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College softball NCAA Division I championship starts Wednesday

Minnesota, James Madison slighted as Florida again gets the top seed for the 64-field women’s NCAA Division I softball championship set to start with the Wednesday, Thursday first round

Gophers and Dukes unhappy not being among the 16 announced seeds, and defending champion Oklahoma expected better than a 10th seed

Arnie Leshin

By Arnie Leshin

The NCAA announced its 64-team field for the women’s national softball championships and two schools are not happy with it.

Minnesota (54-3) and James Madison (50-6) feel they were overlooked after being left out among the top 16 seeds. Both have a good case, for the Gophers are ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and the Dukes No. 11.

But the NCAA stands by its selections, pointing to strength of schedule that includes wins over ranked teams. This did not favor Minnesota and James Madison, and the NCAA committee made its top-16 seeding with schools that did.

So it was a knock on the unofficial poll and now there are two schools that will take the field on a mission to prove they belong as a genuine threat to win the nationals. Their mission begins when the double-elimination opening round makes its first pitches on Wednesday and Thursday in 16 regionals.

The Gophers open play in the Tuscaloosa Regional hosted by 16th seed Alabama (42-16), so that’s a good way to start. The region is filled out by Albany (27-16) and Louisiana Tech (37-22). Minnesota matches up first with Tech.

And the Dukes will head for the Waco Regional hosted by 15th seed Baylor (43-12). Also in this region are Kent State (32-26) and Oregon State (28-25). James Madison opens against the Beavers.

Defending champion Oklahoma (50-8) might also have a gripe after being given the 10th seed and feeling it deserved better. It will host the Norman Regional and line up first versus North Dakota State (28-31). Completing the foursome are Tulsa (39-15) and Arkansas (31-22).

Florida (50-6) comes in as the top seed. Arizona (48-7) is the 2nd seed, followed by Oregon (47-6), Florida State (51-6-1), UCLA (42-13), Washington (43-11), Auburn (46-10), Tennessee (44-10), Texas A & M (42-10), and the Sooners.

That’s the top 10, all of whom will play host in the opening round. Next comes the remaining six seeds in a field dominated in numbers by the SEC.

The conference has 13 schools that field softball programs, and all of them were named to the field. It’s not the first time a conference got all its programs in, but the sheer size of the SEC makes it an impressive achievement. More than 20 percent of the schools in the field are SEC members.

Whether that means the SEC is the national’s top conference this season remains up for debate. For one, it could shape up as a head-to-head battle with the PAC 12. In games played between them during the regular season, it was the PAC 12 winning 13 of 20 times, and it has eight schools in the field.

Plus, Oklahoma can not be overlooked. It’s not the usual Sooner lineup. It doesn’t depend on the long ball, but it’s a young team that gained experience and won yet another Big 12 title. It has speed, runs the bases well, the defense has been solid, and so has the pitching. Head coach Patty Grasso can call on several right and left-handers.

When asked about the Sooners’ seed, Grasso shrugged it off and answered that they will still be there to play for their fourth national title. If they advance out of their region, they could have to travel to 7th seeded Auburn, which hosts the first round among Eastern Tennessee State (29-24), Notre Dame (32-21) and California (30-22).

The Sooners and Tigers played in last year’s best two-of-three championship, with Oklahoma winning game one 3-2, losing game two 11-7, and then taking the deciding game, 2-1. In 2013, the Sooners won the championship by defeating Tennessee, 5-3, in 12 innings. Their first came in 2000, with Grasso as head coach each time.

UCLA has won a dozen championships, with Arizona having won eight. Since 2000, the PAC 12 has won nine times, the Big 12 and SEC three times, and Michigan of the Big 10 won once.

The SEC did not win a national title until Alabama did in 2012. Florida followed with championships in 2014 and 2015, and has been named top-seed the last three years.

There are spoilers in each regional.

Florida can expect a tough opponent in Oklahoma State (35-23), Alabama will have to contend with Minnesota and Louisiana Tech, Texas A & M is in with three other Texas schools, Tennessee’s top challenge should come from Ohio State (35-16), UCLA has San Jose State (36-17), and 12th seeded Mississippi (40-18) is hosting an Arizona State (30-20) that is not having one of its better seasons, as well as North Carolina (38-19).

LSU (41-18), the 13th seed, might have a problem with Louisiana (45-6), which would love to win this region. FSU appears to be in a favorable region, but Georgia (33-12) could surprise. Oregon could be battling in its region with Wisconsin (33-15), and 14th seeded Kentucky (36-17) has to be aware of the three spoilers in its region.

The 11th seed Utah (33-14) hosts a region that includes state rival BYU (44-11), while Washington should get its toughest test against Michigan (41-11-1), Auburn will not have it easy against California (30-22) or Notre Dame (32-21), then there’s Oklahoma having an easy opener, but might have a challenge from state-rival Tulsa (39-15).

Baylor (43-12), the 15th seed, will have to deal with riled-up James Madison, in perhaps one of the better match-ups. And Arizona, which opens with New Mexico State (29-23), should have a manageable region.

Sixteen schools will advance to Super Regionals to be played May 18-21 on eight campuses. At each site, it will be two teams playing in a best-of-three format. The winners from each site will move on to the eight-team college World Series in Oklahoma City.

Twelve schools have won this championship, and all are in this field.

James Madison comes in with the top batting average of .357. Minnesota is third at .348. The top earned run average of .74 belongs to Florida, with the Gophers second at 1.21, and next comes James Madison at 1.25.

Individually, the Gators’ Kelly Barnhill is on top at .33, with James Madison’s Megan Good second at .48, and Gopher Sara Groenewegen third at .59.

Idaho State did not make the tournament, but its Kacie Burnett has the top batting average of .487, just ahead of Marshall’s Morgan Zerkie (.484), and Syracuse’s Sydney O’Hara (.478).

And no doubt Minnesota and James Madison can hardly wait to start.

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