BTP has recruited some extra help to give you a complete tournament preview. Our publisher, Maren Angus, along with contributing writer Ed Strong, Rutgers infielder Nicole Bowman, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and current softball dad Brad Jackson sat down to answer some difficult questions.
BTP: What Regional are you most looking forward to?
BJ: I am excited for all the Regionals and the tournament as a whole. It’s a tough choice but the Regional I am most excited about is the Lexington Regional with ACC Notre Dame, Big Ten Michigan, and SEC Kentucky and Illinois – Chicago who is the only conference champ in the regional and considering they only lost 3-0 to SEC-power LSU early in the season. They could draw from their crosstown rival, Loyola, basketball team’s Final Four Cinderella season and maybe Sister Jean has some prayers left to help the Flames upset some Power Five teams.
NB: I am most looking forward to the Seattle Regional. This regional consists of Washington, Boise State, Texas and Minnesota. It not only contains several top teams but also contains a newcomer to the NCAA Tournament in the form of Boise State. I’m excited to see how the newbie is going to take on these top teams and also see how Washington does holding their own after having a 28-game win streak to start their season.
ES: I’m intrigued by what looks to be a wide open College Station Regional. Texas A&M is clearly not doing as well as they were earlier, but they get to be at home, and that has worked wonders for them this season. Baylor looked to be turning the corner after sweeping Texas to finish the regular season and opening the Big 12 tourney with a big win over OK State, but then inexplicably imploded against Texas Tech.
Overall, this is the only region where I wouldn’t be more than mildly surprised to see any of the top three teams advance. McNeese is playing the best of the bunch right now, but this seems to be an awful matchup for them, strategy-wise: the Cowgirls strategy relies on OBP and speed. They are 5th in on-base percentage, and love to run wild on the bases once they reach, averaging over 2.4 stolen bases per game, good for third in the country. However:
Led by Auburn transfer Carlee Wallace, Baylor has allowed just 20 total stolen bases on 30 attempts (66.7%).
The Aggies and Ashley Walters are even more stingy: Texas A&M has allowed just a remarkable ten steals all year, and thrown out 12 (45.5% success).
In other words, McNeese is well past triple digit steals on the season, while TAMU and Baylor have allowed a *combined* 32.
MA: I’m really looking forward to the Tempe Regional. It’s the 10-year anniversary of the Sun Devils’ first National Championship and they are hungry to get back to Oklahoma City. There is just a tough road ahead of them with Long Beach State, Ole Miss and New Mexico State. Long Beach is no stranger to Ole Miss, there are two former Rebels on the roster. Redshirt sophomore Cielo Meza has been a beast in the circle all year and her going head-to-head with Kaitlin Lee and G Juarez will be great softball. We also can’t forget about the offensive numbers NMSU has put up with the nation’s home run leader, Kelsey Horton, leading the way.
BTP: Were you surprised by anything when the bracket was announced?
BJ: There were a lot of “surprises” for this NCAA tournament. No disrespect to the players and coaches who’ve worked hard to reach the field of 64 but surprised that Missouri who paid Wichita State to NOT play the weekend prior to playing SEC Champ Florida in their final weekend of SEC regular season games, anticipating losing all three and needing to finish above .500 as they did at 28-27 to get in the tourney after going 6-17 in a tough conference but benefiting from the success of the top teams was surprising and I have a problem if you don’t make your conference tournament you shouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament in my opinion. Oregon State at 28-26, finishing 6th in PAC 12 was surprising. Wisconsin (28-21) getting in above Illinois (37-18) who won 9 more games, had a better road record (11-9) vs Wisconsin’s (6-10) and finished season better going 7-3 in last 10 games along with finishing ahead of Wisconsin in regular season standings and both exited Big 10 tourney in Quarterfinals was surprising. My final surprise was Minnesota, 3 time Big 10 Tourney champ after getting egregiously snubbed last year and having to go to Alabama after winning 56 games, 19-4 on the road didn’t host and in 2018, they as Big Ten Champs, didn’t get to host again and sent all the way to Washington as a three-time conference champ with a new head coach was VERY surprising,
As far as snubs, I have several teams who I believe earned the right to be in the 64 according to their body of work as the NCAA Committee said they looked at.
