Stanford Softball Faces Tough Regional

While it was terrible luck that #4 nationally ranked Stanford Softball was shipped two time zones away for the NCAA Regionals, it was good fortune that the Card were put in the backyard of The Bootleg columnist "MizzouCard." He is on site for the Regionals, which start today, in a surprisingly official capacity, and has an in-depth preview of the three opponents joining Stanford.

"While we are here," I said to MiniMizzouCard Sunday afternoon, "let's find out who we are playing in the softball Regional."

A few definitions are in order. "Here" is the office, where we catch many of the internet KSZU baseball broadcasts by Sean Bruich and Jeff Allen, including the one last Sunday of the game against UCLA. "We" is a somewhat less precise term. Primarily it means Stanford. Sometimes, it also means our second favorite team, Mizzou. The underlying assumption of the inquiry was that we would find out who was being sent to the Farm to get eaten up by the Cardinal in a four-team Regional. We would also find out where Mizzou was being sent. After a strong second-place finish in the Big 12 tournament, we figured Mizzou might even have an outside shot of surprising someone in a Regional.

Despite repeated clicks into the official Stanford and Mizzou websites, and even the NCAA softball page, we did not get our questions answered before having to leave the office for family events. As I headed out the door to return to the office later that evening, MiniMizzouCard reminded me to call him "as soon as" I found out who "we" were playing.

My reaction upon seeing the answer can only be described as "Huh?!?" We had considered the admittedly unlikely possibility of Mizzou and Stanford in the same region, of course, though we hoped that would not come to pass. But Stanford at Mizzou?? Surely that cannot be correct.

As they said in Airplane, "It is correct. And stop calling me Shirley."

Five days later, this region still makes little sense to me. In fact, after I came to realize how good Southern Illinois has been this year, it makes even less sense. The Columbia (Mo.) Regional is L-O-A-D-E-D, folks. Indeed, based upon the top three teams' rankings, it is hard to believe that any four-team Regional in a 64-team field (a format the baseball tournament has been using for a few years now) has ever been this loaded.

For the moment, let's put aside the "this is the reward for tying for the Pac-10 title?" outrage for a quick scouting report on the three possible Stanford opponents this weekend. Let's start with the teams in the first game, between Mizzou and Southern Illinois. Regardless of whether Stanford wins or loses Friday evening, they will be playing one (or more) of these teams on Saturday.

University of Missouri Tigers

This, of course, is somewhat familiar territory, because the Tigers are a team I have actually seen live this year. Let's start with the obvious. This is an awfully tough Regional no. 2 seed. Mizzou finished the regular season tied for fifth in the Big 12 Conference. That is no small accomplishment. The Big 12 is the second toughest softball conference in the country, behind you-know-who. [In this part of the country, some folks like to claim that the Big 12 is "just as tough" or even "tougher" than the Pac-10 in softball, but I think that is a stretch. However, the distance between the Big 12 and whoever is third is probably greater than the distance between the Pac-10 and the Big 12.] Fifth among the Big 12's ten softball teams, i.e., just in the upper division, is the rough equivalent of fourth in the Pac-10. Stanford was "first" in the Pac-10, but it was also "fourth" in the Pac-10.

I don't want to overstate Mizzou's case. In my judgment (for whatever that is worth), Stanford is a better team. But, again, the difference is not what the no. 6 seed in the national tournament, which should be facing about the "no. 27" national seed, might be entitled to expect. Mizzou finished second to Texas in last weekend's Big 12 tournament. It also had a strong non-conference record. In the latest ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25, Mizzou occupied the 16th position, with a 42-13 record in Coach Ty Singleton's third year (102-59 overall; three straight NCAA tournaments).

Like all good softball teams, Mizzou is led by strong pitching, with a staff ERA of 1.52 that is second in the Big 12 only to Texas' nasty 0.61. Mizzou has not one, but three, pitchers who have put up a lot of zeroes this year. Sophomore lefty Erica Peterson has the most impressive numbers, including an ERA below 1.00 (0.98 ERA/167 OBA/136 innings/17-3). However, senior Erin Kalka (2.06 ERA/.229 OBA/115 innings/10-6), one of the team's emotional leaders, tends to be in the circle in pressure-packed situations against the best teams. The impressive newcomer is freshman Jen Bruck (1.77 ERA/.224/111 innings/15-4).

