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Jordan Guskey | NCAA.com | February 14, 2019

Don’t sleep on these 5 softball teams this season

A Gardner-Webb triple play headlines this week's softball top plays

A number of college softball programs reinforced preseason beliefs they’d be contenders this season with strong opening weekends, but they didn’t monopolize the nation’s attention. The likes of No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 UCLA shared the limelight with a handful of programs that proved the field might be more wide open than previously thought. 

Indiana, now 24th in latest USA Today/NFCA Division I Coaches Poll, North Carolina State, Illinois, Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss all started the season unranked yet recorded at least one upset win against a top 25 opponent and combined for six. They showed that while there might be a collection of obvious picks for who makes the Super Regionals in May, there are at least five teams lurking that could shake things up.

Here’s how they exceeded expectations:

No. 24 Indiana

A three or four-win start to the season at the FAU First Pitch Classic would have been a step up for the Hoosiers compared to last season’s 0-7 start. IU’s 2018 non-conference woes kept it out of the NCAA tournament, a 17-6 conference record good for third in the Big Ten wasted. But Indiana not only beat Virginia, Bethune Cookman, St. John’s and Florida Atlantic, it upset then-No. 6 Georgia, too.

Coach Shonda Stanton’s second season at IU (5-0) already has two five-inning, run-rule wins and four games in which opponents failed to score more than once. The win against the Bulldogs, who dropped to 10th in the nation, showed the Hoosiers’ bats could come through in the clutch. And senior ace Tara Trainer allowed just five earned runs through 16 innings of work.

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IU’s pitching staff as a whole recorded a 1.35 ERA and held opponents to a .198 batting average. Join those marks with a team batting average of .311 and 32 runs scored so far and it is obvious why the Hoosiers’ 2019 season has started off so fast. Only FAU and Georgia ever led against Indiana, and against both teams IU either tied or took the lead the very next inning.

North Carolina State

Coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift’s first season with the Wolfpack needed just four games to pick up its first top-10 win. NC State (3-2) defeated then-No. 7 Arizona, now ninth, along with South Florida and Illinois State at the USF Opening Weekend Invitational. Each loss came by just one run against top-20 teams Michigan, now 17th, and Florida, now fourth. 

The Wolfpack pitching staff held opponents to two runs or less in the final three games of the team’s slate in Tampa, and despite the nine runs allowed to Illinois State still owns a team ERA of 2.91. Freshman Sydney Nester pitched a complete game in North Carolina State’s win against Arizona and showed the team has two capable starers in her and junior Devin Wallace.

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Offensively, the Wolfpack have one of the top 10 home-run hitting teams in the nation. Six different players combined for eight. And while a team batting average of .214 isn’t stellar by any means, players up and down the lineup showed they could drive in runs. Some are more consistent than others. But, it’s early.

Illinois

There are questions surrounding a pitching staff that held opponents to less than four runs just once in five games during the Houston Invitational and fielding effort that didn’t do the Fighting Illini any favors, but there’s no questioning the two ranked wins to start the season as Illinois (3-2) attempts to make it four-straight seasons with at least 36 wins. Coach Tyra Perry has fielded a contender each year and this season will be no different.

Illinois defeated Oklahoma State and Kentucky, who are 20th and 18th, respectively, in the latest coaches poll, and Houston. The Fighting Illini averaged nearly six runs each game and, if not for the holes they dug themselves early in a second game against Oklahoma State and against Sam Houston State, might be 5-0.

NO-HITTERS: Some pitchers are already playing at a high level

Sophomore catcher Bella Loya’s four home runs ranks her among the nation’s leaders in that category. More than half of the usual starting lineup own batting averages that are .333 or better. Nine players have at least one RBI. Watch out for this team if it improves its .947 fielding percentage and 4.40 team ERA.

Louisiana Tech

The state of Louisiana has not been left wanting for quality softball this season. There’s No. 8 LSU (6-0), No. 13 Louisiana (5-0) and right outside the top 25, Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs swept their competition at the Sand Dollar Classic in Alabama and opened their first home stand with a win against Southeastern Louisiana in order to start the season 6-0.

It’s the best start Louisiana Tech’s had since coach Mark Montgomery joined the program. The Lady Techsters opened up with wins against Tennessee State, Florida A&M and South Alabama before an upset of a No. 17 Auburn team that has since dropped four spots. A two-out single in the top of the seventh delivered the deciding run in the 2-1 win.

UPSETS: No team is safe

Redshirt freshman outfielder Mary Terral is hitting .421 with nine RBIs and four home runs. Three other Lady Techsters have at least four RBIs. And a team ERA of 2.10 is far better than how opponents have fared against Louisiana Tech bats. Senior pitcher Krystal De La Cruz’s team-leading 1.27 ERA exists in part because of the six innings of one-run ball she pitched against Auburn. 

Ole Miss

Ole Miss dropped No. 21 Minnesota out of the top 25 with a 3-1 win in Orlando at the Friends of Jaclyn Tournament. The Rebels (3-1) only lost once, to an Ohio State Buckeyes team that like it is receiving top 25 votes, during the four-game excursion and twice shut out their opponents. 

Coach Mike Smith turned this program around when he joined it four seasons ago. Ole Miss has advanced to the NCAA tournament three years in a row, its only appearances, and the Rebels pitching staff’s team 1.12 ERA is a great way to start a run at a fourth. Senior Brittany Finney’s complete game shutout of Central Florida certainly opened the year up the right way. And if not for a grand slam by the Buckeyes the Rebels may be undefeated.

The team just needs a bit more production from an offense that has a team batting average of just .253 and nearly as many strikeouts as hits.

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