By Cara Capuano
A nation-leading nine teams from the Southeastern Conference were invited into the field of 64 at the NCAA Division One Softball Championship. Of those nine, four teams earned one of the sixteen highly-coveted national seeds, and four have advanced into this weekend’s Super Regionals. Could this finally be the first year a team from the SEC hoists the trophy at the Women’s College World Series?
I have enjoyed the opportunity this season to cover all four SEC teams that are continuing their march toward Oklahoma City. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the comments from coaches and players that we learned during calls or meetings with the teams, leading up to our broadcasts. Consider this a little glimpse of “inside information” that you can’t learn from reading your favorite team’s game notes online.
TUSCALOOSA SUPER REGIONAL: Michigan (42-15) at #2 Alabama (53-7)
Thursday, 8 PM ET on ESPN2; Friday 4:30 PM ET on ESPNU & 7 PM ET on ESPN (if necessary)
Announcers: Beth Mowins & Jessica Mendoza
I called Alabama at Auburn with Michele Smith back in late March, but everything that SEC Coach of the Year Patrick Murphy shared with us stands true today.
What Murph loves most about this year’s Crimson Tide team:
He told us they all “take advantage of opportunities they have been given.” No role on the team is too small, and the productivity from each player, when given a role – whether it’s leading off, getting the ball in the circle, or being called to sub on defense, pinch hit or pinch run -- has been exceptional. The result? Regular season champions (third in a row!), SEC Tournament champions and one of the most dominating performances by a home team in the NCAA Regional round last weekend.
Six seniors and five juniors compose an upperclassmen group that Murph told us is the largest he has had on one roster in a long time. All the seniors lead the team in different ways – he chooses to not assign specific team captains, because it allows everyone to have a voice. Consider the postseason experience acquired by this large group - the seniors have each been to the WCWS twice. Postseason experience often breeds postseason success, and the numbers back that up: in Alabama’s six postseason victories, senior Jen Fenton leads the Tide with a .667 (12-for-18) batting average, four RBI, nine runs, eight stolen bases and a .778 slugging percentage. Fellow senior, Cassie Reilly-Boccia has batted .529 (9-for-17) and has driven in four runs.
14 all-conference honors started the award parade through Tuscaloosa. Alabama tied a school record by earning six National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-South Region first-team nominations: Seniors Cassie Reilly-Boccia (1B), Jen Fenton (OF) & Amanda Locke (UTL/DP), junior Kayla Braud (OF) and sophomores Jackie Traina (UTL/P) and Kaila Hunt (SS). Only five teams nationally earned six nominees; Alabama was the only team to place all six of its nominees on its region’s first team. As well, Traina was also one of only eleven finalists for USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year. WOW!
KNOXVILLE SUPER REGIONAL: #10 Georgia (44-15) at #7 Tennessee (50-11)
Saturday, Noon ET on ESPNU; Sunday, 1 PM ET on ESPN & 3:30 PM ET on ESPN (if necessary)
Announcers: Clay Matvick and Cheri Kempf
I saw Georgia in a series at Kentucky in early April and then had Tennessee recently at the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals. Let’s start with the Bulldogs.
What Lu Harris-Champer loves most about this year’s Georgia squad:
Lu Harris-Champer told us the chemistry is the best part of this year’s Bulldogs: “they all play for each other” and are “so much fun” to coach as a result. The roster size is small this year, compared to others; she thinks that has allowed the players the chance to help each other more often and, in turn, trust each other more quickly.
Leadership is a collective effort at Georgia. At different times, different players have stepped up to lead, and it’s more a “lead by example” group. Harris-Champer has been especially impressed by the freshmen leaders she found on the left side of her infield in SS Paige Wilson and 3B Gracie Goulder. She says these young players are “playing ball the way they have their whole life: with total love of the game.” They’ve relished this opportunity to step in and contribute as freshmen, although they’ve had to compete diligently to earn (and keep) those starting roles.
What it will take down the stretch:
Success for Georgia, all season, has hinged on two important keys: stay aggressive and maintain their unity, chemistry and team spirit. As always, the Bulldogs are a high-energy group that plays with each other, for each other, and with a go-get-‘em tenacious style that few teams can match.
What Karen Weekly thinks sets Tennessee apart:
Balance. Tennessee has outstanding pitching from the Renfroe sisters (team ERA of 1.53 is 11th in the nation), a stalwart defense in the field behind them (how about a fielding percentage that leads the nation
at 0.983?!), and an efficient lineup peppered with players who can hit for average, power and demonstrate exceptional speed on the base paths.
How did they do it?
To combat what Karen Weekly calls “the best depth of pitching, from top to bottom” that she has ever seen in the SEC, the Lady Vols coaching staff tried a different approach in their offensive coaching. As Ralph Weekly put it, “they went back to the drawing board,” by cutting out a few team practices to work with players in smaller workout settings. A series of two-hour sessions, with two players in each session, made for some very long days for the coaching staff, but proved to be extremely helpful days for the hitters. Before the SEC Tournament, 2B Lauren Gibson told us she loved the individual hitting work. She noted, “Usually there is so much for the coaches to focus on during a team practice… in those workouts, their attention was totally on the hitting.”