Among position players, the experienced leader is senior shortstop Heather Kunkel, who hits .349, with thirteen doubles, 15 home runs, and 52 RBI. Like most power hitters, Kunkel definitely gets her money's worth at the plate. She has walked only four times all year and has struck out 19 times. Many years, Kunkel would be in the team lead in almost all offensive categories.

This year, though, redshirt freshman Micaela Minner nudged her out in several categories. Minner, the closest thing Mizzou has to Stanford's Michelle Smith, has the team lead in average, .392 (6th in the Big 12), and slugging percentage, .770 (third in the Big 12), along with a share of the team lead in home runs, 15. Unlike Kunkel, Minner is impressively picky at the plate, with a team-leading 27 walks in 54 games (fifth in the Big 12) to push her on base percentage to a Big 12 leading .508. She is also a skilled left fielder, with 89 putouts, an impressive five assists, and only one error. This week, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association named her to its Midwest Region First Team.

Two other Mizzou players appear among the Big 12 hitting leaders. One of them is none other than pitcher/dh Jen Bruck, who has slugged, you guessed it, 15 home runs. The three Mizzou players with 15 round trippers are tied for second in the Big 12. Junior right fielder Janessa Roening also finds herself among the top twenty hitters for average in the Big 12 (.357), with a slugging percentage of .636, but a "paltry" eight home runs.

With three players at 15 homers a piece and another with eight, Mizzou obviously relies upon the long ball for a substantial percentage of its scoring. No Mizzou player finds herself among the Big 12's top ten in stolen bases. Also, the heart of the lineup provides a somewhat larger percentage of the offense than on other teams. As a team, Mizzou hits an impressive .301, but the high averages noted above contribute quite a bit to this total. The key to beating Mizzou is having the pitcher limit the damage from the two through six hitters of, usually, Bruck, Minner, first baseman Amanda Renth (who does not yet appear to have the bat speed to match the two who hit before her and the two who hit after her), Roening, and Kunkel.

Mizzou has shown impressive fight, particularly in the last month. Against Texas A&M, which wrapped up the Big 12 regular season title rather early, Mizzou scored in its last at bat twice, once in the seventh and once in the eighth, to sweep the two-game series and give A&M (we call them "the cash machines" because their logo reads "ATM" from left to right) two of their four conference losses. The Tigers closed out the Big 12 regular season at home against Nebraska by scoring a run in the sixth for a 1-0 win. In the Big 12 tournament, which follows the CWS 4/4 format (but with a single championship game), Mizzou opened with a loss to Baylor, which forced it to win four straight elimination games, all against teams in the NCAA Tournament, including an extra-inning semi-final game against the Baylor team that beat them to open the tourney.

The bottom line is that Mizzou is a very tough opponent for Stanford. As the 16th rated team in the poll and the runner up in the Big 12 tourney, Mizzou could have slid into one of the top 16 national seeds. Also, like most teams, Mizzou plays particularly well at home, with several game winning scores in the bottom halves of the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings.

Southern Illinois University Salukis

If that was not bad enough, it should be noted that Stanford's other possible opponent in its second game beat Mizzou, 2-1, in the only game between the schools, March 31 in Carbondale.

Because I do not have first-hand knowledge of the remaining school's strengths and weaknesses, I will only briefly note the items that stick out from a review of the stat sheets and press clippings. One does not have to dig too far in these sources to be impressed by Southern Illinois. For starters, check out their ranking. The third seed should rank somewhere between 33rd and 48th. In the final poll, the Salukis, 46-12 under Coach Kerri Blaylock, were ranked 22nd, which was actually two spots down from the 20th position it had previously held.

Southern Illinois slight drop in the rankings probably resulted from its disappointing "two and done" performance in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, but that included a strange 2-1 loss to Illinois State, with a two-hour rain delay and no earned runs for the winners. This is the second straight year that the Salukis won the MVC regular season title, but not the MVC tournament. This year, Southern Illinois became the fist MVC team to garner three straight at large bids to the NCAA tournament.

