Sliding Into the Diamond Dust

24-carat Thoughts

Base Coach Helmets
Sliding Into The Diamond Dust By Tim Pollins

Sliding Into the Diamond Dust

By Tim Pollins

Following are a boatload of 24-carat thoughts that entered my tiny brain as I watched the 2017 softball playoffs, up to and including the Women's College World Series.  In no particular order:

1)  Final Matchup:  Sooners do it again!  Florida and Oklahoma entered the postseason with each having won two of the past four titles.  The victor in this tilt would own a third recent championship and bragging rights.  Game 1 was a roller coaster ride for the ages, with unlikely comebacks by Florida falling just short in the 17-inning affair.  Game 2, though feeling a bit anticlimactic at first, ratcheted up the intensity and the prcoeedings were taut thereafter.  The Sooners grabbed the national crown with their unique blend of dominant pitching, stellar defense, clutch hitting, blazing team speed, and the inspired coaching of Patty Gasso.  In 2016, Oklahoma was deemed by many — myself included — to be a year away from being serious contenders.  Instead, they became white-hot and steamrolled to the crown.  This year there was talk of the ballclub being less hungry right up until they went on another blistering tear and — despite some anxious moments courtesy of North Dakota State — the Sooners dispatched whichever teams stood in their way of a title defense.  The players are smart and clutch and Gasso, their fearless leader, routinely makes gutsy calls as if they were no-brainers.

2)  Here's how I imagine the exchange went between a Minnesota Representative and a member of the Selection Committee:

MR:  In this year of stifled offense, we have two of the few players who have over 70 runs batted in, plus a 20-homer hitter.  Our workhorse pitcher is no worse than the second or third best performer in the circle in the country.  Our four best regular batters hit for averages of .426, .396, .380, and .374.  All 8 of our batters who started every game hit .330 or above. Entering the upcoming playoffs, the team is 14-0 at home this season, 18-3 on the road, and 18-0 at neutral sites.  The ballclub was 22-1 in Big Ten competition.  Against non-conference opponents who are in this tournament, the Golden Gophers collected two wins apiece from Texas, Notre Dame, and North Dakota State, and one each from LSU, Fresno State, Oregon State, and California.  In picking up those 10 impressive victories, Minnesota lost zero games against that group. The Gophers were ranked as high as #1 late in the campaign by both major polls.  So how do you rate this juggernaut?

SC:  Um, a 17th seed, I guess.

And that led to what will always be called The Minnesota Snub.

If the Selection Committee member had been a single individual, he would have been peppered with questions along the lines of “It's personal, isn't it?”  I had Minnesota in my top 3 for most of the season, as obviously did many others.  For them not to be given one of the 16 national seeds was a miscarriage of justice.  In addition to Minnesota, the shocking twist was unfair to Alabama.  Based on its own excellent track record, the Crimson Tide was just a tad down this season and was mostly hoping to be considered strong enough to host a regional.  They were, but having the Golden Gophers on tap as a second-round opponent was not what they deserved.  I was fit to be tied when one of the talking heads — seeing that all 16 seeds had advanced to the super regionals — somehow had the nerve to mouth something like “Well, the Committee got it totally right.”  Wrong!  Yes, Minnesota did run into a buzz saw in the form of Alabama pitching.  To me, the battle between Osorio and Groenewegen was the best-pitched game from two opposing pitchers that I saw all year.  I and others are clearly arguing that the Gophers should have been given a seeding through the super regionals.  You don't think home field would have meant a lot in a reasonably seeded bracket?  In my view, Minnesota was cheated out of a chance to contend for national glory.  We can't even be sure that the Selection Committee wasn't idiotic enough to rank the Big Ten regular season and conference tourney champs well below 17.  This is chicanery at its nadir.  Or as Cheri Kempf put it about the controversial ending to the fabuous pitching duel:  “That game ended on strike 2.”

3)  Should all 13 SEC teams have been invited to the national tournament?  Probably not, but one could make a case either way.  I'm not against an entire league going in per se.  The SEC has been the strongest conference for several years.  Now that all 13 of its softball programs are striving mightily to be competitive, it might be a rarity whenever an SEC entry does not look to be playoff worthy. Beyond that, the Pac-12 landed 8 of its 9 participants in the tourney, so this issue is not a big deal. A couple of factors push me in the opposite direction, however.  On the day after the regular season ended, a McNeese State player posted on Facebook that she had just played her final game for the school.  Whether she had forgotten about the playoffs or knew she wouldn't get into those games, I can't say.  But I then wondered whether McNeese had somehow not made the cut for the postseason.  After that, I made sure USC Upstate had made the field.  In both cases, the teams were safely in.  Even so, I vowed that nobody would have been able to justify putting SEC bottom dwellers in the field ahead of squads as impressive as McNeese State and USC Upstate.  My other concern is that for 2017, I was of the opinion that one and possibly two SEC schools did not belong in the national competition.  The less obvious choice for me in that regard was Georgia, though in the case of a team being invited to compete in the national playoffs but not in its own conference tourney (when everyone else was), the optics are admittedly bad.  What message is being sent to the players in other conferences?  That an SEC team doesn't need to keep up with its conference sisters at all in order to qualify for a run in the postseason?  I don't like that one bit. A majority of the schools need to finish first or (maybe) second in their league in order to get in the main draw, while an SEC entry can finish 13th in the conference and needn't worry at all about not being selected?  That's kooky talk!  The bigger problem was Missouri.  The team began the season well, but that did not last long.  As the ballclub's own coach admitted, they were finding new ways to lose games on a near daily basis.  I rooted hard for Missouri in 2016 for any number of reasons, but the atmosphere has been toxic there for a while.  The Tigers were falling apart towards the end of the campaign and they were exactly the caliber of team that should not be given the chance to extend its season.  Having said all this, I love watching the SEC Network in large part because that conference truly does play the best brand of ball at the collegiate level.  Oh, but others are gaining on them and that is a positive development for the sport.

