After two consecutive years shut out of hosting regionals in the NCAA Softball Tournament, the Big Ten announced itself as “back” in a big way when the brackets were revealed earlier this week.
Three Big Ten squads—the #7-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers, #15-seeded Michigan Wolverines, and #16-seeded Northwestern Wildcats—will host four-team, double-elimination Regionals. The last Big Ten team to host a regional, Michigan in 2016, did so as a 2-seed; the conference hasn’t even had multiple host sites since 2009 (#5 Michigan and #12 Northwestern), and three sites since 2006 (the last two plus Iowa). While none of the Big Ten seeds are particularly high this year, they reflect a conference that has certainly made strides in restoring its RPI balance and competitive play throughout the season.
This is a big deal for the Big Ten softball world, you may or may not remember, because of the controversy surrounding 2017 conference champion Minnesota. Despite having the best record in the country and winning the conference, the Gophers got royally screwed out of hosting a regional and instead being shunted into the Alabama Regional. They took a rough draw again last year, stuck in #1 overall seed Washington’s bracket.
Anyways, a year after five squads—Minnesota, Michigan, N’western, Ohio State, wisconsin)—made the NCAA Tournament, all five of those are back, and joined by the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini’s inclusion, when many projections had shown them as the First Four Out, further illustrates the conference depth—they weren’t even among the Last Four In.
This comes on the heels of the Big Ten Tournament, won by #1 seed Michigan, who finally faced Minnesota. It was the Wolverines’ first game against either of the other two Regional hosts (Minnesota and Northwestern)—and they faced a Gophers squad whose ace, Amber Fiser, had already taken the circle against Northwestern and thrown over 150 pitches in their first two games.
What I’m saying is, even when Michigan wins a title, they need a lot of help to do it.
Look, I’m not a great softball mind, and I’m not going to sit here and give you a hard breakdown of the bracket. But after mentioning yesterday that the ‘Cats got a pretty favorable draw as a #16 seed, based just on RPI, I figured giving you the numbers and stats would at least be helpful.
NCAA Tournament Basics
Within the regionals, teams were paired by regional proximity, except that teams from the same conferences would not be placed in the same regional—quite a task, given that literally everyone in the SEC qualified. Here’s the Big Ten situation, broken down in what I’m pretty sure is 1-2-3-4 seeding, records and RPI, matchups, a player from each B1G team to watch, and any other relevant information I might know...
All times Central. Duh.
#7 Minnesota Golden Gophers (41-12, RPI 9)
Georgia vs. Drake (6pm, ESPN3)
Minnesota vs. NDSU (8:30pm, ESPN3)
Player to Watch: Gophers P Amber Fiser. The Big Ten Pitcher of the Year was 26-7 with a 1.28 ERA and 301 strikeouts on the year. She handled the big games for the Gophers, dispatching Purdue and Northwestern before falling just short against Michigan, and you’ll see her hitting the upper 60s and even 70 with her fastball, before dropping a changeup that leaves hitters’ jaws on the dirt. (Did it to NU three times; goddamn, she’s good.) Oh, and she’s a junior.
The Bracket: This is a pretty rough matchup for the Gophers, who have been the conference’s best team in 2019. There’s no specifically-weak team by RPI measure, and the Gophers played two close ones with Drake already this year—winning 2-0 and 4-1—while they struggled with other SEC clubs, losing to both Ole Miss and Tennessee in Florida, along with a two-game sweep at the hands of Alabama. So...watch out for a Georgia matchup.
As far as the other matchups go? Drake’s Nicole Newman has thrown an NCAA-record five perfect games. Goddamn.
Ann Arbor Regional
#15 Michigan Wolverines (43-11, RPI 12)
DePaul vs. James Madison (1pm, ESPN3)
St. Francis (PA) vs. Michigan (3:30pm, ESPN3)
Player to Watch: Michigan OF Lexie Blair. The unanimous first-team All-B1G and All-Freshman outfielder is a threat when she’s on the basepaths (8/9 SBs in conference)...which is trouble for opposing pitchers, because she was on base over half her at-bats in conference (.507 BA, 12 BB, 68 AB). Did we mention she’s a freshman? Her production was lower in the non-conference, but we’re thinking with a season to adjust to college ball, she could make some noise in this regional.
The Bracket: It’s really Michigan and James Madison, barring any shenanigans. We’re not entirely sure about Michigan, though, given that they dropped 3⁄4 in the ACC/B1G Challenge to UNC and Louisville. The Wolverines did pick up a pair of impressive wins over then-#2 UCLA and then-#5 Washington back in March, but they lost to James Madison a week later, 3-0 in 9 innings, down in Arizona.
The Dukes will counter with P Odicci Alexander, who shut down the Wolverines over 8 innings in that game back in Tempe (22-1, 1.87 ERA and 158 SOs), and P Megan Good (10-5, 1.49 ERA). Alexander’s performance against Michigan, though, was her only dominant performance against Power-5 competition. The Dukes can put up runs (tops in the country at 8.26/gm), but their defense? We’ll see.