I thought Florida Gulf Coast who had a RPI of 38, winning 39 games and 10-5 on the road earned a right to be in the tourney as did Furman (41 wins). Anytime you win 40-plus games, I don’t care what conference it is, or their RPI being 78 they earned the right to be in the tournament. If you reward teams in stronger conferences for losing more than half their conference games, but allow them to live off the success of the best teams, you should NOT punish teams for winning, and being in a conference that isn’t Power Five. That’s not right in my opinion and sends the wrong message across the sport. Some mid majors and smaller schools cannot change their conference nor control what others do in their conference and winning 40-plus games is tremendous in any conference. I also felt the ACC got snubbed with only two teams making the tournament. Louisville and Pitt shoulda been in . Both won more games than Notre Dame, and their RPI (Louisville 44) and (Pitt 48) was comparable to ND at 42. And Pitt was one out away and a tremendous three-run walk off by Anna Shelnutt from Florida State from being ACC Champs in one of the most exciting conference tournaments in the country. Pitt also had a better road record which to me matters since if your not hosting you obviously show the ability to travel well and win games on the road. Longwood out of the Big South winning 38 games, 56 RPI, and 13-7 on the road also got snubbed. So along with Illinois surprisingly getting snubbed I felt those teams all should have gotten in the 64. Imagine the crowd, the excitement of Louisville in the Lexington regional with Michigan, Kentucky and Ill-Chicago!
NB: The main surprise for me in the tournament was the fact that the entire SEC made it in. Now, we know that the SEC is a Power Five conference and has a lot of strong teams packed into it but it is both surprising and impressive to see that the whole conference made it in; especially since other conferences struggled to get one or two teams into the tournament.
ES: Wisconsin over Pittsburgh wasn’t what I was predicting, but I’m not as up in arms as some are over it. I like that the committee rewarded teams for scheduling tough in non-con – like the Badgers – and did not reward teams for inflating records with large numbers of easy non-conference games against mediocre competition – Florida Gulf Coast being out entirely and Auburn not hosting, most notably.
The thing that bothered me is seeing Kentucky host. For the second year in a row, I’ve felt that the Wildcats were the least deserving of all 16 hosts in the field. Last year that was clearly in favor of Minnesota; this year it’s less definitive which team should have instead. But a Kentucky team that did not win a single SEC road series, was eliminated in game 1 of the SEC Tourney, and lost 2 of 3 at New Mexico State, was not the right choice for #16. After the 15 teams that realistically had to host, Kentucky was my fifth choice for the final spot, behind Hofstra, Long Beach State, Baylor, and Auburn.
MA: I was surprised to see Oregon State make it in at 28-26 and Missouri at 28-27. There could have been teams like Florida Gulf Coast or Pittsburgh that had better records but in the end it comes down to RPI. I will save my argument about that for later or just allow Brad to take the words out of my mouth. Preach on BJack!
BTP: In your opinion, what is the toughest Regional?
BJ: Outside the Lexington Regional as mentioned with Michigan, Notre Dame, Ill-Chicago and Kentucky, I think the toughest regional is the Tallahassee regional. It seems like the committee loves giving Florida State some tough SEC teams. LSU last year, and Auburn (40-15) this year. Kennesaw State is a very good team winning 39 games and 34 RPI and winning road record as well and FSU and Auburn are both excellent programs with very good coaches and amazing athletes that compete at a high level.
NB: The toughest Regional, in my opinion, would have to be the Seattle Regional. I say this because all four teams have 35-to-45 wins on the season. Most of the teams in this Regional also bring a lot of experience. Washington made it significantly far in the tournament last year and Minnesota has made it into the tournament for the sixth time in a row now. The power these four teams bring to the table along with their experience and capability is going to make this regional one to watch for because it is anyone’s game.
ES: Tallahassee. Auburn hasn’t been quite up to the level they were in the past few years, but that is a top-12 team in terms of pure talent. I feel that Kennesaw State is one of the better 3-seeds in the field, and Jacksonville State has given Auburn problems in the postseason before. Whoever comes out of this one will be well tested.
MA: I’m really curious to see how the Lexington Regional plays out. Kentucky, Michigan and Notre Dame each rely on a youthful pitching staff which at this point in the season translates to inexperience. UK has a freshman in Grace Baalman and a D-II transfer in Autumn Humes leading them into the postseason. Michigan freshman Meghan Beaubien has appeared in 42 games and is only 0.2 innings away from eclipsing 200 for the year. How much gas does she have left in the tank? The same question goes for Notre Dame freshman Alexis Holloway who has throw 200-plus innings.
BTP: Is there a Regional that you think will be won easily?
