Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Players to Watch - NCAA Regionals Edition, Part 2

Today, I'll bring your the second of a two-part series focusing on some players you'll 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 right side of the bracket.

The Oregon Ducks carry the #3 seed and host the Eugene regional at the top of the right side of the bracket. The Ducks have some great hitters, but their biggest strength lies in the pitching department. Senior Jessica Moore and freshman Cheridan Hawkins handle the bulk of the duties in the circle, and both are A+ all the way. In her inaugural campaign, Hawkins’ ERA was just 0.09 higher than that of senior & Player of the Year finalist Moore. Opponents batted just .180 between the two pitchers, with Moore ever-so-slightly having the upper hand in that category, as well. That's just almost unprecedented success against some of the best hitters and hitting teams in the country.

Lori Spingola is by far the workhorse of the UNC pitching staff, and if UNC had a chance against Oregon and Wisconsin, they'll strongly depend on her. A respectable ERA and an almost 3/1 SO/walk ratio are bright spots of Spingola's stat line, but just as impressive is the .219 batting average she held opponents to. UNC's got a solid offense, but Spingola needs to be dominant in the circle for the Tar Heels to have any kind of a chance to leave Eugene as victors.

One of the best unknown pitchers in the country this season is definitely Tulsa's Aimee Creger. The junior was simply masterful all season long, with a no-no at the end of the season and an invite to Team USA tryouts this summer two bright spots of the season. An ERA barely above a run, 283 strikeouts compared to 68 walks, and an opponent's batting average of .173 are just a few of the astounding numbers the young lady put up this season. In almost 196 innings of work, she gave up exactly 20 extra base hits and just 6 home runs. Those are some seriously-astounding numbers. Tulsa is definitely a "dark-horse" in a regional that also includes Stanford and Nebraska, but if Creger and Lacey Middlebrooks play like they have been all year, don't be too surprised if the Hurricane stun the world.

Nebraska's Tatum Edwards' stats weren't as great as Creger's, but they were still pretty doggone impressive. A sub-2.00 ERA that was better than Michelle Gascoigne & Rachele Fico's and an opponent's batting average of just .185 were two shining stats in Edwards' 2013 line. Her SO/BB ratio could have been better, but the Huskers will depend on the junior's right arm if they're going to advance to the Supers.

In the Seattle regional, hosted by the Huskies of Washington, Minnesota looks to pull an upset over the 11th ranked PAC-12 powerhouse. If they're going to do so, two players are going to have to continue their season-long dominance. Junior pitcher Sara Moulton established herself early-on as one of the best pitchers in the country, and lived up to that moniker as the season progressed. She finished the season with a 1.53 ERA and opponent's batting average of just .201. By far the most-used pitcher on the Gophers staff, she seems to have somehow avoided the overwork that has hurt teams like Missouri and Texas A&M so far this year. 

On the offensive side, sophomore Kaitlyn Richardson has been swinging a hot bat all season long, and was named to College Sports Madness' All-American second team. She hit an astounding .440 on the season, and smacked ten home runs while gathering forty-one RBI. Her stat line reads .440/.730/.560, an   astounding line usually reserved for the likes of a Raven Chavanne or Lauren Gibson. Richardson's offensive BB/SO ratio was a perfect 2/1, walking twice as many times as she struck out. Although both Gophers are beginning to be recognized for their talent, they're still under the radar for the most part, and are more than worthy of keeping an eye on. Seattle could be a prime spot for an upset this weekend.

How can you talk about any regional that includes the Hofstra Pride and not mention Olivia Galati? She is arguably the best pitcher to ever come out of the CAA, and recently completed her fifth career perfect game to cement her place on that list. Albeit against lesser competition than the likes of Keilani Ricketts and Jolene Henderson face, Galati's stat line is still quite impressive. A 1.39 ERA and opponent's batting average of .176 are fantastic numbers in their own right, but even more so when you realize that she pitched more than 300 innings this season. Like Moulton, she has somehow managed to avoid the "dead arm bug" that has plagued a number of great pitchers this year. After a Cinderella run that ended with back-to-back losses against South Florida last season, Galati's arm will determine just how far the Pride go this year.

Missouri's Chelsea Thomas is worth keeping an eye on, solely to see how her arm holds up after a year's worth of vast overwork. Health concerns were already arising in the SEC tournament this weekend, and Nicole Hudson, trooper that she is and try as she might, just can't hold down the fort in the circle, at least not to the level the Tigers are accustomed. But also keep an eye on sophomore Kelsea Roth. Usually in the 5 hole behind Hudson and Angela Randazzo, she's really come into her own this year and belted some moonshots off of some of the best, including Ivy Renfroe in the SEC semi-finals.

