The first phase of the 2016 Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic kicks off today and runs to Sunday, with a host of games that are sure to have postseason implications despite the season's youth. Here are three matchups to keep an eye on:
3. LSU Tigers vs. UCF Knights - Saturday
UCF did not give themselves any cakewalks in the scheduling department, as this will be the fourth SEC matchup in a week's time span (in addition to three PAC-12 games, as well). Having bested Alabama at home and lost to Auburn on the road, the Bayou Bengals will present a renewed challenge thanks to what is arguably the best pitching staff in the nation. The Knights' offense struggled against Auburn, failing to plate a single run against Marcy Harper, but put up an eight-spot against the Crimson Tide. Which direction will the dominoes fall in Palm Springs? Ace pitcher Shelby Turnier overcame some early struggles to finish particularly strong against Auburn, but she is going to have to get some run support if the Knights are going to show themselves as serious contenders against top competition.
2. UCF Knights vs. Washington Huskies - Sunday
Two of the top matchups that I will be watching this weekend both involve the Knights. In a group of mid-majors that seem to boast several postseason contenders this season, these games against Power Five opponents are where the rubber meets the road. In particular, the matchup I'll be keeping an eye on is Turnier and the Knights' pitching staff as they attempt to tackle the Huskies offense. Led by Ali Aguilar, Courtney Gano, and Casey Stangel, the Huskies hitters are a solid group that packs a punch. It is worth keeping an eye on to see if the matchups against so many top-notch opponents begin to wear on the Knights by the week's end.
1. Arizona Wildcats vs. LSU Tigers - Friday
It's a matchup of two teams on the top-tier of their respective conferences and a good performance this weekend in Palm Springs would go a long way to elevating them even higher. For the Wildcats, the challenge will be putting together the offensive rallies to get the better of LSU's stellar pitching staff and being able to counter Beth Torina's ability to replace all-star with all-star if a rally gets started. For the Bayou Bengals, their offensive pieces are in place and click together particularly well. Getting the best of the Wildcat pitching staff is no easy task, either, however, and the Tigers also need their pitchers to be "on" this weekend - though still early, this is a forecast-changing campaign for the team from the Red Stick.