4)  The next time somebody with a microphone starts talking about RPI, listen carefully.  They always begin the same way by mentioning that RPI is only one of many tools used by selection committes to rank teams.  Now focus.  Everything they say after that makes it clear that RPI is considered first among equals and the favored tool of the gods!  For example, a big deal was made out of the fact that Baylor was #13 in RPI heading into the 2016 playoffs, yet didn't warrant one of the 16 national seeds.  They alone suffered that fate.  Do you realize how many ways a slight edge in RPI can be more than offset by a variety of counter measures?  And yet the grumbling last year continued after the only two seeded teams that failed to reach the super regionals were Kentucky and Tennessee — both SEC entries.  Aren't we to the point where we almost automatically — and wrongly — assume that the stronger the RPI number, the better the team?  I'm sure RPI can be a useful measurement if not overvalued.  Keep in mind that there is bias and/or shortcuts in every system.  I guarantee you that part of what props up RPI exists in the realm of circular logic.

5)  The best I saw in 2017:

Lacey Waldrop Smiling Award — Grinning Gator Gourley

Always the happiest person in the ballpark — Alyson Habetz

Prettiest swing — Nikki Udria

Consistent power hitting back to back — Jessie Warren & Alex Powers

Hitting duo up the middle — Delaney Spaulding & Kylee Perez

Fielding duo up the middle — Amber Serrett & Constance Quinn

Bat control — Lindsey Cargill

Hand/eye coordination — Sydney Romero

Clutch and feared hitter — Shay Knighten

Command — Sara Groenewagen

Rise ball — Alexis Osorio

Drop ball — Kaitlin Lee

Curve ball — Danielle O'Toole

Dominance  — Kelly Barnhill

Changeup —  Delanie Gourley

Fielding pitcher — Danielle O'Toole

Smoothest delivery — Jessica Burroughs

Coolest angle to the plate — Kaylee Carlson

Windup with the most moving parts — Kelsee Sellman

Versatile — Aleshia Ocasio, Bailey Landry, Megan Good

Athletic — Megan Good, Aleshia Ocasio, Bailey Landry

Winner — Paige Parker

Perfect form — Caleigh Clifton

Wildly underrated — Fordham

She was a blur on the bases and her boldness and audacity made me say “Wow”!!! — Morgan Zerkle.

6)  Player of the Year: 

I correctly guessed that Kelly Barnhill, Meghan Gregg, and Megan Good would be the three finalists.  I could convince myself to lobby for any member of that trio with no problem.  Barnhill was totally dominant in the circle and Gregg's season was probably even better than Kasey Cooper's 2016 top 3 finish.  Still, my vote — if I had one — would be cast for Megan Good. I realize and fully appreciate what Barnhill did, but there ended up being half a dozen or so pitchers with sub 1.00 earned run averages — and Megan Good was one of them.  I believe she gave up less than a run per game last year as well.  If I'm not mistaken, there is a tacit agreement among conferences to have a league Pitcher of the Year and a league Player of the Year who is not a pitcher.  Megan Good was somehow both.  I'm assuming that means she was the best hitter not only for JMU, but for the entire Colonial Athletic Association, as well as their most valuable performer in the circle.  We've seen some fine hitting pitchers diversify through the collegiate ranks, but nothing in recent memory can match Good's incredible double.  She's also tall and extremely athletic, so forget about spouting any nonsense about the quality of her competition.  She would dominate anywhere and should be a superstar in NPF if she chooses to go that route.  I'd rank her pro upside as high as anybody else's.  So there!

7)  Last year I was shocked by how much I concurred with the official All-American teams.  I was especially pleased to see that players whose numbers had fallen off weren't automatically included from muscle memory or whatever.  This time around, I'm still more or less in basic agreement, but there was at least one egregious mistake. The three All-American teams combined feature 55 players.  So there is sometimes plenty of room for borderline candidates.  As for these listings:  8 shortstops and Delaney Spaulding isn't one of them?!  That has to be a clerical error.  Check out her numbers and see what I mean.  And that doesn't even take into account her superior defense.  Without mentioning which players I might want to dump to make room for Spaulding and possibly others, I would suggest that the following softballers deserved consideration for All-American status.  Did some or all of them receive that courtesy?  I can't say, but here are my five “too little/too late” recommendations:

Maddy Grimm — Kent State

Erika Piancastelli — McNeese State

Elicia D'Orazio — Marshall

Holly McKinnon — USC Upstate

Morgan Flores — Washington

8)  I did some cursory research and think I discovered that none of the other conferences have copied that loopy and unbalanced schedule that the SEC operates under.  So it appears future postseason announcements will include the kind of thing we've been hearing — “Florida and LSU did not play each other this season” —  even though both coaches swear their teams do compete in the same league.  I'm starting to suspect that the setup is designed to minimize conference losses.

