-- Catch your breath, softball fans, but don't get too comfortable. A whirlwind weekend of regionals trimmed the NCAA tournament from 64 to 16 teams. All that stands between those teams and the Women's College World Series are best-of-three super regionals that begin Thursday.
How did we get here, and what comes next? Here's your guide to the final stretch on the road Oklahoma City.
Who were the best players in regionals?
Pitcher: Danielle O'Toole, Arizona
So an Arizona pitcher who put together a very good regular season that nonetheless had its share of highs and lows finds ways both tangible and intangible to lead in the postseason. Didn't that story already win an ESPY? Granted, Taryne Mowatt's team was the No. 1 overall seed, so this isn't a perfect match. But add up the sum of performance and circumstance and no pitcher was more valuable in the regional round than Danielle O'Toole. She opened in Knoxville, Tennessee, with a two-hit shutout against Ohio State and a one-hit shutout against No. 13 Tennessee. Then after the Lady Vols finally got to her in the regional final, she re-entered with two runners on base in the seventh inning and recorded five consecutive outs to seal the extra-innings win. Next up for Arizona and O'Toole is fourth-seeded Auburn.
Hitter: Tina Iosefa, Georgia
If you're going to take on the best pitching staff in college softball this season, and perhaps one of the best ever, it doesn't hurt to have your best run producer swinging a hot bat. Georgia has its work cut out for it this week in a super regional at two-time defending national champion Florida, but Tina Ioseda dismantled the opposition in the Athens regional. Productive even in the one game the Bulldogs lost, she went 7-for-13 with three home runs, a double and seven RBIs. She even stole her first base of the season.
Which super regional matchups are the most intriguing?
No. 10 LSU at No. 7 James Madison: A team that received first-place votes in national polls earlier this season, LSU finds itself in the curious but not unfamiliar position of super regional spoiler (LSU stunned Missouri in 2012, Beth Torina's first season). Meanwhile, James Madison is trying to add to a remarkable season. It got plenty of pitching from Megan Good and Jailyn Ford in its regional, but the lineup did its part to show this isn't a postseason run like Commonwealth neighbor Virginia Tech made with all-time ace Angela Tincher and very little offense. The challenge is doing that against LSU's Carley Hoover.
No. 12 UCLA at No. 5 Oregon: A conference rematch in a super regional is rare. Rarer still is when the lower seeded team not only won the regular-season series but did so on the opponent's home field. As in, it hasn't happened. Until now. That April series, in which the Bruins run-ruled the Ducks in just the fourth game played at Jane Sanders Stadium and won two of three overall, may have been the nadir for both Oregon and Cheridan Hawkins. The Ducks have lost just twice since, in neither case with Hawkins as the starting pitcher.
No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 3 Oklahoma: Turnabout is fair play. A year ago, Oklahoma was seeded lower than it should have been and had to take the nation's most feared slugger and National Pro Fastpitch No. 1 pick on the road to a super regional at Alabama. Now the Sooners, sans Lauren Chamberlain, host a Louisiana-Lafayette team that likely would have fared better in seeding had Lexie Elkins not missed so much time. Dominant this past week, Sooners ace Paige Parker cut her home run rate significantly as a sophomore, but that will be tested by the nation's most homer-happy team.
No. 15 Missouri at No. 2 Michigan: The off-field developments add to the intrigue, but the on-field clash in Ann Arbor is fascinating, too. Missouri has the most road wins of any team remaining. Both teams have pitching options but relied exclusively or almost exclusively on one arm in the regional round. That makes life interesting for the team that needs to win twice Sunday. And in Paige Lowary's case, the matchup is a mulligan. Her 3.06 ERA this season drops all the way to 2.67 without a March appearance against Michigan, the same day she pitched eight innings in an earlier game.
Why is the spotlight on these five players?
Lexie Elkins, Louisiana-Lafayette: Although it was easily overlooked amid five home runs that followed in a wild regional final against Texas A&M, the first inning of that game saw Elkins hit her first home run since returning from more than a month out with a thumb injury. She has hit 74 home runs in 444 career at-bats for the Ragin' Cajuns (she didn't hit any as a freshman at Texas Tech). That's a home run every six at-bats, an even greater pace than Chamberlain -- who hit home runs at a pace we hadn't ever seen before.
Paige Lowary, Missouri: She was one of two pitchers to throw every inning for a regional champion, sharing that distinction with Oklahoma's Parker. Lowary's teammates made sure she didn't stay out there long, piling up run-rule wins in bunches, but the ace was just about untouchable. In her last 40 2/3 innings, she has allowed just two earned runs. And while a high walk rate slowed her at times this season, she walked just four batters in the regional.