The national statistic leader boards are sprinkled with Salukis. They are fourth in team ERA at an eye-popping 0.91 and eighth in team home runs per game at 1.12. Pitching staff workhorse Amy Harre, the MVC Pitcher of the Year, is in the top 30 nationally with a 1.17 ERA (.185 OBA/203 innings/22-8). Seems impressive until you realize that her ERA is more than twice that of Cassidy Scoggins, who is fourth in the nation at 0.52 (.123 OBA/149 innings/20-4).

The Saluki power primarily comes from four players among the school's all-time top ten in career home runs. Though designated hitter Katie Jordan's 14 home runs would get her only the number four spot in this year's Mizzou list (just had to get that in!), those 14 dingers are a school record for a season. Jordan is third on the team in average at .326, behind left fielder Krystal Stein's .375 and right fielder Tiffanie Dismore's .346. Stein and Dismore are clearly table setters, though, with only one home run between them. The other power hitters are left fielder Maria Damico (.286 with 13 home runs), third baseman Katie Louis (.234 with 12 home runs), first baseman Kelly Creek (.298 average with 2 home runs this year, for a total of 12, ninth all-time), and shortstop Lauren Haas (.300 with 6 home runs).

Although it stumbled in conference tournament, Southern Illinois dominated the league in the regular season. It leads the MVC in almost every significant pitching statistic and most of the offensive statistics. The most glaring exception is stolen bases, where Southern Illinois finshed 7th in its league with a mere 40. Like Mizzou, it seems that the Salukis blast their way to wins.

Robert Morris Colonials

So much for the "Public Schools Named After States that Border the Mississippi River, or Portions of Such States" half of the bracket. How about Stanford's opponent in the "Private Schools Named After Somewhat Prominent Historical Figures, or Their Children" half of the bracket?

If the baseball pattern for four-team Regionals, which has a longer history, applies to softball, one would expect most fourth seeded teams to be conference champions from leagues that send only one team to the tournament. Robert Morris fits this bill. However, it is significant to note that it won both the regular season and tournament crowns in the Northeast Conference, while compiling a 29-20-1 record. Also, Robert Morris will be the only team coming into this powerful Regional on a winning streak—of eight games. This will be the Colonials' first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

The first number that jumps out upon reviewing the Robert Morris statistical summary is second baseman Kerri Meyer's .425 batting average. Despite the NEC Softball Player of the Year's lofty average, Meyer's bat has some pop. She hit 13 doubles and five home runs. Third baseman Kali Byers added nine doubles, nine home runs, and 51 RBI while hitting at a .352 clip. At .390, shortstop Jill Spargo hits for the second-highest average on the team, but she has only six extra base hits and seven RBI.

NEC Tournament MVP Danielle Cohen, a sophomore left hander, leads the pitching staff with an impressive 1.37 ERA and a 14-5 record in 122 innings. Unlike Mizzou and Southern Illinois, however, Robert Morris does not have a second pitcher with statistics that rival those of the staff ace. Junior Erica Riggle has actually logged more innings than Cohen, 147, but her ERA is 3.03 and her record is 10-11. In all likelihood, though, this will matter little to the Cardinal, at least in its first game, because the no. 4 seed will almost certainly start its emerging leader against the no. 1 seed in the Regional.

One other thing is hard to miss about the Colonials. They are coached by Dr. Craig Coleman. Though one would expect a college coach called "Doctor" to have a Ph.D., Coleman, who has gone 364-328-4 in 15 years at the helm, is an M.D.

Schedule

All Regionals are played under a pure double-elimination format. In a new twist implemented this year, Regional winners advance to three-game Super Regionals next weekend.