BIG ORANGE in Red, White and Blue?
Interesting side note on Lauren Gibson, already a member of the USA Senior National Team: she credits Arkansas head coach Mike Larabee, who she worked with via Team USA, for helping her mental approach to the game. She said Larabee taught her that even if she’s having a tough outing in one facet of the game, (say, she’s not hitting well), she can help out her team in another way (like locking down on defense). Congratulations are in order for P Ellen Renfroe and SS Madison Shipman, who were both on the list of 21 invitees
who have been asked to compete for the final five roster spots on Team USA. A Tennessee team spokesperson tells me they both plan on trying out!
COLUMBIA SUPER REGIONAL: LSU (37-22) at #9 Missouri (46-12)
Saturday, 7:30 PM ET on ESPNU; Sunday 3:30 PM ET on ESPNU & 6:00 PM ET on ESPNU (if necessary)
Announcers: Cara Capuano (YAY!) and Garland Cooper
What made the difference in College Station?
The easy answer: LSU’s pitching. Sure, it’s easy to point to the phenomenal jobs by Rachele Fico and Brittany Mack, who shut down a Texas A&M offense that was among the nation’s most potent this season (allowing only ONE run over TWO games!), but
they didn’t go it alone. There were solid, if not spectacular (I see you diving in left field again, Ashley Langoni!) plays made by the Tigers’ defense. And, as LSU has learned time and again, you can’t win the close games if you can’t put up a few runs. A pair of two-run innings vs. Texas A&M, the first inning on Saturday and the fourth inning on Sunday, provided the support Fico and Mack needed to make their gems stand up in the win column. Senior captain Juliana Santos told us before Regional play began that the key to LSU’s success in the NCAA postseason would be timely hitting, “no doubt, we have to score that run – just one or two… we have to do our part, and we will
.” Santos hit the walk-off RBI single that clinched Friday’s 1-0 victory vs. Texas State.
Theme of the Postseason:
Langoni told us the theme of the practices between a disappointing early exit from the SEC Tournament and the start of the NCAA run was, “be selfless and help the team.” She said the team’s new outlook is for each player to “think about what she can do for her teammates” and string together productive at-bats by simply getting on base or moving over a base runner. Santos added she planned to “stop worrying about being the hero” and start counting on her teammates. Indeed, players like Langoni, Santos, Allison Falcon and Ashley Applegate all cut through personal slumps and put the ball in play to keep innings alive and/or plate some runs. Simone Heyward’s return to the starting lineup for the first time since April 17th provided a big spark. And who could forget freshman Kailey McCasland’s pinch-hit Sac Fly in the Regional Final to put LSU’s first run on the board? LSU will need another “total team effort” this weekend, when they face one of the best pitchers in the nation, Chelsea Thomas of Missouri.
There’s no crying in softball!
Oh, sure there is. Santos admitted to us before the NCAA Regional that the eight seniors on the LSU roster talked about how none of them were ready to be “done” with their college careers yet, adding, “we can’t even imagine it… we started to cry just thinking about it.” Then Mack teared up a bit in her postgame interview on ESPN3, after winning the Regional Final, but quickly qualified that they were “tears of joy,” a result of enjoying the taste of NCAA success this senior class had been voraciously craving. The overwhelming thrill of victory is what this time of year is all about!
WHAT SMITTY SAYS
I asked analyst Michele Smith to forecast which of SEC teams she thinks she’ll see next week in Oklahoma City, while calling the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) for the ESPN Networks. Her two favorites to advance are Alabama and Tennessee.
Per Michele, Alabama’s key strengths are that their roster is stocked with an abundance of postseason experience; they boast one of the best offensive teams in the country (2nd in the nation in scoring, 3rd in Home Runs per game and 5th in stolen bases), and have Jackie Traina (her 35 wins are 2nd in the NCAA, behind Sara Plourde of UMass.) Michele lists Tennessee’s primary strengths as their team speed across the lineup, their steady pitching and – the undeniable intangible at this stage in the season -- home field advantage.
Remember, coverage of the WCWS on the ESPN Networks begins May 31st at 1 PM ET on ESPN2. As well, ALL games – from both the WCWS and this weekend’s Super Regionals – can also be found on ESPN3, WatchESPN.com and the WatchESPN app.
By design, the sport plays fast – and the intense, high-flying speed of the game is part of why it’s so fun to watch. Just as important, in my opinion, are the people playing it. If you want a front row seat to witness the diverse, outgoing personalities in Division One softball, look no further than YouTube, where both Alabama
have made video interpretations to the current hit by One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful.” This, to me, is what makes softball so beautiful: gifted student-athletes thriving for excellence in the classroom and on the field, all the while having fun. Enjoy the games!