9)  The Bases Loaded concept and implementation proved to be a big success.  Showing all games wire to wire and jumping around smartly to keep viewers fully informed was quite the rush.  It did become more difficult to chart some of the shifting media coverage, but that was a small price to pay for so much action.  An added plus is that ESPN now had an excuse to expand Kayla Braud's role on the telecasts.  As predicted here, once Braud loosened up a bit a year or so ago she was destined to be a focal point of the presentation. ( Kayla's list of strengths allows you to check a lot of boxes.)  I'll wager Braud is surprised by how much she digs her current gig.  I didn't get full introductions to many of the  broadcasters, so I don't have a lot to say on that front.  I must admit I got a kick out of the Alex Loeb/Megan Willis pairing.  They were very cute together and Willis can be entertainingly unpredictable.  Sometimes I feel as if Cheri Kempf is trying to sell me something, but she is still the one most likely to directly confront a controversy.  In addition to her memorable “that game ended on strike two” line, Kempf patiently and thoroughly took the viewers through the goings-on relative to those infernal obstruction sequences.  Nothing against the talented Eric Collins, but I was “ascared” that ESPN was breaking up my dream team consisting of Adam Amin and Amanda Scarborough — particularly in view of how many times Collins identified Scarborough as his partner.  I enjoy Eric's work on the NPF games and I think he was even sharper with Amanda.  Still, I was delighted when I found out that the dream team would indeed be working selected games after all.  Collins and Scarborough have such different temperaments.  In what may or may not have been a conscious decision, she countered his double-barreled enthusiasm with small doses of levity.  When she was back in the booth with Amin, she cracked everyone up with a clever line at Amin's pretend expense.  Jennie Ritter is always thoughtful and informative.  Beth Mowins teamed with Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza and they still call a great game.  During the 17-inning thrill ride, the three broadcasters were downright giddy at times.  I will say — and this doesn't necessarily refer to any one group — that there were an inordinate number of mistakes made on the telecasts.  Not knowing who was at bat was perhaps the most frequent error this time around.  Too often the play-by-play announcers gave the audience the wrong number of outs.  This is a forum where it's easy to make some miscues.  I only bring this up because the flubs were much more in evidence than usual.  Holly Rowe, Laura Rutledge, and the other sideline reporters asked open-ended questions that elicited decent answers and less than usual “feelspeak.”  Nice job.  The only thing on my wish list that wasn't indulged was Danielle Lawrie getting a chance for an encore to her intriguing booth analysis work in last year's playoffs.

10) Short Questions and Comments:

It didn't appear as if adjusting the schedule to limit the number of multi-game days had much of an effect on any aspect of the proceedings, but that could be an uninformed guess on my part.  All things being equal, I'm more likely to favor rule changes that reward pitching staffs and/or penalize pitching units featuring one hurler only.

Defensively, the catchers at the college level are sensational on their way to becoming even more so.  I love it that there is room for a few lefty catchers.  Reagan Dykes is the odd duck batting right and throwing left!

Between the conference tournaments and the national playoffs, have you ever seen so many bunts being popped straight up in the air?  Please don't claim you weren't warned.  That fundamental skill needs to be mastered by entire rosters if at all possible.

Why are home runs down so significantly?  Surely it's more than just power pitching.  There are too many of these ebbs and flows from season to season with inadequate insights into why.

Situational hitting is slightly on the upswing (no pun intended).  That's progress that ought to be developed much further.

We're always hearing about the USA National Team.  Are those roster spots all sewn up or can players lacking connections try out for the squad?

Why don't subs play more?  I read something the other day that suggested softball might have the most grueling schedule in collegiate competition.  If true, why not give more playing time to heretofore light contributors who might surprise you?  At first, I thought this was the case simply because so many head coaches are cautious and conservative, but I now believe it's an unwritten agreement between players and coaches.  The best players want to compete in all of the games and somehow make their wishes known.  Maybe it's just trendy now not to develop much of a bench.

Should batters be given credit for accumulating piles of walks?  Sure, they're being pitched around for a reason.  Except for not earning an RBI via the walk if the bases aren't full, a base on balls is often as good as a hit.  A player's high on-base percentage is an important offensive contribution.

Players invariably assume they're running as fast as they can from home to first base, but they're not.  Best of all:  this can be taught.

I never hear talk about stolen base percentage on the broadcasts.  In baseball, a rule of thumb is that a player has to successfully swipe 75% of the bags in order to be an actual contributor on offense in that category.  I assume something similar exists in softball.

Only one or two pitchers were throwing at 70 miles per hour a year ago, but now pert near everybody does?  Trust me — the guns are either not functioning properly now or weren't doing so previously.