#16 Northwestern Wildcats (43-10, RPI 11)
SIU vs. Louisville (12pm, ESPN3)
Detroit vs. Northwestern (2:30pm, ESPN3)
Player to Watch: Northwestern P Danielle Williams. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year has been dynamite in the circle for the ‘Cats, tying for the conference lead in wins (28-5) and leading it in complete games (24) and shutouts (13). While she’s not as dominant as Fiser, allowing a little more contact and prone to the long-ball, Williams’ 1.40 ERA should not be disregarded—see her 1-hit shutout at Minnesota.
The Bracket: I mentioned above that Louisville is the second-worst two-seed in a regional, going purely by RPI...but neither the Cardinals nor the Salukis would be teams to be taken lightly. The ‘Cats did sweep three games with UL—1-0 in Fullerton, then 9-8 and 4-2 in the ACC/B1G Challenge—but the Cardinals might have found their bats onto Williams’ pitches after seeing them three times.
The ‘Cats didn’t get a comparison point with Detroit, losing their games against Horizon League foes Loyola-Chicago and Illinois-Chicago to weather. And I’m not sure how to explain how the Salukis are so high in RPI. But I would still be hoping for an NU-SIU final, selfishly, as I don’t like the ‘Cats having to win four or even five games against the Cardinals to advance to the Super Regional.
#1 Oklahoma Sooners (49-2, RPI 1)
wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (6pm, ESPN3)
UMBC vs. Oklahoma (8:30pm, ESPN3)
Player to Watch: wisconsin 1B Kayla Konwent. Finally healthy, the badgers’ slugger led the Big Ten, per Bucky’s 5th Quarter, in batting average (.479), total bases (134), OBP (.600), and slugging (.918), knocking out 15 home runs on the year in the process.
The Bracket: Unfortunately for the badgers, it will likely begin and end as it has for every other team in the conference—with a beating at the hands of Oklahoma. The Sooners haven’t lost away from home (hell, their only two losses were to then-#2s Florida State in Clearwater, FL, and UCLA in Palm Springs, CA), beating Northwestern by a combined 15-0 in two games and Illinois 11-1. It’s the Sooners’ to lose.
The badgers did split with #9 Texas and took down #15 Arizona State, along with a sweep of Pitt and NC State in the ACC/B1G Challenge, but they’ll have their hands full with a streaky Notre Dame. The Irish have wins over ranked Oklahoma State, Ohio State, and Washington, but took beatings from Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Minnesota. They’re as close to a wild card as you’ll get in this regional.
#12 Tennessee Volunteers (39-14, RPI 15)
Ohio State vs. UNC (10am, ESPN2)
Longwood vs. Tennessee (12:30pm, ESPN3)
Player to Watch: Ohio State SS Lilli Piper. The senior speedster took 18 of the 19 bases she attempted at, earning herself a unanimous first-team All-B1G nomination—and she’s likely to be on base more in Knoxville, hitting .574 in conference and .435 overall on the season. With home run power (9 HRs) and a good eye (35 BBs), she’s got a great glove and leads the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball.
The Bracket: The Volunteers are hosting their regional for the 15th consecutive year, part of the always-formidable SEC—they went just 14-10 in conference but 25-4 in all other games—and dispatched Minnesota in their one B1G matchup.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, struggled with their ranked foes in the non-conference—losses to LSU, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Washington—but they get in North Carolina a team that’s got tape against common opponents, having swept Michigan and split with Northwestern in the ACC/B1G Challenge. The Tar Heels are only 5-6 on neutral sites, though, and lost at home to Tennessee once this year.
Could they be a wild card? Tune in at 10am on Friday morning, ESPN2, to watch this one.
#14 Kentucky Wildcats (33-22, RPI 16)
Illinois vs. VaTech (11am, ESPN3)
Toledo vs. Kentucky (1:30pm, ESPN)
Player to Watch: Illinois OF Kiana Sherlund. The Illini pitching has left something to be desired in 2019, but the Chapel Hill transfer has been a godsend with C Bella Loya in pacing the Illini with their bats. Sherlund hit .400 in conference, rapping 8 doubles, and Loya provides the thump with her bat—12 taters on the year.
The Bracket: We weren’t kidding about the Illinois pitchers, by the way—none have an ERA under 3.50, which is...decidedly bad, in softball terms, but even worse given that Virginia Tech and Kentucky rank 5th and 11th in the country, respectively, in total scoring.
The Illini have dispatched the Wildcats once this year, a characteristically high-scoring 6-5 affair down in Houston in February. They swept the B1G/ACC Challenge with Boston College and Georgia Tech—but that’s not saying much, as the Hokies did the same to the Eagles and took two of three from the Yellow Jackets. Getting a grip on the Hokies largely depends on their bats—they split with ranked Georgia, being shut out in their loss, and swept moribund Purdue...but they haven’t played the most imposing non-conference schedule.
This might be the most wide-open regional, as far as I can tell—the Wildcats, at 14-10, are surely the best in the bracket but fail to really overwhelm, allowing a good number of runs. If you like offense, though, tune in. Could be a fun one.
Nearly 2,000 words. Dear God. And on Illinois Week, too. Anyways, if you’d like, here’s a place to talk NCAA softball tournament! Go ‘Cats, and have fun.