The NCAA tournament is still a week away, but postseason softball is already here. More than 20 conferences will determine automatic NCAA bids by way of conference tournaments, and the SEC tournament is the crown jewel. All seven games this year from Tuscaloosa, Ala., are available live on ESPN or ESPNU.
1. Why does this one matter?
The SEC will put on a show at Rhoads Stadium, where host Alabama drew more than 10,000 fans for last week's three-game series against Florida and where softball games live up to the conference's reputation for festive athletic atmospheres. But in the midst of showing off the best surroundings for a game, the SEC also has a chance to show that its product is as good as it thinks it is.
All eight teams that qualified for the tournament rank among the top 40 in the nation in RPI, with Alabama, Florida and Tennessee in the top seven. No other conference tournament features similar depth or top-tier quality. But as most softball fans west of the Mississippi will hasten to point out, there's a catch to that claim. Neither the Pac-12, which has eight of nine softball-playing schools ranked in the RPI top 23 and owns six consecutive national titles, nor the Big 12, which matches the SEC with three teams in the top 10 and seven in the top 40, holds a conference tournament.
And at least for the moment, there is a case to be made that the SEC trails both rival leagues this season in perception. No. 1 California and No. 2 Arizona State square off this weekend with the Pac-12 regular-season championship on the line. Cal's Valerie Arioto and No. 3 Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts look like the top contenders for national player of the year honors, with Arizona State's Katelyn Boyd and Cal's Jolene Henderson close behind (not to mention that Stanford's Ashley Hansen, last year's winner, and Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, a finalist last time around, are still in the mix).
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said this week that his league has never been stronger than it is this season, while Florida coach Tim Walton contended he couldn't remember a time when it was as competitive one through nine (Arkansas finished ninth and failed to qualify for the conference tournament but remains an NCAA tournament bubble team). Only a chance to mingle with the best of the Pac-12 and Big 12 in the NCAA tournament will test those hypotheses, but a national stage and the postseason pressure of a single-elimination tournament should bring out the best the SEC has to offer.
2. Is Jackie Traina about to take college softball by storm?
Only one prize is missing on the résumé of one of softball's flagship programs. Alabama can't win that first national championship this week, but it can showcase the player who could lead them to it.
Coming off back-to-back SEC regular-season championships and returning all but two starters from a team that came within one win of the championship series in last season's Women's College World Series, Alabama was surprised it wasn't the preseason pick to win the conference. Some of the doubt surely had to do with offseason drama that saw Murphy accept the coaching position at LSU before reconsidering and returning to Alabama. But there was also the fact that, unlike rivals Florida, Georgia, LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee, Alabama had to replace the pitcher who led the team in innings in 2011. Could Traina, only a sophomore, handle the load after one season as understudy to former ace Kelsi Dunne?
In a word, yes. In a few more words, consider this recommendation after Traina threw every pitch of last week's series against Florida, winning the final two games to clinch another regular-season title.
"I wish every softball player in the country could play defense behind Jackie, because she really is the dream pitcher," Alabama senior Cassie Reilly-Boccia said. "She puts the team on her back all the time; she says, 'Come on, let's go; I'll carry you.' Whether we're struggling offensively or defensively, she just carries us. [She's] one of the best people I've ever been around and just a workhorse. This past year you could tell she really came into her own and really matured with her work ethic and got in such great shape."
Despite tearing through the regular season with a 47-7 record, the Crimson Tide never found a consistent second option in the circle. By Sunday's series finale against the rival Gators, Traina's trademark heat had lost a little steam and a little accuracy. With some spin, a bit of guile and an ability to dial up the hard stuff just often enough, she still got it done with temperatures around 90 degrees. She enters the postseason with a 31-2 record and 1.78 ERA, in addition to nine home runs and a .692 slugging percentage at the plate. If she can again handle the workload this weekend against the hitters who know her best, the top seed would come away with both a conference tournament title and reason to believe another kind of championship is within reach.
3. Is Kentucky the team everyone should worry about?
In a matter of two weeks, Kentucky went from needing a miracle to make the NCAA tournament to being the team the rest of the conference prayed it didn't draw in the opening round in Tuscaloosa.
Regardless of what happens in Thursday's quarterfinal against fourth-seeded Georgia, the fifth-seeded Wildcats are eligible for the NCAA tournament and will enter that event with a winning record. That's quite a feat considering that after three one-run losses in a row against Mississippi State, they went to bed April 22 with a 23-26 record and just seven games to play, including three at Florida and three at home against LSU, teams comfortably ahead of them at that time. After a win out of conference against Morehead State, they took two of three from the Gators in Gainesville, accounting for half of Florida's home losses for the season, and then swept LSU, capped by senior Chanda Bell's no-hitter.
During that two-week run, Bell had a 0.94 ERA in 29.2 innings and allowed just 15 hits and seven walks against 37 strikeouts. The senior had a 3.44 ERA in 16 prior appearances in SEC play.
"It's been fun to watch Chanda grow this year," Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. "When she came to Kentucky, her first weekend out as a freshman she broke school records [with 15 strikeouts in a game], so it was phenomenal. I've never seen a player who transformed one team the way Chanda Bell has transformed Kentucky softball. She's been doing a great job for us the last four years, but over the last month, she's really learned to trust herself. She's learning to trust other pitches, so she has more things in her arsenal.