11) My “they will be even better in 2017” results:  Okay, I missed by a little on Florida State.  They are the gold standard in the ACC and have been for many years.  I honestly expected them to be in the final matchup vs. Oklahoma (Florida was my second choice).  The Seminoles were a bit unlucky in these playoffs and didn't bow out too much earlier than last year's Final Four finish.  I was right on the money in predicting bigger things for Ole Miss.  They made all kinds of strides forward throughout the season and they're likely to take several more giant steps next year.  Technically, the only way for my Oklahoma prediction to come true would be for them to win the championship in two games rather than last season's three games.  I believe I had that!

12) College softball has a (hopefully temporary) problem somewhat analogous to an NBA conundrum.  Pro basketball coaches are now given to resting their stars on certain nights, which leads to oodles of disappointed fans.  Lack of adequate lineup protection is costing some of this sport's most compelling hitters to be issued free passes to first base as a measure designed to pitch around dangerous bats.  It's frustrating to arrive at the ballpark and watch as your favorite hitter never takes the bat off her shoulder.  How to address this issue and alter the dynamic?  I reckon it will need to happen organically and from within.  In the meantime, we'll never know if Sahvanna Jaquish would have knocked in 100 runs had coaches allowed their circle dwellers to pitch to her more.

13) I realize I've gone back and forth on the subject of the slap hitters from day one.  Well, I'm back and more firmly on their side than ever.  The reason for yet another semi change of heart?  I was reminded by Ole Miss and Marshall just how much I love team speed in every sport.  Seeing how disruptive speed can be is so invigorating!  Proud defenses become discombobulated when true quickness is in their neighborhood.  Running to a victory via a befuddled defense is way cool.  On the other hand, a new trend seems to be pinch-hitting for high-average slappers late in games so that it won't take five or six hits to score one run!  Such is the fate of these valuable yet at times undervalued resources.

14) Umpires actually seem to be making a higher percentage of calls correctly these days, but the ones they're missing are ever so crucial!  So many games are scoreless  after four, five, or six innings.  I like a good pitcher's duel as much as the next bozo, but there are two aspects of those tight tilts that bother me. One is that more than a handful of power arms in the circle utterly overwhelm the hitters on the opposing team more often than not.  In those instances, the lineups appear diminished and the sport seems unbalanced.  My other fear is that the longer two teams remain evenly matched, the more likely an umpire's bad call will decide who wins and who loses.  When some runs are scored early in games, there's time to adjust or rise above a blown call.  Later in the contest?  Not so much.

15) I watched games this season with an eye toward identifying players I regard as underrated in one way or another.  In addition to the performers I listed as perhaps worthy of All-American consideration, here are 18 other valuable assets who may or may not be receiving the local, regional, or national attention they deserve:

Justyce McClain — McNeese State

Sydney Canessa — Fordham    

Mackenzie Toler — Mississippi State

Julia Hollingsworth — Marshall

Alyssa Derrick — Maine

Rachel Carlson — Maine

Marissa Reynolds — Princeton

Tahlia Snider — FAMU

Stephanie Texeira — FIU

Donna Conrad — Albany

Elizabeth Snow — Albany

Kelsey Riley — Texas Southern

Cassidy Clarke — San Jose State

Shaye Harre — Southern Illinois

Amanda Ulzheimer — Fairfield

Whitney Gillespie — Jacksonville State

Jacquelyn Sertic — North Dakota State

Nicole Schroeder — Arkansas

In addition, I had planned to present an elaborate “compare and contrast” treatment that would have revealed that USC Upstate shortstop Ansley Gilstrap and UCLA left fielder Gabrielle Maurice are both underrated even though they are also highly regarded.  Alas, my deadline for this project looms ever nearer and so I need to start wrapping things up.  While readers missed a genuine opportunity to laugh, cry, and run the gamut of human emotions, you still have peanut butter!  One of Maurice's 2017 numbers gives a false read on her true value to the Bruins over her four-year career.  Gilstrap, on the other hand, is only halfway through her tenure with the Spartans and is hitting on all cylinders. Trust me — I would have tied it all together.

16) I consulted with a few doctors several years ago complaining of pain that kept running up and down my left arm.  The first two medicos asked me when I had undergone elbow surgery.  I replied — truthfully — “never” and they all but accused me of lying to them.  Well, the third doctor posed the same question, got the same answer, and then exclaimed:  “Then you must be a baseball pitcher.”  He then explained to me that my injury had to be the result of either a botched operation or a few thousand too many curve balls. I signed up to undergo cubital tunnel syndrome surgery to prevent the condition from becoming any worse. The procedure basically worked.  I did keep dropping my tennis racket on the court for a while, but that subsided soon enough.  And I had no trouble at all hefting and guiding my 16-pound bowling ball to its rightful place in the 1-2 pocket.  All is forgiven.

The reason for the above sob story is because my left-handed scrawl is incredibly tough to read and write these days.  I'm often scrambling around trying to jot down the names of players who are not using batting gloves when they hit.  Therefore, I probably make numerous mistakes on that front.

