Today at 3:30 p.m. CT, the Texas Longhorns softball team will provide a reminder than the Longhorns are still competitive in one of the diamond-based sports when they open play at the Lafayette regional as the three seed against old rival Texas A&M, which won an at-large bid and the regional's two seed.
I have't run this by Wescott or the other baseball writers yet, but I'm gonna go ahead and say it anyway: if Augie Garrido is back in 2017, I am officially writing exclusively about softball next spring. Frankly, I'm embarrassed we haven't done more (read: anything) to cover the team this season. Home games are available on LHN and that makes Texas softball more accessible than ever before. And if you haven't watched college softball, I highly recommend it.
For example: with a slasher-type hitter at the plate, the hand-eye coordination necessary for an infielder to make just a basic play is beyond anything that baseball requires. The runners are fast and getting out of the box even as they swing, and the base paths are so short that anything other than a perfectly clean fielding of the ball followed by a deadly accurate throw means there's a runner on first. It's an exciting and fast-paced sport.
And you can watch the Longhorns and Aggies open regional play today at 3:30 on ESPN2 and/or LHN. Following the opening match-up, top seeded UL-Lafayette will take on fourth-seeded Boston University. Here's a quick preview of the squads (with more words spent on Texas, because it's more fun if you know names on the team you're pulling for, right?).
No. 3 Seed; 37-14 overall
Texas comes in with a similar record to second-seeded A&M, but the Aggies earned their record in a tougher conference which explains the differing seeds. The path is the same for the two squads, though, and this rivalry is renewed today for the first time since 2012 -- A&M's last season in the Big 12. Junior third baseman Celina Felix is Texas' hottest hitter right now, riding a 10-game hitting streak during which she is batting over .500. Senior center fielder Lindsey Stephens is a mainstay for the Longhorns whose leadership will be crucial this weekend. Stephens, with a full-season average of .401, was named Big 12 Player of the Week three times this season and is the team's rock. Another Longhorn hitter to keep an eye on is sophomore x-factor Paige von Sprecken -- also the team's No. 2 pitcher -- who is hitting an insane .422 on the season, but is not an everyday player and thus could give the squad a boost with a big weekend.
In the circle, Texas is led by junior lefty Tiarra Davis. Because the underhand pitching motion is much more natural, and thus easier on the arm than baseball-style pitching, a team can fly through the NCAA Tournament on essentially the strength of one or two hurlers. If Davis is on top of her game, she's good enough to anchor a surprising run to the regional title for the Horns. Davis started 33 games this season and sports a 1.72 ERA and a 166/100 K/BB ratio in 195 innings pitched. Von Sprecken has the second-most starts with 11 and a respectable 2.78 ERA and 60/54 K/BB, and will certainly be relied upon if Davis gets into trouble.
Texas comes in playing well, having won 10 of their last 11. They finished the regular season with a three-game sweep of Iowa State in which they outscored the Cyclones 39-5. The Aggies are tough, but they can't be happy that their two seed earned them a date with a hot Texas team.
No. 2 Seed; 37-18 Overall
The Aggies have hit an impressive 84 home runs in their 55 games this season, so the challenge for Davis and the Longhorns will be to keep the ball in the park. A&M scores runs in other ways, too, as Keeli Mulligan gets on base a lot (.385 average) and has 52 steals -- again, that's in 55 games. Pitchers should be especially careful with Tori Vidales, who hits .397 with 14 dingers and an incredible .731 slugging percentage. The pitching staff has issued 205 walks, though -- an average of nearly four per game. So if Texas (or whoever else is playing A&M) can be patient at the plate and get timely hits, the A&M pitchers do give you a chance to hang with their juggernaut of an offense.
Overall, A&M has proven through its conference season that while it may not be one of the nation's elite teams, it can hang with those teams when playing its best. They went one-and-done in the SEC Tournament with a loss to LSU, but before that had just taken two of three on the road from eventual SEC Tournament champion No. 6 Auburn. However, that broke a streak of four straight SEC series losses: A&M was swept at Tennessee, lost two of three at home to Alabama, was swept at Missouri, and then lost two of three at home to top-ranked Florida.
No. 4 Seed; 28-22 Overall
BU qualified by winning the Patriot League Tournament. The Terriers don't make a lot of errors with just 38 on the year, but also, guys, this is a team with a 138 RPI. In fact, if you average out the RPIs of the various regionals, the Lafayette Regional is the 7th-toughest; but if you just count the top 3 teams in each regional, Lafayette jumps to the 2nd-toughest. BU is here. They will lose to Lafayette tonight and lose again tomorrow to Texas A&M (like that confidence?).
No. 1 Seed, 43-7 Overall
ULL won the Sun Belt Tournament but clearly would have been in the big tournament anyway. The Cajuns come in as the overall No. 14 seed in the Tournament. This is a program that has earned national respect with years and years of consistency--it no longer matters that they play in the Sun Belt. Coach Yvette Girouard built the program from scratch starting in 1981 and took the Ragin' Cajuns to three WCWS appearances in the 1990s. After Girouard left to take over at LSU in 2001, the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Stefni Lotief took over as co-head-coaches in 2001 and have made the NCAA Tournament each year since, including three more trips to the WCWS. Stefni Lotief stepped aside after 2012 but remains around the program, and Michael Lotief remains as head coach.
Remember those 84 home runs A&M has hit in its 55 games? Lafayette has 98, the most in the nation--having played five fewer games than A&M. Lafayette averages about two home runs per game. Lexie Elkins is hitting .517 -- not over the last few games, for the season. She also has 17 home runs and her slugging percentage is -- wait for it -- 1.169. That seemed like a typo or some kind of joke to me, so I verified it at two other locations. Not a typo. She has 1.17 bases for each at-bat this season, helped along by her 17 dingers. It makes the Cajuns' Aleah Craighton's .817 slugging percentage -- amazing in its own right -- look nearly pedestrian.
Top pitcher Alex Stewart has a 1.52 ERA and a remarkable 177/33 K/BB ratio in 37 appearances and 180 innings. Yeah, that's almost a strikeout per inning.
So, basically, if Texas gets out of this regional to next week's supers? They will have well and truly earned it. Again, first pitch is at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2. This is your open thread. Hook 'em!