By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Big 12 Conference, which has 10 schools that sponsor the sport, placed eight teams - more than any other conference - in the 64-team NCAA Division I Softball Championship bracket. Play starts Friday at 16 different regional sites.
Texas (No. 3), Big 12 regular-season champion Missouri (No. 5), Oklahoma (No. 9), Baylor (No. 11) and Texas A&M (No. 16) were among the 16 national seeds. Of those five teams, only Baylor won't be hosting a regional this weekend. Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech also received at-large bids.
"Our conference has just been incredible this year," Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle said. "I would not be surprised if the national champion comes out of this conference, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's two Big 12 teams playing for the national championship at the end."
Each of the 16 regions this weekend will feature a double-elimination format with the winner advancing to the best-of-three super regionals starting May 26.
Here's a preview of the eight regionals featuring Big 12 teams:
College Park Regional
No. 11 seed Baylor (40-12) vs. Lehigh (33-21)
East Carolina (39-20) vs. Maryland (39-17)
With 40 victories and a No. 11 national seed, the Lady Bears could be growling about not earning a regional host nod from the NCAA. But with the Big 12 overcrowded with top teams, Baylor wound up making a road trip as the NCAA tried to balance geography with competition.
Truth be told, making a road trip is just fine for Baylor, which closed the season with a 2-1 victory at Texas (the No. 3 national seed in the bracket). The Lady Bears were 15-6 on the road this season.
"When we saw it Sunday night, I wasn't discouraged at all because I know how we've played on the road," Baylor pitcher Whitney Canion said. "We went to some places where we'd never been earlier this year, and look how we did.
"We've really gotten our confidence back in the past few weeks. We're peaking at the right time, and we just have to put it together this weekend. We'll see what their (Maryland's) field plays like on Thursday, and we'll have no excuses when we play Friday."
Baylor will face Lehigh in the opener. The Mountain Hawks are led by pitcher Rebecca Bliss (16-6, 2.76 ERA). East Carolina has an outstanding pitcher in Toni Paisley, who is 30-11 with a 1.08 ERA and 365 strikeouts in 285.1 innings. Maryland's top hitter is Bree Hanafin, who played two seasons at Baylor before transferring to be closer to home. He has eight homers and 34 RBIs.
"This regional won't be a cakewalk because there will be some teams with NCAA tournament experience and good pitching staffs," Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. "But we've faced the best pitching in the country. We won't see any better pitching than what we've seen the last couple of months."
No. 5 Missouri (46-7) vs. Illinois State (35-17)
DePaul (39-13) vs. Indiana (37-16)
The Tigers closed their Big 12 schedule with four consecutive victories, defeating Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State (twice). Coupled with Baylor's victory at Texas Sunday, that surge gave Missouri its first softball regular-season title since 1997.
Missouri (46-7) will be hosting a regional for the third consecutive season and will hope that translates into a third consecutive trip to the WCWS. DePaul, one of the top teams in the Big East Conference, will be playing in Columbia for the third consecutive season. Indiana finished second in the Big Ten Conference and has won 18 of its last 20.
The Hoosiers (37-15) are led by former Fresno State ace Morgan Melloh. A native of Indiana, she transferred to Bloomington for her senior season. Melloh is 32-15 with a 1.62 ERA and a league-leading 477 strikeouts.
Missouri, though, as an ace of its own. Sophomore Chelsea Thomas is a player-of-the-year finalist and the Big 12 pitcher of the year. She allowed opposing hitters to hit just .145 while compiling a 27-5 record with a 0.81 ERA and a school-record 323 strikeouts.
The Tigers were without Thomas, who missed most of last season with an arm injury. Kristin Nottelmann stepped in and led Missouri to the WCWS. Nottleman is expected to get the start Friday against Illinois State, a team that Mizzou beat three times this season by the combined score of 27-2.
Two years ago Missouri upset No. 2 seed UCLA to reach the WCWS. Last year's NCAA was surprising because of Thomas' absence.
"Year one we snuck in - we beat UCLA and shocked them. Year two we had Nottelmann so we didn't know," Tigers coach Early Earleywine told the Columbia Missourian. "Now this year we're legit. We've got Chelsea. Everybody's healthy so we kind of expect it."