Here are some folks who have no use for batting gloves:  Celina Felix, Jade Gortarez, Shelby Hiers, Jordan Roberts, Bailey Hemphill, Reagan Dykes, Sydney Romero, Whitney Jordan, Casey McCrackin, Alyssa Barrera, Kay Kay Fronda, Kelly Martinez, Jessie Scroggins, Danica Mercado, Hannah Flippen, Heather Bowen, Kasey Cooper, Scarlet McSwain, Aloise Tribulet, Braxton Burnside, Kobie Pettis, Annie Aldrete,  Randee O'Donnell, Sara Novak, Victoria Williams, Lindsay Mayer, Maddy Grimm, Holly Speers, Jordon Augustus, Aidan Falk, Carsyn Gordon, Cali Harrod, Jessica Mrozek, Loren Krzyko, Caylan Adams, Kat Moore, Sarai Nu, Tristan Edwards, Shelby Miller, Cristy Wagner, Brooke Marquez, Amanda Brashear, Kyla Walker, Lindsay Cargill, Casey Stangel, Leila Chambers, Tiarra Davis, Brandi Needham, Abigail Tolbert, Elizabeth DeShields, Alex Cruz, Jacquelyn Sertic, Haley Meinen, Jamie McGuire, Lauren Lindvall, Chloe Rathburn, and Kirsten Mack.  There are plenty more, but I couldn't handle the paperwork.  Again, I apologize if you're on this list yet shouldn't be.  It's clear we're on schedule to take over the world, but let's have a picnic first. Naked hands only, of course.  See you there.

17) I have a hunch these two players will be special talents:

Braxton Burnside — Missouri & Morgan Reed — Notre Dame

Feedback is always welcome here.

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Following are another two dozen 24-carat thoughts that entered my tiny brain as I watched the 2016 softball playoffs, up to and including the Women's College World Series. In no particular order:

1) In the final matchup of the 2016 Women's College World Series, Oklahoma took two of three games from Auburn to win the championship. That concluding series, however, was not without its oddities. For example, the Tigers outscored the Sooners 14 to 12. Okay, that sort of thing happens a lot in a short series. Curiously, though, Oklahoma earned all of their runs in the first three innings of that trio of games and zero runs thereafter. In the two contests in which OU prevailed, they jumped out to an early lead and held on for a pair of one-run victories. AU, on the other hand, plated 11 of their 14 runs as they mounted a huge comeback in a “must win” game 2 before and after being held in check by Paige Parker and the superb Sooner defense in games 1 and 3. In tallying all of the above, the two ballclubs were merely being themselves. As the announcers mentioned several times, the Big 12 champions had obliterated their opponents in innings one and two by an insane margin during the regular season and they sustained that dominance throughout the playoffs. By contrast, the SEC tournament winner featured an explosive offense that never seemed out of a game. And so they weren't. The two squads put on a wonderful show that had the look and feel of the country's best and most well-rounded rosters doing battle in exciting, honorable, and classy fashion.

2) From my vantage point: I'll stop whenever I perceive there to be a substantial “natural break” between the last entry I listed and the next one I could have listed:

At-Bat — Kaylee Puailoa's pinch-hit home run that eliminated overall #1 seed Florida.

Catches — Tiffany Howard, Victoria Draper, Constance Quinn.

Very much for real — James Madison University.

Better than advertised — Arizona, Utah, Georgia.

Less than advertised — Oregon (again), Baylor, Florida.

Seeded teams that did not qualify for the super regionals — Kentucky, Tennessee.

Still the best conference, but not by as much as in the past couple of years — SEC.

Busiest and most convoluted “windup dance” in the pitching circle — Megan Betsa.

Most fluid deliveries — Delanie Gourley, Rachael Walters.

Heroic performances — Chelsea Wilkinson shutting down overall #1 seed Florida twice on consecutive days.

I almost always underestimate — LSU.

Unlucky — Rainey Gaffin, Jailyn Ford, Kelly Barnhill.

Game face — Danielle O'Toole.

Impressive and thrilling when they win and when they lose — Missouri.

Most underrated players — Taylor Gadbois, Madi Osias, Erin Gabriel.

Most relaxed player — Alexis Osorio.

Coach least likely to overreact — Kelly Inouye-Perez.

My hunch is that if I saw her again, I'd be more wowed than I am now — Erica Field. I could easily see she is stellar on defense, but I also suspect she can hit. She was hindered by the fact that the “strike ones” against her were awful calls.

Occasionally keeps both teams in the game at the same time — Oh, I'm not going to identify her. She's one of my favorite players. Besides, anyone seeing her in games other than the ones I've viewed might emerge with a different opinion altogether. Somewhat small sample size means I might be dead wrong. In any case, she's a solid performer who may or may not have a skill set in which her positives and negatives to a large degree cancel each other out.

At various junctures in these playoffs, I found myself rooting hard for — Ole Miss, James Madison, Missouri, Georgia, Florida State, Auburn.

3) Worst decison: Pitting Oregon and UCLA against each other so early in the playoffs was unfair and ridiculous. The two top teams in a major conference should be slated to challenge members of other leagues to boost the perception and accomplishments of their conference. That's hard to do when one or the other of your two powers has been prematurely scheduled to lose no matter what.