The Columbia Regional schedule, adjusted to Pacific time, is as follows:

Friday, May 20: Game One Noon Missouri vs. Southern Illinois
  Game Two 4:00 p.m. Stanford vs. Robert Morris
Saturday, May 21 Game Three 10:00 a.m. G1 winner vs. G2 winner
  Game Four 1:30 p.m. G1 loser vs. G2 loser
  Game Five 5:00 p.m. G4 winner vs. G3 loser
Sunday, May 22 Game Six 11:00 a.m. G3 winner vs. G5 winner
  Game Seven
(if necessary)
TBD G6 winner vs. G6 loser

Opinion

Not that you asked for it, but did you really expect to get through a MizzouCard piece without having to endure me blasting away about something? I hate to disappoint, so here goes…

A tie for first in the country's toughest softball conference did Stanford little good when the NCAA folks did their usual bracketing magic for the national tournament. In the first place, it seems rather unusual to send one of the 16 no. 1 seeds on the road. It seems even more unusual to send one of the top eight seeds on the road. I have no idea why this occurred. [Sometimes the NCAA determines that a school's facilities are inadequate to host a Regional. However, Stanford has hosted softball Regionals in the past, so this seems an unlikely reason for its failure to successfully bid to host a Regional this year. As noted, however, I have no idea what was missing in Stanford's bid.]

But it goes much further than sending a top team on the road. It would seem to me that, if something requires sending a top eight team on the road, "the road" should be a Regional with a comparatively weaker no. 2 seed. [Admittedly, this would reward a weaker no. 2 seed over a stronger no. 2 seed, but the NCAA usually worries about the effect on the no. 1 seeds before it concerns itself with the effect on a no. 2 seeds.]

Instead, to add insult to the injury of sending the no. 6 seed, ranked no. 4 in the final poll by the way, on the road, the NCAA sends that seed to the home of the 16th ranked team in the country! How can this be?

But wait. The NCAA is not done yet. As if that Regional was not tough enough already, it adds the no. 22 team in the three slot! Three teams ranked in the top 25 in a four-team Regional from a 64-team tournament? Gimme a break.

Compare the NCAA's treatment of Stanford to... oh, let's say, Florida. First of all, does Florida have to travel? No. Wow, they must be ranked higher than no. 6, huh? Guess again. Certainly higher than the second ranked team in Stanford's Regional, Mizzou (no. 16), right? Wrong again. It goes without saying that they are ranked ahead of the third seed in Stanford's Regional, Southern Illinois (no. 22), right? Not right.

Florida is NOT ranked in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25, which is, by the way, the one linked at the NCAA's softball page. To be fair (as if Florida needed to beg for "fairness" here), Florida is next in line, leading the "others receiving votes" list with 22 votes (compared to Southern Illinois' 79 votes). So let's call them the 26th ranked team, even though there really is no such thing.

That's right. The NCAA softball committee seeded Florida no. 13, a full 13 slots above its poll position. Then, they let Florida host a Regional. Now, of course, one would expect that the NCAA would at least load up that Regional, to make Florida fight its way to a Super Regional. They must have put some ranked team in there as a two seed, right? Wrong again. The other three teams in Florida's Regional are 47-17 Bethune Cookman, 40-25 South Florida, and 41-26-1 UCF. Not a single one of the three received a single vote in the poll.

Did they expect us not to notice? Well, I noticed. If this was the first time this happened, it could be dismissed as an aberration. But go talk to our women's volleyball team, our women's basketball team, or the baseball or men's basketball teams from past years.

Okay, end of tirade. Time for full disclosure. Although I think Stanford once again got the shaft by being slotted into an extremely tough Regional on the road, the MizzouCard family is going to benefit from this. After all, we do not get to see Stanford play any sport all that often any more. It is going to be great to have them right here in our home town.

Internet "Broadcast" of Stanford Regional Games

Of course, we in the MizzouCard family are usually on the other end of this "thousands of miles from the game" deal. To get our fix, we rely heavily on our friends at KSZU and The Bootleg.

So this time we will try it in the opposite direction. Through special arrangements and lots of hard work by our friend Sean Bruich of KZSU, yours truly will do his best to provide a play-by-play of the Stanford games in the Columbia Regional on KZSU-2. [This will be internet only on KZSU-2, not traditional broadcast.]

Of course, calling this a "play-by-play" is an insult to real play-by-play announcers, including Sean. I have never done this before, so I will almost certainly botch the job repeatedly. But I will try to remember to repeat the score and describe the game situations every once in a while. MiniMizzouCard will be there to help with statistics and spotting. It should be fun for us (in the way that a runaway train heading down a mountain is "fun").

If you think you can stand it, please listen in. It should be a weekend full of interesting softball and also "interesting" broadcasting. ["Interesting" is such a wonderfully flexible word!]


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