Today, I'll bring your the first of a two-part series focusing on some players you might want to keep your eye on in the first round of the NCAA softball tournament. These aren't your usual Player of the Year finalists or 5-star players - these are players who quietly excel in one or many areas of the game, and their play this weekend could be the difference between their team's advancement or elimination.
Today, we're going to look at players from the left side of the bracket.
From the Norman regional, hosted by Oklahoma, you're gonna want to watch several Sooners, but you might want to take a particular interest in Shelby Pendley. The preseason transfer from Arizona produced immediately for Patti Gasso's squad, and could arguably be the best and most fundamentally-sound hitter on a Sooner lineup that includes Keilani Ricketts and Lauren Chamberlain.
Also in Norman, be watching out for Arkansas's pitching ace Kimmy Beasley. Beasley just has been dominating any and all opponents this year, and was named second team All-SEC last week. Her strikeout/walk ratio is a dandy 157/44, and she was really hitting her stride toward season's-end.
Now, to College Station, where Texas A&M plays host. For the Aggies, keep an eye on freshman Cali Lanphear. In the regular season, she led the Aggies in batting average; home runs; RBI; total bases; and slugging percentage. She showed herself to be arguably the best hitter in a lineup that includes Meagan May, Mel Dumezich, and Cassie Tysarczyk.
Also in that regional are the Baylor Bears, and you'll want to take note of redshirt freshman outfielder Linsey Hays. A solid hitter, she started and played in every game of the Bears' season thus-far, and always seems to come up with the clutch hit just when it's needed. Players like that are hard to come by, and worth keeping an eye on come postseason time.
Down in Baton Rouge, a freshman slugger is sure to make her mark in her first postseason. LSU's Bianka Bell has been raking against SEC pitching this year, to the tune of a .356 batting average and a .625 slugging percentage. With opponents like Northwestern State and Central Connecticut State, I fully expect Bell to continue her awesome season at the plate.
Unless she faces ULL's Jordan Wallace, that is. Wallace may be the best pitcher in the Red Stick this weekend, and yes, I'm including Rachele Fico in that. Wallace is a machine in the circle; her strikeout/walk ratio is an insane 331/77 on the year. She'll be a big part of any rally the Cajuns try to put together.
Let's head to Ann Arbor, where there's no shortage of talent. Pac-12 powerhouse Cal ended the season on quite the sour note, and will have to get by solid teams, including the Michigan Wolverines, if they want to advance. It's two players from the Wolverines that I want to focus on. Freshman shortstop Sierra Romero is the talk of the town, and as well she should be. In her first season in the maize and blue, she set the single-season home run record, and vaulted herself onto the top-ten finalist list for Collegiate Player of the Year. She carried a .378 batting average to along with her .854 slugging percentage.
In the pitching department, UM sophomore Sara Driesenga has had quite the sophomore season, establishing herself as the staff ace and putting together a solid and very nice season. A respectable 1.81 ERA, and leaving opponents swinging from their heels, with a .226 batting average against her. Driesenga also swings the bat for the Wolverines, and posted a .275 of her own.
In Tempe, Arizona State got a somewhat surprising #5 ranking and hosts, among others, Georgia. ASU's junior transfer Cheyenne Coyle has been raking against Pac-12 pitching, to the tune of a .364 batting average; 19 home runs; and a .799 slugging percentage. She also recorded almost double as many walks as offensive strikeouts. A pure power hitter since she put on the Sun Devils uniform, Coyle is arguably the best hitter in this regional, and is sure to make her mark over the weekend.
The one player that might rival Coyle for hottest hitter this weekend is Georgia's Paige Wilson. The red-headed infielder has been on fire lately, and if Georgia has any hope of advancing to the super regionals, they'll need her bat to continue to pop. Her .412 average was tops for the Bulldogs, and her .738 slugging percentage was good enough for third on the team. I fully expect both of these young ladies to park some bombs over the fence before the weekend is through.