4) Gloveless wonders: Yes, the use of batting gloves is a matter of personal choice, but I would encourage those who wear them for no particular reason to give going gloveless a fair chance. Eschewing those evil accessories is a little slice of heaven. In my 2015 “state of the sport” presentation entitled “Diamond Appraisal,” I was only able to cite a handful (no pun intended) of players who stepped into the batter's box sans gloves. (That was not intended to be an all-inclusive list and neither is this year's.) 2016, however, is a different story. Here is a partial roll call of gloveless wonders: Tiffany Howard, Kasey Cooper, Whitney Jordan, Taylor Gadbois, Emily Crane, Chloe Rathburn, Kirsten Mack, Victoria Williams, Kenzie McGuire, Hailey Lunderman, Lacey Sumerlin, Alex Hugo, Reagan Dykes, Leona Lafaele, Kimberlee Souza, Erica Field, Morgan Tolle, Nicole Prince, Jessica Mrozek, Hannah Hayes, Jenny Behan, Heather Bowen, Hannah Flippen, Kristen Stewart, Jessica Warren, Cali Harrod, Lauren Lindvall, Hailey Decker, Nikki Udria, Eva Watson, Sierra Lawrence, and Aidan Falk. I apologize if any of the above names are here in error. I tried to identify the gloveless wonders from memory, but my so-called intellect was probably not equal to the task.

Yes, several observant readers have informed me about something I already knew. We who say “no thanks” to the very notion of batting gloves lost one of our former allies this season when Lexi Overstreet switched up and wandered over to the dark side. It's not a big deal. Sure, I cried into my pillow for a night or two, but I eventually regrouped and moved forward. Maybe I'm in partial denial, but I figured there was a decent chance that Overstreet's expanded catching duties might have led to a search for a bit more protection for her hands when batting. Whatever. Anyway, Lexi makes up for it by flashing what Ralph Weekly and I regard as the most beautiful left-handed swing in all of softball. (Kudos to the wag who insisted that it's nearly impossible to believe Ralph and I could both be wrong!)

Among teams whose games I often had access to, Missouri's regular lineup delighted me by featuring four gloveless wonders. One of the many reasons I became a fan of JMU is because their normal starting nine included five hitters devoid of hand aids. And when a player sustained an injury and had to be replaced, a sixth pair of naked hands was called upon. Eventually we'll take over the world!

5) Catchers are doing some rather cool things these days. A few have started throwing from their knees. When mastered, tossing to the bases without standing will result in throws easily beating most runners to the bag and fewer misfires that sail into the outfield. It was also a pleasant surprise to see two left-handed catchers in the WCWS. I can't recall encountering that in any past year. Having a southpaw don the tools of ignorance isn't the same exercise in bad form in softball that it is in baseball, but it remains very much the exception. Some of the backstops who did excellent glovework in 2016 include Aubree Munro, Carlee Wallace, Courtney Syrett, Katie Browne, Erica Field, Lea Wodach, Janelle Lindvall, Lexie Elkins, Erika Piancastelli, Shelby Pacheco, and Abbie Millete.

6) All hail Patty Gasso! What Oklahoma accomplished this past season is remarkable. I checked them out for purposes of filling out my tournament bracket. I was impressed, but also convinced they were a year away from being a serious title contender. The more sure I am, the more wrong I can be! Freshmen occupied the 2,3,4, and 5 spots in the Sooner batting order. The team could make the case it was as adept at hitting, fielding, baserunning, and pitching as any college ballclub. They enjoyed a 30-plus game winning streak. Oklahoma's players are talented, smart, and clutch. Another factor that made the final series so compelling was the bold moves being executed by both coaching staffs — especially regarding pitching choices.

7) Situational hitting remains a huge problem. Don't take my word for it. The subject is something most coaches reference during their mid-game interviews on televised games.

8) In last year's “Diamond Appraisal,” I chided Florida and Auburn for not having competed against each other during the 2015 regular season. As it turns out, that “lack of clash” was only the tip of the iceberg. There are 13 schools in the SEC who field softball teams. You can't do battle with your own team — my beloved Maryland Terrapins notwithstanding (kidding!) — so that leaves a dozen opponents for each SEC squad to face. With certain few exceptions like an in-season tournament game here or a rainout there, you'll end up with a 3-game series versus whichever 8 schools appear on your conference schedule for that season. For example: Georgia did not duke anything out against Arkansas, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Florida; while South Carolina did not skirmish with Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. Even though all 13 conference members are decent or better at softball, the setup does skew the regular season standings to some extent. I reckon it's no big deal, but thinking along the lines of “having only 19 losses after going to war with the entire SEC” may need to be curtailed a tad to reflect 36 conference tilts rather than 48. I wonder what the other large leagues do on the schedule front.