North Carolina State's Caitlin Dent has carried on her family's athletic tradition, as an anchor of the Wolfpack offense and defense both. Without a defensive error in almost fifty chances, her sure-handedness in the outfield is rare. Offensively, she was 2nd on the team in all but one of the "major" statistical categories, and in that one (OBP), she was third. That streak of six home runs in a week's time earlier last month still sticks in my mind, and if the senior gets hot like that again, all bets are off as far as who leaves Knoxville victorious.

For Tennessee, who are mired in something of a slump that vaulted them from #2 to #7, the presence of Melissa Davin in the lineup is going to be greatly missed. The sophomore is out for an extended period after having surgery for a broken hand, and her offensive production is going to be hard to replicate. Cheyanne Tarango is going to have a big part in helping make up for Davin's absence, as she looks to continue a statistically-solid sophomore campaign. UT's regular first-baseman now, she also serves as the #3 pitcher on the depth chart, thanks to Erin Gabriel's season-ending surgery. If the Renfroes get in trouble, it'll be up to Tarango to stop the bleeding.

Down in Tuscaloosa, the defending champion Tide received the #10 seed, but still sport fairly-easy regional opponents. If anybody stands a chance of pulling the upset in regionals, it'll probably be Western Kentucky. Sophomore Preslie Cruce and junior Olivia Watkins are the spark plugs of WKU's offense, and both will have to be at the top of their game to pull off the upset. Watkins is a classic top-of-the-order slapper, whose batting average is close to being equal to her slugging percentage. She was caught stealing only five times in forty-one tries, and will surely pose a test for Bama's backstops. Cruce is more of a power hitter, with a slightly lower batting average but a majorly-increased slugging percentage and offensive power numbers. She pretty much does it all in the leadoff spot, and is surely the stalwart of the Hilltopper squad. 

For Bama, keep an eye on pitcher Leslie Jury. Jackie Traina has struggled at times this year, far more than in previous seasons, and Jury has shown herself capable of facing quality opponents. Especially by Tide standards, her ERA and opponent's batting average is rather high, but if Traina gets in trouble, Jury is a solid replacement for Patrick Murphy's team.

In the Louisville regional, PAC-12 historical powerhouse UCLA travels to Kentucky, along with C-USA regular-season champs UAB. Any of the three teams stand a solid chance of winning out. For UCLA to pull off the upset, they'll rely on their power hitters, specifically Stephany LaRosa  and B.B. Bates. Both have put up excellent power numbers, and alternate at the top spots on the "major" stat categories - LaRosa's batting average is just a few points higher, while Bates' home run total and slugging percentage are tops. UCLA is in a good spot to pull off the "upset", but a continuance of the LaRosa & Bates Show is going to be key.

Watch the UAB pitching staff closely. Lauren Webster, Lannah Campbell, and Leigh Streetman share the workload in the circle, with Campbell recording just a couple-dozen more innings than her counterparts. Quality pitching wins games, and the Blazers trio of arms are just that. Louisville and UCLA both sport rugged offenses, so if the perceived "lessers" from Conference USA are going to pull off the shocker, all three will need to be at the top of their game.

And, finally, in the Sunshine State set, #2 overall seed Florida has a bit of competition with USF coming to Gainesville, but the Gators need only to continue on the track they've been on pretty much all season to emerge easily victorious. Freshman Taylor Schwarz is on fire for the Gators right now; I got to see her power burst against Georgia in the SEC semi-finals, and she's the real deal. Two home runs in a game at that level of competition is fantastic. The Gators are a really well-rounded team that, admittedly, surprised even me, and look for Schwarz to be a big part of their continued success.

If South Florida is going to pull off another upset, it will again come down to their pitching. Sara Nevins, a well-known name in softball circles, more than anything needs to cut down on the free passes. Her strikeout/walk ratio is respectable, a solid 26/6 when rounding, but illegal pitches could, and have been, her downfall. As well as USF is coached (and Ken Eriksen does a mighty fine job), there's no reason they couldn't pull off the upset, but Nevins is going to have to buckle down and make some changes if there's going to be any celebration in Tampa. Senior Lindsey Richardson also impressed this year, with a 1.18 ERA and .145 opponent's batting average, and although she got several dozen fewer innings logged than Nevins, she presents a solid second option for Eriksen if Nevins just can't figure out her problems.

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