No. 15 Stanford (38-15) vs. Pacific (37-17)
Fresno State (34-17) vs. Nebraska (39-12)
The Cornhuskers will open NCAA play against Fresno State. The Bulldogs have spent time in the top 25 and have beaten six ranked teams. Plus, Fresno State is the only team to have participated in all 30 NCAA softball tournaments.
"I feel like we're going into the tournament to make some noise, we're not just happy to be in it," said Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle, whose Huskers are making their 21st trip to the NCAAs. "It's a regional where we feel like we match up well. We fought tooth and nail with Stanford earlier this year, and we've seen both Fresno State and Pacific in the NCAA tournament before."
Stanford, the No. 15 national seed, is the host team. Nebraska will feel confident going up against the Cardinal considering that the Huskers defeated Stanford 3-2 in nine innings earlier this season.
Nebraska finished 9-9 and in sixth place in Big 12 play, winning its last four games as it closed out its competition against Conference teams. The school will officially join the Big Ten Conference on July 1.
"We're happy with the way we ended the season, but we're not satisfied," pitcher Ashley Hagemann said after Nebraska swept Oklahoma State over the weekend. "These were our last games in the Big 12, so it's exciting to end it with a sweep."
Freshman twin sisters Taylor and Tatum Edwards are key to the Nebraska attack. Taylor led the Big 12 with 64 RBI (a Conference record for a freshman) and was second in home runs with 18 while hitting .358. Tatum hit .285 with 14 homers and 37 RBI.
No. 9 Oklahoma (37-16) vs. Iona (31-20)
Missouri State (29-23) vs. Tulsa (43-13)
Considering the Sooners' 36-16 record, their 10-8 ledger in the Big 12 and their No. 13 ranking in the polls, there's a reason to ask why OU was selected as a regional host.
Oklahoma, though, was chosen as a No. 9 seed - a place that matches its ranking in the RPI. The Sooners' strength of schedule and body of work helped sway the NCAA committee. Out-of-conference opponents have included No. 1 Arizona State, No. 10 Arizona, No. 14 Washington and No. 24 Auburn. Against those teams, the Sooners went 4-1, losing only to Arizona State, while topping Arizona twice.
"Just playing the schedule we have," sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts said. "It definitely helps at the end of the season."
Oklahoma won the national championship and played in the next four Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. For the Sooners to make their first WCWS appearance since 2004, they might have to knock off an in-state rival.
While Oklahoma opens regional play against Iona, Tulsa faces Missouri State in the other regional contest. The Golden Hurricane (43-13) split the season series with the Sooners, losing 9-0 and winning 1-0.
Tulsa's victory came thanks to a two-hit shutout by Aimee Creger. She is one of the nation's top pitchers with a 24-2 record and 247 strikeouts in 185 innings.Creger's 0.79 ERA is the best in the NCAA.
The Sooners are hitting .306 as a team and have slugged 67 home runs including a Big 12-best 19 by catcher Jessica Shults. Oklahoma has won four of its last five and heads into NCAA play confident.
"We've had our peaks and valleys this year, but we're hot right now," OU senior first baseman Chana'e Jones said. "It's all about how you're playing at the end of the season, and that's why we're hosting, because we're playing our best ball right now."
Oklahoma State (37-17) vs. Georgia Tech (44-10)
Liberty (30-28) vs. No. 14 Tennessee (47-10)
Oklahoma State update
The Cowgirls hope that an experienced infield will help offset their inexperience in the circle. Sophomore Kat Espinsosa, who pitched in the regional tournament last year, will start Friday's game against Georgia Tech. Oklahoma State also has freshman starter Simone Freeman along with senior reliever Sarah Odom.
"That's the greatest part about our infield is that we are all juniors and seniors, so they (pitchers) are surrounded with experience and people they can look to," senior third baseman Mariah Gearhart said. "Then we have Odom in the circle with some ridiculous confidence that gives us somebody on the pitching staff that they can look to as well. ... It's our job in the infield to have their backs so that they don't feel like they have to strike everyone out."
Oklahoma State needs a reversal of recent misfortune. The Cowgirls have lost their last six games and have been outscored 28-10 during that stretch.