9) In my view, slap hitters are in sort of a collective slump. Don't get me wrong. I have great respect and affection for the slappers who continue to enjoy success — all the more so for those who have expanded their slappy ways and now carry arrows representing “versatility” and “flexibility” in their quivers. It seems to me there's been a slight backlash against slappers who are one-dimensional. When they come up in certain clutch situations, coaches, announcers, and “civilian” critics bemoan the fact that even if the slapper gets on board, that will be a stopgap measure only (even in many circumstances where one or more runners are on base). Beyond that, in other words, the team will need a more “normal” hitter to drive the crucial run home. I believe it's also true that many defenses have discovered exactly how to position themselves to thwart small ball. Some slaphappy types appear satisfied if their speed makes the plays at first base close, but that's not good enough. As the great Bruce Lee — a pretty fair athlete — once observed: “Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.” The recent gains made by defenses must be countered by bold and creative slappers. A premier slap hitter is a true artist, but only when operating in the team's best interests.

10) The Player of the Year nominees and winner were fine choices. If I were manipulating the proceedings, however, I'd have made one change. There were sooooo many superb pitchers this season. As historically dominant as some of them may have been, though, you could throw a blanket over the several best — if you could even identify them, that is. In addition, pitchers had won the POY for at least the past five years. For those reasons, I would have substituted Haylie McCleney for Alicia Ocasio and made it a competition among the best offensive players on three powerhouse teams. Sierra Romero has made it to the final trio three years in a row — a tremendous achievement — and she was no less impressive this season than in the other two. Kasey Cooper is a remarkably consistent hitter who had a terrific campaign. McCleney's numbers don't measure up to those posted by Romero and Cooper, but she ignited the Alabama offense and seemed to be involved in nearly all of the Crimson Tide's rallies. All three of my finalists are excellent baserunners and fielders. My vote would have also gone to Romero.

11) Teams on the Rise:

Florida State: The Seminoles were one of only two teams to have five freshmen in one or more lineups this season. The already well-balanced roster will return nearly all of its firepower in 2017. The squad reached the final four in the recently completed postseason, but the prediction here is that they will be in the championship series next year. The team has been the class of the ACC for years and they are absolutely loaded going into next season.

Ole Miss: The Rebels had never been relevant in softball, but that changed in a big way a couple of years ago when the force of nature that is Mike Smith arrived. He comes across as exactly the right person for the job ahead. What an undertaking this must have been originally! The SEC has about half a dozen programs each season which have legitimate national championship aspirations, as well as other highly competitive ballclubs. Anyone looking to join this mix must — among other things — recruit against all those league powers. Although Smith is something of a pitching guru himself, he wisely hired Taryne Mowatt when her services became available; gave her “free reign” with those who work in the circle; and accurately dubbed her a college softball ROCK STAR. In a recent interview, Mowatt noted that her first batch of pitchers at Mississippi included a dizzying array of personalities, backgrounds from various areas of the United States, and several distinct approaches to pitching. Taryne indicated she has no plans to impose a favored pitching style on her staff, preferring instead to build upon the strengths those players already possess — assets that got them recruited in the first place, after all. Madi Osias was as reliable an ace as any in the college ranks in her senior season. She figures to be the toughest graduate to replace, but a high-profile transfer from national champion Oklahoma might be able to fill that slot. The pitchers who remain form a solid nucleus which will develop further under Mowatt's stewardship. The Rebels have team speed in abundance and are aggressive on the base paths. Several young hitters have already been contributing. Freshmen hit in the second, third, and fourth spots in the batting order and the roster includes other promising offensive depth. A power boost would help immensely, but there's no need to chase after home run hitters. Recruits who can drive the ball semi-consistently would do just fine. The defense is stellar, at times spectacular, and one of the best in the SEC. During this season, Ole Miss was the third youngest squad in Division 1. And then there is Hailey Lunderman. See section 23 for more about this emerging superstar.

Oklahoma: Yep, it's true. The national champs are on the rise. Those young stars are only going to get better. The team as constituted is strong in all aspects of the sport. Paige Parker is a weapon all coaches would love to have. This is a special group.

12) Oh, that diabolical fake bunt stance in the batter's box! While not the bane of my existence, this is a topic I do not enjoy broaching. Methinks it might be a subject people take personally, even though I have no idea why that would be the case. This technique has fewer adherents with each passing season, but I reckon that mish-mash will not disappear until the NPF hitters abandon it. Much to my surprise, a handful of them — possibly more — continue to adopt that position at odd intervals. I probably won't get around to doing this, but if I could go through every game of the collegiate playoffs, I might enjoy informing most of the fake bunters something like this: “You're hitting .283 on at-bats where you don't haul out that gimmick and .072 when you do.”

13) While there are still too many batters being hit by pitched balls, it's not a fiasco as it sometimes was last season. I assume that means umpires have made a concerted effort to base such calls on where the batter was when the ball arrived. Pitchers need to be able to work inside without cheap trips to first base being the end result.

14) To the several readers who insisted this essay — or whatever it is — would be entitled “Diamond in the Rough” — you were loud wrong. That handle was never in the running for even a nanosecond.