BJ: As we have learned in sports ANYTHING can happen, just ask Oklahoma who lost to Boston University earlier this year, it just takes a team believing, competing at a high level, playing error free, and being the best on the field THAT DAY and anything can happen. But I think Oregon’s Regional is probably one of the easiest considering how strong they are and how far Drake and Albany have to travel which can sometimes be an advantage IF teams allow it to creep into their mindset prior to playing the host teams.
NB: When comparing all of the matchups for each Regional, I think an obvious winner to be comes from the Norman Regional, with the team being Oklahoma to take it all. Besides the fact that Oklahoma has won back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, their record this year is over ten wins higher than every other team in the regional. It is pretty obvious the odds are stacked in Oklahoma’s favor in this round.
ES: Tuscaloosa. Alabama has looked much better recently than they had for most of the year, and they get a regional with an Oregon State team that hasn’t beaten a team over .500 in about a month, a Wisconsin team that was not expected to make the tournament, and a MTSU underdog that won the C-USA tournament as the 6 seed. Alabama’s offense still isn’t great, but in a region where the Alabama pitching staff shouldn’t have too much trouble, the Crimson Tide lineup should be able to score enough that Bama can avoid late-game drama.
MA: My question is how can any of the teams in Eugene Regional not named Oregon slow the Ducks down? I would love to see Nicole Newman from Drake get her double-digit strikeout average but Oregon isn’t much a strikeout team. BYU has had it’s ups and downs this season and this Regional reunites a couple of New Zealand’s finest in Pete Meredith and Mike White. I don’t want to knock any teams because making it to the NCAA Tournament is a huge accomplishment but I’m not sure how Albany will stack up against the teams in this Regional. The Great Danes didn’t play a single Power Five program this season.
BTP: Who are some players that people should watch for who could make a big impact in the postseason?
BJ: A few outfielders to watch for are Amanda Lorenz (Florida), Jessica Scroggins (Baylor), Justyce McClain (McNeese State) and Lexi Watts Ill-Chicago. Infielders would be DJ Sanders (Oregon), Jessie Warren (FSU), Meghan Gregg (Tennessee), Vanessa Shippy (Okla St), Alyssa DiCarlo (UGA), Morgan Tolle (JMU) and Lilli Piper (Ohio St). Catchers are Alyssa VanDerveer (South Carolina), Kendyl Lindemann (Minnesota) and Mia Davidson (Miss St.). A few dominant pitchers through the regular season have been Randi Rupp (Texas State), Nicole Newman (Drake), Meghan Beaubien (Michigan) and G Juarez (Arizona State) but someone like Kelsey Oh (South Carolina), and Trinity Harrington (TAMU) could be real difference makers. Then you have the big bats of Jocelyn Alo (Oklahoma), Rachel Lewis (Northwestern) and Kate Gordon (JMU).
NB: I think this postseason is going to have a big focus on the pitching staffs. An obvious stand out for one would be Kelly Barnhill of Florida. Some others to look out for, however, are girls such as Taran Alvelo of Washington and even the freshman pitcher for Michigan, Meghan Beaubien, who was awarded All-Big Ten Freshman Team and All-Big Ten First Team. Offense on all teams is going to have to do major scouting and stay patient at the plate so that they don’t swing into the pitches that these top pitchers are trying to throw. I’m sensing there will be a lot of tight games with pitching coming down to who pulls out wins these next few days and later into the tournament.
ES: The Tempe regional has 3 of the best aces in the country in ASU’s G Juarez, LBSU’s Cielo Meza, and Ole Miss’ Kaitlin Lee. But keep an eye on the best bat in the Valley of the Sun. New Mexico State’s Kelsey Horton leads the country in homers with 25 and sits in the top 25 of many other categories. The Aggies didn’t just pile these stats up against lesser foes, either: NMSU thumped Kentucky for 22 runs en route to a doubleheader sweep way back on Opening Weekend. They also beat Minnesota and took Washington deep into extra innings. Big key for NMSU: can the hitters before her in the lineup get on enough to force teams to pitch to her in big situations? Against Juarez/Meza/Lee, that could be a tall task.
MA: There are so many players who come to mind for this but I want to keep the focus on the Athens Regional. Mary Wilson Avant will be a huge factor for the Georgia pitching staff. Kamalani Dung, a Fresno State transfer, for Cal almost took down Oregon to end the regular season and Northwestern in general is a team to watch for. NU has a four-time All-Big Ten Selection in Sabrina Rabin and she sets the table for the rest of the lineup. If there was going to be a major upset in the tournament, I would look here.