Now moving to Lexington, there's a bevy of talent on display at John Cropp Stadium for the second weekend in a row. Virginia Tech's Courtney Liddle looks to extend her college career as long as possible, and she'll do everything she can to ensure that happens. She hit .380 on the year, and smacked seven home runs. "Small ball" tends to be more the Hokies style, and and Liddle's nearly one hundred total bases were a big part of that during the regular season. She's a leader for the Hokies team, and they'll strongly depend on her if they are to pull out the upset and advance.
Also representing the class of 2013 is Marshall's Andi Williamson. Marshall surprised a lot of people with their first-ever conference championship last week, and Williamson was named C-USA tournament MVP. She is the backbone to the Herd's success this season, and as Andi goes, go the Thundering Herd. She held opponents to a dismal .194 batting average, and collected 344 strikeouts in 296 innings of work.
For the 2016 class, Kelsey Nunley's star is already shining brightly. She made her mark on the SEC from the start of the year, and quickly established herself as the staff ace. A respectable 2.10 ERA and opponent's batting average of .216 were two bright spots in Nunley's stat line. This regional is one of the most up-for-grabs on the whole bracket this year, and Nunley's masterful pitching is going to be a big part of whether or not UK advances or stays home come Super Regional week.
The final two regionals on the left side of the bracket are both going to be doozies (that's an old French word for those of you who don't know). Down on the gulf, in Mobile, Alabama, the South Alabama Jaguars host ACC regular-season-champs Florida State; SEC #11 Mississippi State; and Mississippi Valley State. Alison Owen of Mississippi State, after sitting out 2012, has been a valuable addition to the Bulldogs this year. She started the season strong, with a couple no-hitters and set the school single-game strikeout record, only to break that mark just the next day. She was an important factor in Bulldog victories over Texas A&M; Alabama; Florida; LSU; and Hofstra early in the season. Her control is excellent - she carried an almost 23/2 SO/BB ratio through the entire season, and opponents batted just .175 against her.
Even with Owen's prowess in the circle, she and Stephanie Becker are not the best pitching duo in Mobile this weekend. That title belongs to South Alabama starters Hannah Campbell and Farish Beard. Anybody who has seen these two pitch, or even just taken a look at their stat line, would be hard-pressed to find a better 1-2 punch anywhere in the nation. Campbell, a junior, leads the country with a 0.86 ERA, and is coming off an eight-inning no-hitter in the semi final round of the conference tournament. Beard's ERA is a bit higher, but still a mighty fine 1.79. Beard finished the regular season a perfect 21-0, while Campbell took all seven of the team's losses. Opponent's batted ever-so-slightly better against Campbell, but that didn't mean much, as the 6'1" hurler limited opposing hitters to a .186 average, while Beard's opponents only measured in at .145. Don't expect to see a whole lot of offense in Mobile this weekend.
The final regional, at the bottom left of your bracket, takes place in Austin, Texas, where the Texas Longhorns play host to Houston, South Carolina, and the ladies of West Point. Professional draft pick Samie Garcia leads the Gamecocks with her .412 batting average and .604 slugging percentage. The Gamecocks aren't really a power-hitting team, as Chelsea Hawkins leads the team with just eight, but Garcia is the catalyst to their offense, and does a great job of "setting the table" for the rest of the offense.
Houston's Haley Outon is probably one of the most underrated hitters in the country right now. She continues to put up amazing offensive numbers on a weekly basis, and against quality pitching, at that. Her .350 average was good enough for just third on the Cougars squad, but her 15 home runs and .731 slugging percentage are second to none. Besides swinging a mighty-heavy stick at the plate, she's also a sure-handed backstop behind it, making only two errors all season long, good enough for a .994 fielding percentage. As Haley proved last year, she can't win games alone, but she provides a great jump-start for the Cougar offense, and they're at their best right now, in my opinion. Keep an eye on Haley and the Cougars down in Austin.
And then, of course, there's Texas. I'm still not 100% convinced how they snagged the #4 seed, but they did, and time will tell what they do with it. There's a number of players who could have an impact for the Longhorns, but none more so than pitcher Blaire Luna. She had a great season - just look at her stats - but she also has a history of some dramatic chokes when the NCAA tournament rolls around. This is her senior season, her "last hurrah", so we will see if that trend continues.