The best of the best in the world of college softball have descended on Oklahoma City to crown a 2017 champion.
After all 16 seeded regional hosts moved on to the Super Regional round, there were some surprises, including the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds going down in three games after winning Game 1.
To make it this far is an accomplishment for any team. But no one is satisfied just to play at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium; they want more once they get there. Here's how the four teams that occupy the top bracket can make their championship dreams come true over the weekend, and check here for a look at Bracket 2.
No. 1 Florida Gators
All year long, opposing teams have asked the same question: How can you beat a team that you can't score off of? The Gators didn't surrender a run in 38 of their 63 games and only allowed one in 12. Florida’s hitters only need to scratch across a couple runs to win — the team has a 53-1 record when it scores two or more runs. The only hope is to totally lock down their 21st-ranked offense, as the Gators are 2-7 when held under two.
All that's to say that the No. 1 team in the country is in very good shape as it vies for its third title in four years. Florida made a grueling SEC schedule look like nothing on the strength of a pair of pitchers that resemble a cheat code.When you add together the ERAs of starting pitchers Kelly Barnhill and Delanie Gourley, you get a 1.03 mark that would rank fifth in the country. Barnhill has had one of the best years in modern history (24-3, 0.36 ERA, 333 strikeouts), while the senior Gourley (21-4, 0.67 ERA) is not far behind. Opportunities are few and far in between, putting a ton of pressure on the opposing offense while allowing the Gators hitters to relax and just try to scratch across a few runs.
Barnhill has shown some signs of wavering in the postseason, with a 1-2 record in three starts despite an ERA of just 0.78 thanks to an Oklahoma State shutout in regional play and three unearned runs against Alabama in Game 1 of the Super Regionals — self-inflicted thanks to back-to-back throwing errors by Barnhill.
Still, it's not going to be easy to hand this team two losses. Even if Barnhill's minor case of David Price syndrome continues, Gourley has been remarkable lately. In fact, she's in the midst of a 53.1-inning streak without allowing an earned run. Combine that with the No. 1 defense by fielding percentage and a serviceable offense featuring a great 1-2 punch of Amanda Lorenz and Kayli Kvistad, and we have an obvious favorite in Oklahoma City.
No. 5 UCLA Bruins
If there's a great equalizer in softball, it's the ability to smash the ball over the fence, and the Bruins do that better than any team remaining.
UCLA is averaging 1.27 home runs a game, third-best in the country. It has especially been on a tear of late, with a streak of 11 straight games with at least one homer (including four games in that span with three or more) finally snapping with a somewhat uncharacteristic 1-0 victory over Ole Miss to clinch the bid to OKC. In Game 1 of that Super Regional series, scored eight runs in an 11-inning classic.Pitching isn't the bread and butter of the team, but it can still get it done from time to time, as seen when Selina Ta'amilo and Rachel Garcia combined for seven three-hit, shutout innings to sweep the Super Regional series. UCLA will probably need to slug its way through the tournament, but if it can get the ball in the air, that plays right into its strengths. The potential second-round meeting with Florida could be a fascinating example of styles colliding — but remember, the old adage is that great pitching beats great hitting.
No. 9 Texas A&M Aggies
Consistent starting pitching has been an issue for the Aggies in this tournament, not that it's resulted in too much tragedy. Samantha Show got the ball in consecutive games of regional play and did very well, but then got shelled in Game 1 against Tennessee. Head coach Jo Evans then trusted sophomore Trinity Harrington with the ball in Game 2, and she was not great but hung in there enough to preserve a 6-5 win. That was enough for Evans to trust Harrington once more in the elimination contest, and she delivered by gutting out a complete-game 5-3 victory.
Texas A&M was able to get by scoring 11 runs in the final two games against Tennessee, but surrendering 16 runs in the three-game series is not going to get it done in Oklahoma City. That becomes even more clear when you look at the Aggies' first-round opponent: the Florida Gators. But on the flip side, the team allowed just two runs in three regional games, so the ability is certainly there at times.Still, the Aggies should not be expecting to get by on low-scoring wins, so the bats are going to have to deliver in a big way. They might not have any superstar hitters, but they have a full lineup of players who can put the ball where it needs to be. Look no further than Riley Sartain's gigantic home run on Sunday. Held without a dinger in over a month, the sophomore had one of the biggest hits of her life with a two-out, go-ahead three-run homer. The Aggies only had four hits in that game, but sometimes it's not how many you have been when you have them. It's going to be an uphill battle requiring many signature moments, but this is a gutsy team that will not go away quietly.
No. 13 LSU Tigers
LSU could probably be characterized as Florida-lite, a team that rides the wave of its tremendous starting pitching tandem to allow the offense to do enough to grab the victory. And that pitching has been outstanding in the NCAA tournament, with team allowing just 1.9 runs per game.
What has really made the Tigers impressive, though, is the grit and never-die attitude the team has shown. LSU has played five of its eight tournament games with an elimination looming should it lose, and — as one can probably surmise — Beth Torina's team is 5-0 in those games. At this point, you wonder if the Tigers would be better off losing their opener against UCLA.Starting pitchers Carley Hoover (15-7, 1.11 ERA) and Allie Walljasper (17-5, 1.37) have been the clear strength of the team, with Walljasper playing hero in Game 2 against Florida State with a one-hit shutout before looking a little shaky in relief in the final game, though the 5-1 lead LSU jumped out to was enough to complete the series comeback.
The Tigers are not usually going to be a team that outslugs you, though seniors Sahvanna Jaquish and Bailey Landry are a pair of very potent bats. Expect the Tigers to only put up a few runs a game, but if they can keep up the outstanding pitching they've shown, this is not going to be an easy team to beat.