Ranked teams vie for SEC supremacy
Also: Bedlam in Oklahoma; NIU has an ace in Anderson
It’s difficult to believe the final weekend of the Division I softball regular season is already upon us and during the next few days teams will either be trying to wrap up regular-season titles, battle for league tournament championships or jockey for position in the final conference standings to bolster their postseason hopes.
Twenty-five conferences will determine conference champions this weekend. Penn also secured an NCAA bid after winning the Ivy League championship against Dartmouth last Saturday. The Quakers will be making their first appearance in the NCAA postseason.
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Keep up to date as Division I softball teams across the country vie for conference titles and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
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One of the most hotly contested tournaments on the schedule is in the Southeastern Conference, where eight top-25 teams are fighting it out in Lexington, Ky., for the league title. The field includes five top-10 squads -- No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 8 Missouri, No. 9 Alabama and No. 10 LSU. Alabama won last year’s tournament before the Crimson Tide went on to capture the league’s first NCAA title at the Women’s College World Series.
“I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams,” Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said. “I expect most of us are going to be in the postseason, if not all of us.”
Fans can enjoy every contest of the SEC Tournament on the ESPN networks, including the championship game at 8 p.m. ET Satuday, which will be broadcast on ESPN.
The remaining five automatic berths of the 31 awarded go to leagues that determine champions by the regular season. While two conference races have already been decided -- Pac-12 (Oregon) and Pacific Coast Conference (BYU) – the Big 12, Big West and Mountain West races are all still in contention.
No. 1 Oklahoma enters the weekend in first place with a 12-2 mark, while No. 7 Texas follows at 13-4. The Sooners need to win two contests in their three-game series against Oklahoma State to claim a sixth regular-season title. If the Longhorns fall in their lone remaining game against Baylor, OU would only need one win for the title.
San Diego State currently leads the Mountain West with a 10-5 record entering a three-game series against UNLV. The Aztecs need just one win for a share of the league title, and owns the tiebreaker with all other teams in contention, which would give SDSU the automatic NCAA bid. Two wins this weekend would give SDSU the outright title.
After spending the past 16 years in the Western Athletic Conference, Hawaii has returned to the Big West and controls its own destiny for the outright league title. The Rainbow Wahine will road trip to Pacific for a three-game series beginning Friday, and must win at least one game during the weekend -- or have second-place Long Beach State lose in its last league game on Sunday.
Once all the games are in the books, the NCAA Division I 64-team championship bracket will be announced on Sunday. The selection will air live on ESPNU at 10 p.m. ET.
• It’s Bedlam week! The Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry is one of the most-heated in baseball, but this season’s three-game series doesn’t only mean bragging rights, but also will play an important role in the Big 12 race. The No. 18 Sooners are in a three-way tie with Kansas State and West Virginia at 11-7 in the league standings. And, while the No. 19 Cowboys are in sixth place in the conference race, they are only a game and a half out of first place with a 9-8 record. The Cowboys have won the past two Bedlam Series, and lead the all-time series 153-146. The first game will be held in Tulsa, Okla., before the series moves to Oklahoma City for the final two contests. Friday’s game can be seen live on ESPNU at 8 p.m. ET.
• The Ohio State men’s lacrosse team will play host to an NCAA tournament game for the first time when the third-seeded Buckeyes take on Towson at 3 p.m. ET Sunday at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State has won six consecutive games entering the tournament, and is fresh off winning the ECAC tournament for its first postseason title. The Buckeyes will be making their fourth appearance in the NCAA championship. The game will be televised live on ESPNU.
"Not only is it special for our men, the program and the university to host a game in Ohio Stadium, but it is also special for the community here in Columbus," Ohio State head coach Nick Myers said. "We are excited to share the NCAA tournament with central Ohio. We look forward to a great atmosphere Sunday in the 'Shoe.’ ”
• After claiming its first Peach Belt Conference regular-season title since 2009, the No. 1 USC Aiken baseball team is the top seed in the league tournament as the Pacers go after their first PBC tournament title since they won back-to-back championships in 1992 and '93. The Pacers are hot, winning 14 of their past 15 games, as they enter the double-elimination tournament that includes two other nationally ranked teams in Division II -- No. 16 Atlantic Armstrong and No. 24 UNC Pembroke. The Pacers are one of the top-hitting teams in the nation, batting .340 and scoring 8.2 runs per game, which both rank 11th nationally.
• The UW-Whitewater baseball program will be seeking its first Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament since 2010 as the top-seeded Warhawks host the league tournament on Saturday and Sunday. The Warhawks -- ranked third nationally with a 33-5 mark -- will be vying for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, especially since they will be hosting a Division III Regional at Jim Miller Stadium. Hosting, however, does not guarantee a spot in the NCAA postseason -- winning the conference tournament will.
