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Monday, May 23, 2016

2016 Regionals Roundup

Parity Returns
The selection of eight SEC teams to hosting opportunities for the regional round led to some extensive discussion about favoritism on the part of the selection committee, but that apparently didn't bother the teams out west. Of the eight PAC-12 teams that made the field of sixty-four, five remain standing, a 62.5% conference percentage. With six SEC teams alive and kicking, a 55% mark for the conference that has produced three of the last four national champions. The Super Regionals feature two SEC v. PAC matchups, as well a single in-conference matchup for each league.

Extra-Inning Affairs
If you like "free softball", the South was the place to be Saturday night. Two mid-major schools taking on two PAC-12 schools in two SEC parks. The stars were aligned and the full moon must've been taking effect. Both games went to the 14th inning before ending in walk-off fashion. In Auburn, improbable candidate Jacksonville State, they of the Ohio Valley Conference, upended Oregon State, thanks in no small part to ace pitcher Whitney Gillespie (more on her later). To make matters worse? The Gamecocks had to turn around and play another elimination game that very night - a game that they also won to catapult them into the regional championship after playing 21 innings of softball in a seven-hour period.

Down in the Red Stick, McNeese State and Arizona State battled it out in a late-night elimination game for the chance to face hosting LSU on Sunday. Near complete-game performances by Cowpoke seniors Emily Vincent and Jamie Allred were stellar, as they allowed just seven hits between them and only a single run a piece. On the Sun Devil side of the equation, starter Kelsey Kessler went nearly eight and was effective, striking out eight and limiting the Cowpoke offense to just two runs on ten hits. The performance of the night, though, may have come from ASU's Dale Ryndak, who came in in relief in the eighth inning and went the rest of the way. As the night wore on, Ryndak allowed just one hit and absolutely suffocated McNeese's hitters at nearly every turn, eventually earning the "W" for her efforts.

Tigers Make a Statement
In the midst of countless off-field distractions, including an athletic department investigation and a player protest in support of head coach Ehren Earleywine, the Missouri Tigers were definitely intent on proving a point with their play this weekend, and prove that point they did. Winning every game in run-rule fashion and without allowing a single run, while scoring twenty-six of their own, the Tigers followed the lead of ace Paige Lowary, who pitched every inning of the regional and allowed just seven hits all weekend long. The Tigers excelled in every area: Three players hit home runs; five different players stole a total of nine bases; and senior Emily Crane and sophomore Amanda Sanchez each registered five-RBI games.

As the controversial saga has drawn on, one thing has remained abundantly clear - whatever feelings the Tiger administration has for Earleywine, the fans and those that matter most, the players, are firmly in his corner.

O'Toole Stays Hot
In the midst of her team's eventually-successful upset bid in Knoxville, O'Toole was as sharp as ever. Through her team's first two games in the Regional, a victory over Ohio State and the first upset win over Tennessee, O'Toole pitched every one of her team's innings, holding both opponents scoreless while scattering three hits and ten strikeouts. Though she floundered a bit in the third and final game, she still earned the victory and is now primed for another run at an SEC squad in the Auburn-hosted Super regional this weekend.

Jax State's Gillespie Boosts Her Team with the Bat 
and in the Circle
The afore-mentioned redshirt sophomore hurler deserves more than footnote after her performance in the first two days of the regional round. On Friday, in a game that ultimately swayed to the Tigers on a walk-off, game-ending sacrifice fly, Gillespie still held the SEC champions to three hits and two runs in 6.2 innings pitched, striking out seven. Working out of the loser's bracket, she pitched all but an inning and 2/3 of the marathon game vs. Oregon State, striking out eleven and holding the Beavers scoreless in all but two innings. In the bottom of the 13th inning, with two outs, her team down a run, and down to her last strike, the stud sophomore knocked an RBI double to knot the game up and buoy her team for one more inning, which turned out to be all that the Gamecocks needed.

Given the start off for the second game of the evening, Gillespie came in and closed out the victory over USC-Upstate, getting two outs on six pitches to seal her team's spot in the regional final. Even in the eventual season-ender for her squad on Sunday, Gillespie held the Tigers to just four hits and one earned run in a single recorded inning of work before being replaced in the circle.

The Gamecocks should be very, very excited about their in-state native ace.

No More Streaking
Coming into the NCAA tournament, the Florida Atlantic Owls were riding a twenty-one game win streak. The Conference USA champs, riding the stellar arm of ace Kylee Hanson, had firmly entrenched themselves in the conversation as possible sleeper pick for the Super regionals round. Even after being placed in the regional with #1 overall seed Florida, the Owls gathered some consideration as a possible upset pick.

Cross-state in Tallahassee, Ken Eriksen's South Florida club had enjoyed a twenty-three game winning streak in the middle of the season and an American regular-season title, earning them some brief consideration as a potential host. 

Out West, Fresno State had their own twenty-three game winning streak snapped in the last game of the regular season, but behind senior ace Jill Compton, they hoped to earn a late-seed hosting bid or a "winnable" regional placement. Just missing out on hosting, the Bulldogs were placed in the Los Angeles regional with one of the PAC-12's best in UCLA.

All three teams had different paths throughout the season, but one thing is similar between all three - all will be sitting at home on Super Regional weekend after bowing out in less-than-graceful fashion. All three sported 1-2 records in tournament play and all were eliminated without ever facing their hosting, seeded team.

USF was twice shut out against SEC foe South Carolina, giving up eight runs over two games to the Gamecocks.

Fresno, facing an underrated Big West foe in Cal State Fullerton, failed to even make the elimination game competitive, bowing out after a 7-1 second defeat at the Titans' hands.

Joan Joyce's Owls headed back to Boca Raton after two hard-luck losses to in-state rival UCF. Both pitcher's duels, as expected, FAU's staff gave up just three runs and Owls ace Kylee Hanson ended her junior campaign with a 0.78 ERA.

Three teams with lengthy, impressive winning streaks during the season, but short, unimpressive and disappointing stays in the postseason.

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