By Arnie Leshin
Ladies first. The men’s college baseball tournament is still backstage and playing for the conference championships to be followed by the selection of the 64-school field that will wind its way to Omaha, Neb., for its Elite Eight World Series.
But not before the NCAA Division I softball championship is settled. Of the 64 schools, 56 were eliminated and eight will take the field in Oklahoma City Thursday.
Auditions are over, the stage is set, the pressure builds for the 37th annual tournament. It’s not now or never, it’s now or another time. But any of the eight schools would rather carry off the championship trophy on June 3 or 4, rather than the disappointment of leaving empty-handed.
The No. 1 through No. 8 seeds are missing one member, and that’s defending champion Florida State, the 4th seed, being eliminated in Tallahassee by 13th seeded Oklahoma State, which now has as good a chance as winning it all as the seven others.
In 2011, the Cowgirls made their last of eight appearances at the World Series. Now they get to again make the one-hour trip to Oklahoma City. Now they make the scene there joining state rival Oklahoma for the first time since than.
It’s double-elimination and they are in the same bracket. If the top-seeded Sooners defeat 8th seeded Alabama Thursday, and Oklahoma State gets by 6thseeded Florida, it would an all-Oklahoma clash. Interesting, right, but if both lose Thursday, one more loss sends them home, the Sooners only 40 minutes from their campus in Norman.
And with both getting eliminated, it would still bring capacity crowds, but without the bulk of the supporters from the home state, attendance will take a huge loss.
But it doesn’t happen unless this is what occurs. And right now, the two Oklahoma schools are 0-0 as they meet up first with the two SEC teams.
One school is making its first appearance at this level, and that’s 7th seeded Minnesota. One school has won the most national softball titles, and that’s 2nd seeded UCLA. One school has won its last 10 starts, and that’s 3rd seeded Washington.
One school last winning it all came in back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005, and that’s 6th seeded Arizona. One school is making its 11thstraight visit to Oklahoma City, and that’s 8thseeded Alabama. One school was the only one that had to play an extra day when it was tied at a game apiece, and that was 5th seeded Florida.
And then there’s the No. 1 seeded Sooners in quest of their fifth national championship after their 42-game win streak came to an abrupt halt.
They are 54-3 and they have two of the finest pitchers in the land in undefeated southpaw Giselle Juarez, and once-beaten right-hander Mariah Lopez. They have a finalist of three players vying for Player of the Year in senior third baseman Sydney Romero, and she is one of four star-studded senior starters on a mission to add this to the title they won in 2017.
Juarez owns a 1.05 earned run average and has won all 24 starts while striking out 230 batters. Lopez’ ERA is 1.32, her record is 20-1, and she has struck out exactly 200 hitters. Romero is batting .439 with 84 hits and 20 home runs. And you have to include freshman first baseman Grace Green, sophomore left fielder Jocelyn Alo, and sophomore catcher Lynnsie Elam.
As a team, they have a batting average of .380, an ERA of 0.96, and have scored an average of 8.75 runs a game. It gets Alabama in the opener.
UCLA is 54-6, has a host of undergraduates, and has a two-way star in sophomore righty Rachel Garcia. She’s 23-2 in the circle with a 1.87 ERA and 211 strikeouts. At bat, she’s hitting .388 with 71 hits and 13 home runs.
She has help at the plate in long-ball slugger Taylor Pack.
There’s also freshman right-hander Megan Faraimo, with her best pitch a high riser, and she adds a fastball and a curve that keeps batters off stride. Last year, Garcia did the bulk of the pitching, now the team can call on Faraimo. The Bruins are hitting .311, an ERA of 1.36, and have scored an average of six runs a game as they await Minnesota.
Washington is red-hot and out to take a step forward after being last year’s runner-up. The Huskies are 50-7 and equality adept in pitching, hitting and fielding. They owe their streak to the likes of sophomore right-handed hurler Gabbie Plain, who is 16-3 with a 1.21 ERA and 228 strikeouts.
