season.
Player to watch: Taylor Weissenhofer, P, Valparaiso
The Horizon League champs don't have far to travel this weekend, but the step up in competition makes for a long road ahead. Still, Valparaiso acquitted itself well in a difficult regional last season, losing 6-4 against Louisville and 5-4 against Kentucky. And that was without Weissenhofer, a southpaw who is one of only five freshmen pitchers ranked in the top 30 nationally in strikeouts per seven innings (220 in 180 2/3 innings). It's the longest of long shots, but the Wolverines faced just six lefty starting pitchers in the regular season and went 4-2 in those games.
Baton Rouge regional
Friday: LSU vs. Central Connecticut; Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Northwestern State
The favorite: No. 9 LSU
LSU enters the tournament on anything but a roll after it lost all three of its May games and gave up 27 runs in the process. But anyone who remembers last season will recall that the Tigers lost eight of their final 10 games, scored barely any runs in the process, and proceeded to reach the World Series. And there's a lot more reason to think Rachele Fico will regain her pitching touch this season than there was to think last season's team would find a way to score runs. One key for Fico is going to be reining in her own stubbornness -- she's either walked or hit 119 batters in 211 1/3 innings. The good news is she and the staff have much more margin for error with Bianka Bell (1.058 OPS) around.
What could get in the way: Genuine dislike
That last word probably isn't the one most fans of Louisiana's two premier softball programs would choose. It's too mild. There is no love lost between LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette, who won't even play in the regular season, and both programs know where to eat in Oklahoma City as repeat visitors to the World Series. Beating a quality team in the postseason is difficult enough. Beating a rival is that much more difficult, especially a rival that brings a lineup with a .547 slugging percentage and .425 on-base percentage. Sarah Draheim (1.291 OPS), Nerissa Myers (1.299 OPS) and Brianna Cherry (1.201 OPS) are the top three OPS players in the regional. Not even Oklahoma can claim that.
Player to watch: Jordan Wallace, P, Louisiana-Lafayette
Wallace is one of the more intriguing pitchers in the tournament. On paper, she's a statistical beast, fifth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings with a 28-7 record and 1.89 ERA. And it's not like she piled up numbers against the dregs of Division I. She threw quality innings against Michigan, Mississippi State and Iowa out of conference and back-to-back brilliant outings against Western Kentucky and South Alabama in the Sun Belt tournament (she also two-hit Arizona State in a super regional a season ago). But she wasn't among even the 25 finalists for player of the year and admittedly took some lumps in high-profile outings against Texas and Texas A&M.