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What We Learned: NCAA Regionals Edition

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It seems like just a week ago we were pouring over lineups and plotting championship paths for 64 teams. Wait, it was. But after more than 100 games in barely 72 hours, the super regionals are set and NCAA tournament is down to its final 16 teams. The Women’s College World Series is within reach.

D1Softball looks back on a weekend of mayhem that saw some of the sport’s most familiar names sent packing and some new faces audition for roles in Oklahoma City.

As a reminder, here are your super regional pairings.

  • No. 16 UCF at No. 1 Oklahoma (Friday-Sunday)
  • Arizona at Mississippi State (Friday-Sunday)
  • No. 14 Florida at No. 3 Virginia Tech (Friday-Sunday)
  • Texas at No. 4 Arkansas (Thursday-Saturday)
  • No. 12 Duke at No. 5 UCLA (Friday-Sunday)
  • Oregon State at Stanford (Friday-Sunday)
  • No. 10 Clemson at No. 7 Oklahoma State (Thursday-Saturday)
  • No. 9 Northwestern at No. 8 Arizona State (Friday-Sunday)

Florida State and Alabama make the wrong kind of history. And they have Mississippi State and Stanford, respectively, to thank for it. Entering the weekend, Alabama was the only program to reach a super regional in every tournament since the extra round was introduced in 2005. The streak is no longer intact. Only needing to win once in two tries Sunday, Stanford didn’t flinch after opening the day with a loss against the Crimson Tide. Instead, Alana Vawter’s shutout in the winner-take-all finale carried the Cardinal to their first super regional under head coach Jessica Allister.

That seemed sure to be the biggest regional headline until Mississippi State got involved in Tallahassee. Withstanding the inevitable Syndey Sherrill clutch home run and getting the best of Kathryn Sanderock, the Bulldogs beat the No. 2 seed twice Sunday to win the regional. It’s the first time a No. 1 or No. 2 seed has been knocked out in a regional during the super-regional era. 

We doubled the number of Cinderella super regionals in Division I history. Stanford vs. Oregon State and Mississippi State vs. Arizona. Just like everyone had in their brackets, right? Super regionals started in 2005. That means prior to this season, there were 128 super regionals played. In only two of those were both teams unseeded: Houston vs. Oklahoma State in 2011 and USF vs. Hofstra in 2012. If you’re looking for signs of increased parity in college softball, that seems like a good place to start. Although Pac-12 fans may choose to interpret the developments slightly differently. They might (gleefully) suggest that perhaps the rest of the country hasn’t quite put the Pac out to pasture yet. 

Oklahoma is the No. 1 seed with or without Jordy Bahl. File this under reinforcing what we are already knew. Oklahoma’s standout freshman pitcher is the final piece of the puzzle. When she is available, she puts these Sooners among the greatest teams in the sport’s history. But without her, as they again were this past weekend because of an ongoing arm issue, they’re still clearly the best team in the country this season. Already a postseason veteran as a sophomore, Nicole May did fine with an expanded workload – notably against Texas A&M. Hope Trautwein let one pitch get away against Haley Lee, but was similarly outstanding in her postseason debut. Combined, May and Trautwein allowed just five hits in 16.1 innings. That’s one hit fewer hit than Jocelyn Alo piled up all on her own. Then again, it helps any pitcher when the lineup sets a record for the most lopsided regional win, a 20-0 rout of Texas A&M in the finale.

As she said after Sunday’s games in Seattle, this is why Hailey Dolcini came to Texas. It’s also why she was D1Softball’s choice for Big 12 Pitcher of the Year (based on conference-only performance). Dolcini and Janae Jefferson combined to get the best of Gabbie Plain and Baylee Klinger in a wildly entertaining regional that saw the Longhorns and Huskies play three games. For Dolcini, that meant throwing 199 pitches across 14 innings on Sunday. The pitching duel was slightly spoiled by a curious illegal pitch call against Plain in the finale – a call made so long after the play that the Huskies were already in the dugout before being pulled back to finish the inning. Texas seized the opportunity and put together a two-out, two-run rally to break the scoreless tie. But if it’s yet another unfortunate ending for Plain, whose 2021 season ended amid controversy over the chalk lines in the Norman Super Regional, it’s also a well-earned opportunity for Dolcini. With what proved a valuable insurance home run from Janae Jefferson, she survived a fraught bottom of the seventh inning and closed with a strikeout.

Oregon State knows what to do in Knoxville. Maybe it’s all the orange that makes the Beavers feel at home. But in 2018, Oregon State women’s basketball went to Knoxville for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament and effectively ended Holly Warlick’s time as head coach by upsetting the third-seeded Lady Vols. We trust Karen Weekly is on firmer job footing, but Oregon State’s softball team proved that while history may not repeat, it often rhymes. The Beavers dispatched the host and No. 11 seed by winning two games on Sunday. With the winner-take-all finale still scoreless in the sixth inning, Mariah Mazon’s two-run home run put Tennessee on the brink. Not satisfied with merely placing the Vols in peril, Mazon finished the job by pitching the seventh inning to pick up a save. For the day, Mazon hit two home runs, picked up a complete game win in the opener and finished with the save. 