"Everybody always looks at the outcomes, which rightfully so, but as far as preparing and as far as the way we've played, I feel like we are one or two pitches away from wins," Oklahoma Stat coach Rich Wiegilman said. "It's not that we've played terrible, we've just got to be able to overcome all that and make those pitches or get those hits at the right time."
Georgia Tech is playing in its 10th consecutive NCAA tournament. The Yellow Jackets are led by junior Kelsi Weseman. The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year is hitting .445 with 21 homers and 64 RBI.
"They are the ACC regular season champs and are just perennial," Wiegilman said. "They've been in the regionals every year for a long time, so I know they are going to be well prepared and going to be a good team that we are going to have to play well against in order to beat."
No. 3 Texas (44-8) vs. Texas State (33-23)
Houston (40-16) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (49-9)
The Longhorns need to go from "what happened?" to "what's next" as they prepare for what they hope is a trip to the WCWS.
Texas spent most of the season playing like a team capable of winning the national championship. The Longhorns won 27 of 28 games at one point and started 12-0 in Conference play. But they lost three of their last five in Big 12 play with Sunday's season-ending loss costing UT a conference championship.
"Our body language was terrible, and we just didn't have the fire that we had earlier in the season," Texas coach Connie Clark said after Sunday's 2-1 loss to No. 17 Baylor that cost the Longhorns a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.
On paper, Texas has all the ingredients necessary to make a trip to Oklahoma City for the WCWS. Sophomore pitcher Blair Luna can be dominant. She finished with a 27-5 record and a 1.31 ERA.
The Longhorns are hitting .335 as a team and their 68 home runs were the second-most in the Big 12.
Senior catcher Amy Hooks became the first UT player named Big 12 player of the year. She is hitting .338 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI. Taylor Thom became the sixth Texas player to be named the Conference freshman of the year. She is hitting .356 with 11 homers and a team-best 41 RBI. Outfielder Taylor Hoagland was a first-team selection and leads the team with 14 homers.
"We need to get the Texas swagger back - it seems that we've lost that somehow in these last few weeks," Hooks said.
College Station Regional
LSU (38-16) vs. Syracuse (44-11)
Sacred Heart (29-19) vs. No. 16 Texas A&M (41-13)
Texas A&M update
The Aggies earned a national seed and the right to host a regional thanks to a challenging schedule.
"We're thrilled to host,"said coach Jo Evans, whose team has won a school-record 23 consecutive home games. "Obviously it's our goal at the beginning of the year to play the kind of schedule that allows us to compete and be able to host a regional. Playing at home and having the 12th Man in the stands is a great home field advantage that we're excited to have.
"This is a great field of teams and each of them deserves to be in the postseason. We're looking forward to some tough competition at home."
Junior second baseman Natalie Villarreal was tabbed Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and took All-Big 12 first team honors. She's hitting .346 as the Aggies' leadoff hitter. Sophomore pitcher Mel Dumezich was a Big 12 second-team selection. She has a 27-8 record with a 1.76 ERA. Senior Rhi Kliesing also was a Big 12 second-team selection and leads the team with 16 home runs.
The Aggies led the Big 12 in homers with 71. Six of those were grand slams.
Texas Tech (40-14) vs. New Mexico State (43-15)
Harvard (36-14) vs. No. 8 Arizona (40-16)
Texas Tech update
The Red Raiders will assume the role of underdogs as they travel to Arizona. Texas Tech finished 5-13 in the Big 12 but are ranked No. 30 in the RPI. Coach Shannon Hays' team has lost seven of its last eight games but hopes that getting away from the grind of Big 12 play will be a positive.
Texas Tech is making back-to-back NCAA trips in Hays' second season. He took over a program that was 15-42 in 2009 and had made just two NCAA appearances.
"Last year we went in with so much excitement and a feeling like we had nothing to lose," Hays said. "This year I think we might have felt a little more pressure to get back. So it's a relief to get here, but we're going to go in with the same attitude and play like we've got nothing to lose."
New Mexico State won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles. The Aggies are lead by Hiku Nohara who leads the WAC with a .430 batting average and leads the nation with 23 home runs.
"We start off against a great opponent who has had a great year and won their conference for the first time in school history," Hays said of New Mexico State. "So it's going to be pretty tough.
"I think we're going in there not picked to win. And I hope we go in there with that approach. It's always fun to be the underdog and overachieve."