She is backed by a quality defense, and an offense led by sophomore Morganne Flores, who has belted 23 home runs, has 60 hits, and a .352 batting average. There’s also the bats of Noelle Hee, the pinch hitting specialist, as well as Emma Helm and Taryn Atlee.
Another Husky pitcher who has made a big contribution is Australian native Taran Alvelo. She has been effective as a starter by displaying control, a deceptive rise ball, and is the rah-rah type. Team-wise, it is batting .312, scoring 5.5 runs per game, and with a 1.48 ERA. to take against Arizona.
Florida has one of the more experienced right-handed pitchers in senior Kelly Barnhill, a four-year starter and who has often thrown over 120 pitches. She has confidence and mixes in a curveball and fastball, and sometimes throws the batters off stride with a change-up. She now has won 23 times her final season, with a 1.48 ERA, and 337 strikes.
Swinging the big bats are seniors Amanda Lorenz and Jaime Hoover, with Lorenz driving the ball a dozen times over the fence, coming up with 75 hits, and batting .424. As a team, the Gators are 49-16, have a 1.78 ERA, is hitting at a .269 clip, and has scored an average of 4.70 times a game.
No doubt they are still celebrating the Monday afternoon 2-1 win over SEC rival Tennessee in eight innings of the deciding contest. Or maybe they are just getting down to present business, as in the opener with Oklahoma State.
Arizona is the 6th seed and well-schooled with a second-best seven titles, well coached, and combines quality pitching, hitting and fielding, as well as taking the extra base. It is 46-12 and has a well-balanced lineup led by Dejah Mulipola, the long-ball hitter.
There’s also Reyna Carranco, Malia Martinez, Hannah Bowen, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Rylee Pierce swinging big bats, and the defense is led by shortstop Jessie Harper. The Wildcats have often broken up tight games with big innings and open against Washington.
Minnesota is on a high as it makes its initial appearance in the World Series. The Golden Gophers arrive with 46-12 record and ride the arm of Amber Fiser, who has thrown every pitch — 572 of them — in the post-season. A junior, she has an impressive 31-7 record, counts on a variety of pitches, confidence, and a well-balanced lineup.
The hit parade has been powered by long-ball hitter Allie Arneson. Katelyn Kemmetmueller, a candidate for longest family name here, Emma Burns and Carlie Brandt. The Minnesota wrap shows a 1.66 ERA, a .308 batting average, and has run up an average of six runs per start. It opens versus UCLA.
Alabama makes the big show for the 11th straight time, and comes in this time with a stellar hurler in Montana Fouts and big batter in power-hitter Bailey Hemphill. Fouts has a dandy 1.20 ERA and has whiffed 175 hitters. Hemphill is one of the better home run sluggers in the land with 25 to go with 66 hits and .373 batting average.
The Tide is 57-7, the most wins in the country. It had a good SEC season, but didn’t fare as well in non-conference games. It has a 2.03 earned run average, a batting average of .295, and have crossed the plate an average of 6.34 a game.
Its leading hitters along with Hemphill, have been Maddie Morgan, Claire Jenkins, and KB Sides. It opens against Oklahoma.
Last and certainly not least is surprising Oklahoma State, which stunned the Seminole crowd by winning the deciding game. It is led in pitching, hitting and leadership by senior Samantha Show, and Logan Simunek has been a reliable relief pitcher. She’s one those fist pumpers who ishaving a good time.
Show does it all. From the circle, she carries a 2.35 ERA and has fanned 107 batters. She mixes in control, a fastball and curve, and even includes a change-up and sometimes a rise ball. Then there’s her bat, where she has homered 19 times, has 30 hits, and is hitting at a .343 average. She includes leadership and determination.
The other hitting threats for Oklahoma State have been Michaela Richbourg and Cheyenne Factor. The Cowgirls are 44-15, they have a .279 earned run average, a 302 batting average, and have scored an average of 6.18 runs per outing. They open against Florida.
Take your pick, but be careful, these are all quality teams and hopefully the weather in Oklahoma City mixes in sunny days and comfortable temperatures. What is usually difficult is finding empty seats.