Elite Eight in best-of-three double elimination with all playing in four-game opening day
By Arnie Leshin | May 31, 2017
The chanting, the cheering, the dancing in the dugouts, the support of the faithful fans, players standing over home plate to greet, high-five and mob the recipient of the home run or whatever else the heroics were.
Welcome to the 35th annual NCAA Division I softball championships played at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. From a field of 64, it’s trimmed down to the Elite Eight in quest of celebrating and hoisting the World Series championship trophy.
To make it this far is an accomplishment for any school, but once the first pitch is thrown Thursday in the best-of-three series of two brackets, these schools want much more.
UCLA (47-13) is there, and it has won a dozen titles to rank first since it won the initial tournament in 1982. The defending champion Oklahoma (56-9) only had to make the short ride from its campus in Norman as it goes for its fourth championship, which is third-best.
Arizona , the 2nd seed with a second-best eight titles, isn’t there after being stunned by visiting 15th seeded Baylor (45-12) , which lost game one, 2-1, and then took the next two.
The third seed, Oregon (50-6), made it after taking two tough games over Kentucky. FSU, the 4th seed, was eliminated in the Super Regionals it hosted against LSU (50-7), which once again came out of the loser’s bracket to survive.
The Bruins are the 5th seed and they will meet up with LSU. The 6th seed is Washington (46-11) and it goes against PAC 12 rival Oregon. Then there’s top-seeded Florida (54-7) facing Texas A & M (47-11), which won in three in the Super Regionals at Tennessee, and the Sooners line up against Big 12 rival Baylor.
Bracket One is comprised of the Gators, Bayou Tigers, Aggies and Bruins. Bracket Two has Baylor, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.
In order on Thursday, it will first be Texas A & M against Florida, LSU versus UCLA, Washington taking on Oregon, and Oklahoma meeting up with Baylor in the closer.
Alphabetically, let’s take a look at these schools.
BAYLOR: The lowest seed left, for the PAC 12 Bears it’s what have you done for me lately. They combined the key ingredients to win the Region it hosted, and then, after the tough setback in game one, stunned the Wildcats to win game two by scoring four times in the sixth inning. In game three, it pulled out the one-run triumph on a 3-run home run in the seventh inning. It is a team very capable of beating you in both facets of the game. Its pitching has allowed only 14 runs in six tournament contests.
FLORIDA: The SEC Gators are pitching-strong with right-handers Kelly Barnhill and Delaney Gourley. The two have a combined 1.03 earned-run-average. Barnhill is 24-3 (ERA is 0.36) with 333 strikeouts. Their batters don’t exactly have a hit parade, but they can hit well enough to win close games, and their fielding and running the bases is second to none. It will not be easy to hand this team two defeats.
LSU: Another team with exceptional pitching, it is in the mold of Florida. The Bayou Tigers have turned in key safeties backed by a pitching rotation that has yielded but 1.9 runs per game. It’s a true grit, never-say-die SEC team that has played five of its eight tournament games on the brink of elimination, and are 5-0 in these contests. They have some potent bats in Sahvanna Jaquish and Bailey Landry, and a one-two circle punch in Carley Hoover (15-7, 1.11 ERA) and Allie Walljasper (17 6, 1.37 ERA.
OKLAHOMA: The PAC 12 champions are on a roll after coming back from an opening-game loss to North Dakota State in the region in Norman. With only one senior on the roster, it swept 7th seeded Auburn in the Super Regionals for its 27th straight road victory, and shows outstanding pitching behind junior left-hander Paige Parker (23-5, 1.29 ERA, 243 strikeouts), junior southpaw Paige Lowray and right-handed freshman Mariah Lopez. This team plays solid defense, has speed, and a balanced lineup.
OREGON: The PAC 12 team didn’t have an easy time ousting pesky Kentucky in two games. It did so with a potent offense powered by seniors Nikki Udria (.386 average, 10 home runs) and Danica Mercado (.383, 25 steals), and sophomore Alexis Mack (.417, 27 stolen bases). It’s a tough lineup from top to bottom. The ace of the pitching staff is sophomore Megan Kleist (19-3, 1.21 ERA), but it’s been the offense that has carried the Ducks to winning their last 15 in a row.
TEXAS A & M: Also from the SEC record entry of 13 schools, the Aggies don’t have consistent starting pitching, but their bats have found their way to take two-of-three from Tennessee, and on the flip side, have allowed only two runs in three regional games. They have done well in pulling out close contests, now if the hurling can come together, they can surprise even the No. 1 seeded Gators. But surrendering 16 runs in the three games versus the Vols will not get them far.
UCLA: The PAC 12 Bruins can swing the bats, especially to knock the balls over the fence, and is no doubt the best at this in the field. They are averaging 1.27 home runs a game and have a streak of 11-straigtht games with a least one home run. But they also have reliable pitching as evidenced in the somewhat uncharacteristic 1-0 win over Mississippi that clinched the Super Regionals after an 8-7 triumph in game one in which they applied their balanced lineup.
WASHINGTON: The PAC 12 Huskies are a question mark. As a team, they hover among the top 10 in batting average, home runs and scoring. They also have been up-and-down in the circle, on defense, and with the bats. But they can swing the bats, and will have to do so. Senior Ali Aguilar has led the way and went 7-for-10 with a home run and a double in the Super Regionals against a pesky Utah squad. They also won the regular-season, 3-game series, at Oregon. Now they get the Ducks again.