• Six first-time teams earned berths in the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship, and at least one of those will get their first postseason victory as Denver and Jacksonville meet in first-round action in Gainesville, Fla., on Friday. The Pioneers have won a team-record 17 games this season, while the Dolphins captured the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament to earn an automatic berth. Expect a lot of offense in this one as the Dolphins lead the nation in scoring (16.17 goals per game), while the Pioneers are seventh (14.71). The winner advances to face No. 5 Florida on Sunday. Canisius, Connecticut, High Point and Stony Brook are also making their first NCAA appearances.
• The Stanford women’s water polo team will attempt to win its third consecutive national title at the NCAA National Collegiate championship beginning Friday at Harvard. The Cardinal is the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and is the only collegiate women’s water polo program to qualify for every tournament since the NCAA began sponsoring the tournament in 2001. USC, the team that handed Stanford its only two losses of the season, is the No. 1 seed in the eight-team bracket. The Cardinal enter the tournament with the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation's top defense, allowing just 4.52 goals per game while the offense is ranked second with 13.03 goals scored per game. Stanford will start the tournament against No. 7 seed Iowa at 1:45 p.m. ET Friday. All tournament games will be streamed live on NCAA.com.
• The Penn State men’s lacrosse team earned an at-large berth in the NCAA championship after winning the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title -- the Nittany Lions’ first NCAA appearance since 2005. PSU will be looking for its first NCAA victory against Ivy League champion Yale at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Penn State Lacrosse Field. The Nittany Lions are having one of their best seasons in program history, setting records for most victories (12) and consecutive victories (10), and posting their first flawless league record at 6-0 in the CAA. The game will be broadcast live on ESPNU.
• In only its fourth season of existence, the Lake Erie College men’s lacrosse team will play in the school’s first NCAA Division II tournament when the Storm meets No. 1 Mercyhurst for the third time this season at 1 p.m. ET Saturday. The Division II field expanded from four to eight teams this season, creating more postseason opportunities for teams such as Lake Erie and first-timer Seton Hill.
"We're very excited for the opportunity to compete in the national tournament, it's such a big deal for us as just a fourth-year program," Lake Erie head coach Greg Stocks said. "Our guys have put in a lot of time, effort and worked really hard to get to this point and it's great to have the opportunity to play for a national title."
Lake Erie has lost to the undefeated Lakers twice this season, including a 13-7 setback in last Sunday’s ECAC tournament championship. At 16-0 this season, Mercyhurst’s last loss was by one point in last year’s NCAA semifinals against Dowling.
• Northern Illinois junior pitcher Eli Anderson has put together quite a season, especially against Mid-American Conference foes. Anderson has compiled a 7-0 record and 0.89 ERA against MAC opponents, and has tossed five complete games in conference play, including four on consecutive weekends. He began the run with a 3-0 shutout victory against last year’s College World Series participant Kent State on March 23.
“Statistically he’s great, he has outstanding command of his pitches and has a good feel for the batters he faces,” Northern Illinois head coach Ed Mathey said. “He fields his spot well and he’s done everything that we’ve asked of him and more this season.”
On the season, Anderson has posted an 8-3 record and 1.97 ERA with two regular-season starts remaining. No Huskie starting pitcher has recorded an ERA under 2.00 since 1975.
NIU looks to clinch the MAC championship this weekend against Eastern Michigan -- an unprecedented feat for the program. The three-game series begins Friday with Anderson as the Huskies’ starting pitcher.
• The USC men’s tennis team will begin its quest for an NCAA-record fifth consecutive national championship this weekend when the Trojans host the first and second rounds at Marks Stadium on Friday and Saturday. The Trojans (23-4) will face Sacramento State in first-round action. Last year, the Trojans become just the second team in NCAA history to win four consecutive national titles under the current team tournament format. Stanford also won four championships between 1995-98. USC is seeded fourth in the tournament, but has been seeded as low as No. 8 during the four-year run. The Trojans are the all-time leader in NCAA titles with 20, and boast an 86-29 record in NCAA tournament play.
• There aren’t a lot of NCAA records being threatened in Division I softball this season, but Texas Southern sophomore infielder Thomasina Garza does have one mark within her sights. With 25 doubles in 47 games, she is averaging 0.53 doubles per game, which is within reach of the current season mark of 0.55 set by Chicago State’s Veronica Harris in 1987 (11 doubles in 20 games). Garza, who is batting .487 with 61 RBIs, was recently voted the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year. The Lady Tigers are the top-seeded team in the SWAC tournament this weekend after compiling a 15-1 record in league action, and if TSU keeps clicking, Garza should get plenty of opportunities to add to her doubles numbers.
“When we brought Thomasina into our program we knew that she was going to be a big bat in our lineup,” Texas Southern head coach Worley Barker said. “She has always been able to hit the ball extremely well and she plays great defense. I’m very proud of the way she has adjusted this season and has become a leader for our team on and off the field.”
Follow Amy Farnum on Twitter: @NCAA_Amy