The Big Ten isn’t that much better than the rest of the nation. It wasn’t a disastrous weekend for the conference. No. 9 Northwestern rolled to a super regional with relatively little fuss. Michigan reached a regional final, as expected. Wisconsin made a regional final, perhaps surprisingly. But overall, Big Ten teams compiled a 10-12 record in regionals, including 7-12 by unseeded teams. Not terrible. But in a year in which almost no conferences outside the Power 5 received at-large bids, the Big Ten received six at-large bids in addition to its automatic qualifier. To justify that sort of preferential treatment, at the expense of teams like Western Kentucky, Northern Iowa or Boston University, you need to do better than two regional finals out of six at-large teams. 

Arizona has pitching. Really, the Wildcats do. A bubble team when it came to even making the field, Arizona didn’t have back-to-back shutouts at any point during the regular season. The Wildcats entered the postseason ranked No. 166 in the nation in ERA – right between Florida A&M and South Dakota. Naturally, Hannah Bowen and Devyn Netz promptly allowed a total of three runs in winning the Columbia Regional, capped by back-to-back shutouts against No. 15 Missouri. In some ways, it must have felt oddly familiar for folks in Missouri. It was just a season ago that a seemingly middle-of-the-road pitching staff turned unhittable in a regional in Columbia. Unfortunately for the Tigers, this time it wasn’t the home team’s pitchers. Netz was particularly impressive in pitching a two-hit shutout in Sunday’s clincher, her first appearance since allowing seven runs against Stanford on May 13.

Georgina Corrick wasn’t invincible. When you trim the bracket from 64 to 16 teams in the span of about 72 hours, you say a lot of farewells to a lot of special players. But the end rarely feels as unfair as it did when Georgina Corrick stepped away in the Tallahassee Regional. Able to throw one more shutout in the weekend opener against Mississippi State, Corrick eventually took herself out of the lineup because of lingering back spasms that coach Ken Eriksen said she had battled for multiple weeks. We will probably never know if there was any correlation between the workload that saw her lead the nation in innings and the injury. Plenty of pitchers get hurt while pitching limited innings. Nor was this the first season in which Corrick spent a lot of time in the circle. All we really know is watching Corrick hug her coach and her teammates as she left the field wasn’t the ending anyone hoped for a pitcher who looked capable of leading a team on an Angela Tincher- or Odicci Alexadner-style run through the tournament. She moves to the pros after totaling 113 wins, 1,302 strikeouts, a 1.04 ERA and 55 shutouts at USF. 

UCF wasn’t happy just to be hosting. The Knights want a super-regional road trip, too. UCF couldn’t do much about the Florida weather that made a bit of a mess of its regional schedule (abetted by extra-inning games). But the only host from beyond the Power 5 put on a good show for the locals and an impressive show for the rest of the country. Jada Cody, Gianna Mancha, Kama Woodall and the AAC champions held their nerve in an 11-inning thriller against Michigan on Saturday and kept their focus to make short work of the Wolverines in a regional final rematch. In three games, UCF batters piled up 46 combined hits and walks – averaging nearly two runners per inning. 

Clemson carried the ACC flag. Florida State is out. Duke and Virginia Tech were pushed to the brink in their respective regionals. Notre Dame? The less said the better. A big weekend for the ACC, which had four seeded teams for the first time, went a bit wobbly – with one notable exception. Hosting a regional for the first time, Clemson sailed through to its first super regional by sweeping aside UNCW, Auburn and Louisiana. Like every team, the Tigers were tested. But Valerie Cagle played the role of ace to perfection in a 1-0 duel against Auburn’s Maddie Penta. And Millie Thompson reminded everyone that Clemson has two pitchers with a no-hitter against UNCW and a one-hitter against Louisiana in the regional final. Clemson was the only team to win a regional without allowing a run. By the end of the regular season, Clemson was overshadowed by the Blue Devils, Seminoles and Hokies. No longer. 

Miranda Elish isn’t done yet. She’s still not in the circle for Oklahoma State – Kelly Maxwell has that nicely covered, with some help from Morgan Day. But for the first time since the arm injury that briefly took her out of the lineup entirely late in the regular season, Elish looked more like the slugger who made life miserable for opposing pitchers this season. After two doubles to help Oklahoma State reach the regional final in Stillwater, Elish’s home run in the sixth inning of the finale broke a tense scoreless deadlock with North Texas. Even if she’s only a hitter, Elish can still make all the difference.

The NCAA needs to finish the job on schedule evolution. There won’t be any Monday softball, but it was a close call. Which is why there ought to be Monday softball moving forward. Weather delays around the country made a mess of regional schedules. For a time, it looked as if a team like Michigan might have to play three games Sunday to finish on time (South Dakota State or Villanova might have had to play three-plus games). The NCAA eventually relented, saying any “if necessary” finales in Gainesville and Orlando would be moved to Monday. Florida and UCF rendered it moot by sweeping to regional titles. But college baseball already schedules those games for Monday, playing a maximum of two games each of the first three days in a regional. Softball stopped super-regional doubleheaders when coaches complained loudly enough. It added extra days to the World Series when it faced public backlash a season ago. Why not be proactive, for once, and extend regionals? Only a handful of athletes are still in class by this time of year, so it’s not as if it interferes with academics. 

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