Alexis Osorio, Alabama: Speedy hitter Demi Turner's return from injury was a blessing for Alabama. Osorio's return to freshman form in the circle may be equally compelling. In two starts and a relief appearance over the weekend, she worked 16 2/3 shutout innings, allowed just eight hits and struck out 24 batters. So along with Sydney Littlejohn, do the Tide play on with two aces or a new (old) ace?
Anissa Urtez, Utah: The Utes played 21 innings against No. 9 Kentucky and finished with one more hit and one more run than the Wildcats. That was all they needed. Now the opponent is No. 8 Florida State, which had big offensive numbers much of the season but struggled for production in its regional. If Utah gets more from mainstays Urtez and Pac-12 player of the year Hannah Flippen than Florida State does from Jessica Warren and ACC player of the year Alex Powers, it could equal a trip to Oklahoma City.
Nicole DeWitt, Florida: Sure, it's a stretch to suggest Florida's fate hinges on one player, especially if it isn't a pitcher. But DeWitt could at least keep any nail biting to a minimum. If Florida has a question mark, it's run production. But since April 16, DeWitt is hitting .462 with nearly half of her extra-base hits on the season. That includes a triple, a home run and six RBIs in the regional.
What will give when the SEC and Pac-12 collide in Alabama?
No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 11 Washington: This is the second season in a row that Alabama hosts one of the top five scoring offenses in the country in a super regional. The Crimson Tide are 7-6 this season against teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in runs per game and 42-6 against all other teams (granted, a winning record in such games is still impressive). But the question may be how many runs Washington needs. The Huskies mixed and matched four pitchers in their regional and rank 15th among the 16 super regional teams in ERA (ahead of only UCLA).
No. 4 Auburn vs. Arizona: While Washington was one of the few teams that used as many as four pitchers in the course of a regional, Auburn used four pitchers in one game in its regional. And it was only a five-inning game. The Tigers have been on a pitching roll the past two weeks, and that depth in the circle and Arizona's obvious preference for O'Toole at the moment raises the stakes that much more for the opening game this week. Auburn has the arms, and clearly has the bats, to win two games in one afternoon.
Why will the dugouts be so dull?
As was the case in the regionals, you won't see players using props as part of dugout celebrations.
Teams at each regional were informed by NCAA site representatives to leave the props at home, pursuant to rule 3.1.2 that includes the following phrase:
"Coaches are responsible for ensuring that their players are legally equipped and properly attired to reflect a positive image of the game."
In a statement provided to espnW, the NCAA said that the rule had been in place the past two postseasons (although the specific wording of both rule 3.1.2 and a related point in the code of conduct have been in the rulebook far longer than that).
"The reasoning behind this decision from the NCAA Division I, II and II Softball Committees and the NCAA is to ensure sportsmanship in our championship tournament. We also want the fans and viewers to respect the time and effort the student-athletes have put into this sport to raise it to the level that it is today and not make a mockery with props. There is also a safety concern with some of the props that have been used in the past when they take them to home plate and stick them over the dugout wall. Despite it being fun in nature, we need to maintain the respect and integrity of the sport of softball."
The NCAA does a lot of unpopular things. This isn't necessarily one of them. Plenty of fans, players and coaches frown on the use of props and will applaud the move to curtail them (Alabama coach Patrick Murphy gave voice to that viewpoint in a Tuscaloosa News article).
There are also people, myself included, who think this is the NCAA taking itself far too seriously. Conforming to societal norms for the sake of conforming to societal norms seems a lousy way to go about mentoring young people. Softball's dugout culture is different. So what? Is bringing the sport into line with athletic norms that gave us baseball beanball wars something to applaud? The idea that there must be a choice between competing at full throttle and having creative fun is troubling. And anyway, if props detract from performance, won't results ultimately police their use?
It is a philosophical discussion worth having, with points to be made on both sides. And that's the real problem with what the NCAA did in trying to enforce this on the fly.
What makes softball look worse than silly props is the idea that its own officials are embarrassed by it, like a college student desperately sweeping dorm room detritus under the bed before parents arrive.
As to why the rule, which in theory is the same in the regular season as the postseason, wasn't enforced before regionals (conference tournaments alone found LSU players using a prop baby bottle to feed a stuffed tiger and Notre Dame players hoisting an inflatable whale in the dugout, as just two examples), the NCAA said enforcement during the season was the prerogative of the schools and conferences.
That flimsy stance suggests that if a conference simply decided to ignore the infield fly rule, the NCAA would have no recourse to bring them into line.
An NCAA representative also said there were multiple instances during last year's World Series in which they saw the use of props and asked the teams in question to cease using them. But a spokesperson for LSU confirmed that that team, perhaps the most identifiable when it comes to dugout shenanigans, was never told to stop using props during the World Series.
If the NCAA wants to have a discussion about dugout culture, it should. What it did last week, which it wants you to believe was nothing new, wasn't that discussion.