"And it just looks like she loves being on the mound; there's nowhere else she'd rather be."
Kentucky got hot at the right time a season ago, reaching a super regional for the first time in program history. Could good timing send it to an SEC final for the first time this season?
4. How good is Tennessee's lineup?
The No. 2 seed's lineup is a lot better when it begins with Raven Chavanne.
Tennessee's All-American third baseman and leadoff hitter sat out a win against Louisville last week after she experienced concussion symptoms following a collision in a game against Mississippi the previous weekend, but co-coach Ralph Weekly said Chavanne has been cleared to play. Chavanne led all SEC hitters with a .391 batting average in conference play and trailed only Alabama's Jen Fenton in stolen bases. She also led SEC hitters with a .439 average across all games.
The Lady Vols are scoring more than a run and a half less per game this season than they did a season ago and slugging nearly 100 points worse (.448 to .541), yet they trailed only Alabama in runs per game and batting average in league play. At times, with Chavanne and Kat Dotson setting the table for middle-of-the-order hitters like shortstop Madison Shipman and second baseman Lauren Gibson, they look the equal of any lineup. Quarterfinal opponent Auburn knows that all too well; Shipman hit home runs in all three games when the Lady Vols swept the Tigers earlier this season.
"You know what? There is a challenge to keep anybody off base," Auburn coach Tina Deese said. "It was their shortstop [Madison] Shipman that really put the nail in our coffin that weekend. Tennessee, you've got Chavanne, you've got so many other tools in their shed, so many other kids that can hurt you and hurt you bad."
With the sisters Renfroe, sophomore Ellen and junior Ivy, in the circle, the Lady Vols can win without scoring a lot of runs. But to repeat as SEC tournament champion and prove itself a contender beyond this week, Tennessee needs an offense that can win games on its own.
5. Will pitching reverse momentum for Florida, Georgia or LSU?
Florida trailed by two runs and had runners on first and second with no outs in a finale against Alabama in which a win would have earned the Gators a share of the regular-season title, so the sky is hardly falling on the tournament's No. 3 seed after a 44-10 regular season. All the same, the Gators went just 9-6 in their final 15 games, including five losses in the final seven.
Georgia knows the feeling. The Bulldogs beat Florida in the opening game of a three-game series at the end of March to improve to 29-5. They proceeded to go 11-9 the rest of the way.
And LSU is in such a run-scoring drought, hitting an even .200 in conference play and tying Auburn for the second-fewest runs, that its 15-13 conference record represents a pitching feat worthy of Steve Carlton, he of the 27 wins for a Phillies team that won just 59 in 1972. With a chance to wrap up the fifth seed, LSU instead managed no hits against Kentucky in its finale and slipped to sixth.
In other words, momentum is working against the Gators, Bulldogs and Tigers. But to borrow a cliche from baseball, momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, which puts Florida's Hannah Rogers, Georgia's Erin Arevalo and LSU's Rachele Fico squarely in the spotlight.
Despite getting knocked out of starts early twice against Alabama last weekend, Rogers is 15th in the nation in ERA and shut down the Crimson Tide in the series opener. Arevalo might be the league's most improved player and ranks 29th nationally in ERA.
And Fico, one of just three qualified pitchers in the nation with an ERA of less than 1.00, is keeping first-year coach Beth Torina's Tigers in just about every game despite the offensive woes.
"She competes differently than anyone I've ever been around," Torina said. "She has a great head on her, and she honestly has the pitches to go with it. I think the thing about her is a lot of people say, 'If she was on a team with a great offense, of course she'd be winning easily.' But the fact that she goes out and does it every day, knowing that she really has to be virtually perfect, I think that says a whole lot about the type of pitcher and the type of competitor she is."
Five more players to watch
Stephanie Becker, Mississippi State: The ace for the Bulldogs is a player to watch as the proxy for her coaches. Mississippi State first-year coach Vann Stuedeman returns to Tuscaloosa for the first time after an 11-year run as Murphy's pitching coach with the Crimson Tide, and she brings along former Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne as a volunteer assistant coach.
Brittany Cervantes, Kentucky: Bell isn't the only reason Kentucky enters the tournament on the roll of all rolls. A fellow senior who suffered through a prolonged slump to start the season, Cervantes hit 11 home runs and posted a 1.291 OPS in 28 SEC games. That first figure represents all but one of the home runs she's hit this season.
Lauren Guzman, Auburn: The 5-foot-3 senior shortstop is up there on any list of the best pound-for-pound players in the tournament. With a .347 batting average, she's the only Auburn player hitting better than .300, but in addition to the numbers, she's a competitor and a leader who will be at the center of any upset bid.
Amanda Locke, Alabama: Traina is the talisman-like player for the top seed, but Locke is the longest-serving member of a senior class that is this team's backbone. The fifth-year senior is a pure slugger who became an all-around hitter. She can park a ball over the scoreboard in Tuscaloosa, but her ability to go the other way for a clutch single is often even more impressive.
Michelle Moultrie, Florida: The co-Most Outstanding Player in last season Women's College World Series, Moultrie has her hands full as the lone senior on a Gators team long on potential and short on consistency at the moment. But whether as leadoff hitter or run producer (she hit third in the series finale against Alabama), she's a five-tool player with speed, power and great defensive range in the outfield.