Top conferences ready for postseason
Pac-12, SEC combine for more than one-quarter of NCAA field
An hour after the selection show ended Sunday night, California head coach Diane Ninemire still hadn't looked at the full 64-team bracket. She didn't know the national seeds and hadn't seen where all the intriguing matchups might be in the first round or the potential conference showdowns that could be on tap in the super regionals.
But that's OK. She had a party to host.
Ninemire said that her team joined about 100 fans for a watch party. It didn't take long for the place to start buzzing as her Golden Bears were the first team revealed as they strolled into the postseason with the No. 1 overall seed. After all, they won the Pac-12 title this past weekend and own a sterling 50-4 record.
The seeding was expected. The part that left everyone on the edge of their seats was whether or not Cal would be chosen to host a regional, and potentially a super regional. For the first time since 1993, the Golden Bears will be able to sleep in their own beds, field grounders on their own infield and cheer on teammates from their own dugout.
"It’s been a long time since we’ve hosted a regional at the University of California so of course we’re extremely excited about playing in front of our fans and just being able to stay at home and being able to play on familiar ground," Ninemire said. "Just having the opportunity to play in northern California is an exciting opportunity for our players and fans. It’s just fantastic that our athletic department put so much in making sure we’d be able to play at home."
California will have several familiar faces alongside it while steering a path toward Oklahoma City. The league that has recorded 23 national titles since the NCAA began sponsoring the sport in 1982 -- including the last six -- had eight squads selected for the field Sunday. The Golden Bears are one of five league teams hosting a regional May 18-20, while Oregon, which will host May 17-19, gives the Pac-12 six of the 16 national seeds, the most of any conference.
The Golden Bears haven't played at home much this season. Out of 54 games, only 16 have been at Levine-Fricke Field, where Cal is 14-2. Three of the most anticipated came in the past week as Cal clinched the league crown by taking two of three games from Arizona State, the No. 3 national seed.
|SEC (9) – No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Florida, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 10 Georgia, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State|
|Pac-12 (8) – No. 1 California, No. 3 Arizona State, No. 11 Oregon, No. 12 UCLA, No. 13 Arizona, No. 16 Washington, Oregon State, Stanford|
|Big 12 (6) – No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 6 Texas, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 9 Missouri, Baylor, Texas Tech|
|ACC (5) – Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia Tech|
|Big East (5) – No. 15 Louisville, DePaul, Notre Dame, South Florida, Syracuse|
|Conference USA (4) – UAB, Central Florida, Houston, Tulsa|
|Big Ten (2) – Michigan, Northwestern|
Sun Belt (2) – No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette,
|WAC (2) – Hawaii, BYU|
|One-bid leagues (21)|
Senior first baseman/pitcher Valerie Arioto played the key role as she has all year since returning from a leg injury that forced her to miss the Bears' 2011 run to the WCWS. She hit a walk-off, two-run homer in Game 1 against the Sun Devils and then came back the next day and tossed a shutout in the circle to secure the league title. In football, it would be her “Heisman moment” times two, the ones that sit atop a resume that makes her almost everybody’s favorite to be named the national player of the year.
"It was kind of like icing on the cake," Ninemire said. "She had a fantastic weekend. ... She was pretty much on fire all weekend. And then winning the first Pac-12 championship was an outstanding honor for our team because we also won the first Pac-10 championship back in 1987. So we like to be No. 1 in things."
That doesn't bode well for Iona, Boston U. and Arkansas, the three teams heading to Berkeley, Calif., for regional play.
Arkansas, however, has some prepration for its biggest test of the year. It comes from the SEC, the league that has more teams in the field than any other, upstaging the Pac-12 by putting nine squads into the bracket. The conference has also produced the national runner-up in three of the past five seasons, including Florida a year ago.
Alabama grabbed the No. 2 overall seed – one of four national seeds for the league – as it slid in ahead of defending champion Arizona State. Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy, much like Ninemire with her high regard for the Pac-12, feels that the week-in, week-out grind within league play has set the conference teams apart in recent years.
“Definitely being member of the SEC helps tremendously when you get to the postseason because you’ve seen lefties, you’ve seen righties that throw heat, righties that throw junk, you’ve seen riseballs, curveballs, screwballs, you’ve seen them all,” Murphy said. “As a hitting person, the hitters love to see that type of pitching game in and game out. We don’t want to win games 18-0 every time because that’s not going to teach us anything.
“I think playing in the SEC No. 1 teaches you adversity because you’re probably going to get beat. I don’t think there’s ever been any [SEC] team that’s gone undefeated . Second, you’re going to see the hitters on the other team; our pitchers have to prepare. And then finally when you get into the posteason and you take a deep breath and then it’s like ‘Thank God we don’t have to see the SEC until the super regionals or [Women’s College] World Series’ and it’s a huge relief for everybody. I know other conferences probably say that, but I know it’s a huge relief for us in the SEC.”
Facing the SEC, like the Pac-12, in the postseason will be anything but a relief.
Other nuggets about the field on first glance:
• Fresno State’s record streak is finished. After 30 consecutive seasons – the only team to reach the NCAA tournament every season since it began – the Bulldogs failed to make the 2012 field after falling in the WAC final against BYU on Saturday. Fresno State ended the year with a 36-23 record in coach Margie Wright’s final season. The winningest coach in Division I history, Wright completed her career with 1,457 wins in 33 years, helping her rank second in Division I history in wins regardless of sport.
• Seven of the eight teams in the 2011 Women’s College World Series field are back to battle for a trip to Oklahoma City. Only Oklahoma State, which started as a preseason top-15 squad, failed to make the field. Six of the seven returning teams are also national seeds including No. 1 California, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Arizona State, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Florida and No. 9 Missouri.
• Only six teams are in the field with less than 30 wins, including two from the SEC – Kentucky (29-28) and Arkansas (27-26). Northwestern (27-27) was the only other at-large entry with fewer than 30 victories while LIU Brooklyn (25-33), Long Beach State (28-23) and Portland State (27-23) each earned automatic conference bids.
• Three squads are making their first appearance in the postseason. Valparaiso won the Horizon League title with a pair of walk-off wins Saturday to earn its first automatic bid while Florida Gulf Coast ran away with the Atlantic Sun title. South Alabama had the hardest road to the NCAA tournament as the Jaguars had to get past Louisiana-Lafayette. USA did just that as it handed the Rajun' Cajuns just their fourth loss in 53 games this year.
• The most intriguing first-round matchup of a regional may go to Kentucky-Michigan in the Louisville Regional. Kentucky shocked Michigan a year ago in the Ann Arbor Regional. This season, the Wildcats had to surge at the end of the year just to get its record to at least .500 to be consideration for the postseason.
• If the national seeds hold through the first weekend, three super regional matchups would be conference rematches for the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. No. 1 seed California hosts a regional that will matchup with the winner of the regional hosted by Washington; Texas A&M and Missouri, in their last season in the Big 12 and both moving to the SEC next year, will see their regional winners facing off for a spot in the WCWS field; and Tennessee and Georgia host regionals that will pit the winners a week later.
• There are still a ton of games to play in the regional round, but looking ahead is too intriguing not to. Another matchup that will make headlines if it comes to pass is a Hawaii-Oklahoma super regional. The teams are No. 1 and 2 in ERA with the Sooners holding a 1.04 to 1.20 advantage. And who’s leading them? Insert your favorite Ricketts here. Kealani Ricketts is the Sooners’ staff ace and ranks eighth nationally with a 1.13 ERA, just two places behind older sister Stephanie Ricketts, who has a 1.09 ERA to rank sixth.