15) Adam Amin and Amanda Scarborough have formed a wonderful and comprehensive partnership. I was afraid the powers that be were going to split them up for this event. That would be a mistake. We were even treated to Bonus Scarborough on a couple of telecasts when Jessica Mendoza was unavailable. Scarborough knows more about pitching than perhaps anybody else, but I found out when accessing footage from some of her clinics that she knows pert near everything about all aspects of softball, including the mental side of the sport. She was fine subbing for Mendoza, but she's even better when paired with Amin. As always, Beth Mowins and Michele Smith teamed effectively with Mendoza. I actually thought both elite announcing teams were slow to criticize the umpires throughout most of the WCWS, but the experts eventually got riled up in games down the stretch when strikes were being called on Paige Parker pitches that were far, far outside of the strike zone. Scarborough, in particular, registered disappointment that the officiating could go so awry at such a crucial juncture in the competition. When some combination of Mendoza and/or Smith piggybacked on that observation in the tournament's final game, it struck me as too little too late. I believe Danielle Lawrie was given expanded duties in these playoffs and her performance as an analyst was intriguing. She would make a point and then look for opportunities to add to her remarks later by putting them in a more specific context. In addition, she didn't shy away from controversial subjects. I wish I had a transcript so that I could flesh this out a bit more. Like everyone else, I was ecstatic to see Holly Rowe back on duty after a medical leave of absence. She and Laura Rutledge were at the top of their games. I found their contributions to the ongoing field-level discussions to be informative and entertaining to an extreme I have seldom encountered previously. I had been waiting for Kayla Braud to lighten up a little and am happy to report that threshold has been met. Always well-prepared, knowledgeable, and articulate, Braud's charisma had sometimes been hidden by a tendency to come off as overly serious. The tide-turning experience for her (get it?) came during the SEC tournament. She and two colleagues were adding short bursts of analysis from a position in the outfield hundreds of feet from home plate. The interplay between them and the game announcers became playful and appealing in a revelatory way. The guess here is that Braud's compelling personality will be much in evidence going forward and she'll be a star for years to come.

16) Is ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City an actual mecca or just another ballpark? What are the pluses and minuses of having the WCWS there?

17) I was checking out the official All-American teams a few weeks ago and was shocked by how much I agreed with nearly all of the selections. I was especially impressed that stars whose numbers had fallen off were not included almost automatically based on past performance. Even though it's only fair that if you insist a player should be added to the hypothetical team that you must also choose someone to boot off the roster, that can be fudged in this case. Why? Because of all of the at-large selections. As an example: if I believe — as I do — that Taylor Gadbois has earned an All-American designation, you can't assume that I am suggesting that Haylie McCleney, Emily Crane, and Koral Costa — the trio listed as All-American outfielders — have not. In fact, I feel strongly that they are deserving. It doesn't matter which at-large player Gadbois would replace — only that I would be willing to make a one for one at-large swap. There are so many pitchers on the receiving end of these awards that it would be tough to attempt to put them in their “proper” order. In line with my “underrated” picks, I would hope that Madi Osias and Erin Gabriel would be given serious consideration. After all, a full third of All-Americans are pitchers. See section 20 for an explanation of how it was the Division 1 coaches — in absentia — conviced me to view Taylor Gadbois in an illuminating new light.

18) Umpires? I'm neither old school nor space-age. I embrace advanced analytics, but also act on what my eyes and gut tell me. I am particularly adept at railing against conventional wisdom. Here are things I never want to hear from or about umpires or other game officials:

“As long as the strike zone being called is consistent, that's all that matters.” The deuce, you say! While a consistent strike zone is preferable to an inconsistent one, all game officials should strive to enforce the strike zone that is in the rule book. Besides, there are few, if any, consistent strike zones. Indeed, the toughest part for most umpires is establishing one that has any chance of remaining in effect for an entire game.

“She has earned the right to get that call.” Star calls are an abomination. Ball or strike. Safe or out. Call what happens and favor no one.

“You can't make that call at this point in the game.” That kind of thinking is just bosh and nonsense. If there are five seconds left and a foul is committed, call it. A foul is a foul no matter when it happens.

I always admire the hustle and temperaments displayed by the WCWS umpires.

19) In the last edition, I listed 9 or 10 reasons why teams should sacrifice bunt less than they do now. Perhaps the two most important were these:

a. The 21 outs to which each team is entitled in a 7-inning game are valuable assets that should not be surrendered lightly; and

b. By giving up an out voluntarily, teams take themselves out of potential big innings that might lead who knows where.

Not persuaded? In the recently concluded playoffs, didn't a number of routine sacrifice bunts turn into force outs at second base or bunts popped up straight in the air to the catcher or another infielder? In other words, moving that runner over is not close to being automatic. In addition, analytics suggest that having a baserunner at first with nobody out is a better position to be in than having a runner at second with one out. I don't regard that choice as being advanced analytics, as it's functioned as my rule of thumb since forever. The sheer number of sacrifice bunts deployed is practically unfathomable in light of the offensive weapons hitters bring to the plate these days. There are dozens of .400 hitters and hundreds at .350 or above. At the expense of what should be a treasured out, coaches opt to move a runner up one base? Rather than trust one of your .350 or .400 hitters to drive the ball somewhere and perhaps bust the game wide open? Really? In addition, putting pressure on the defense is also a worthy goal. Keep in mind as well that most non-slappers are mediocre bunters.

Yes, such bunts can be more easily justified depending on the control and overall dominance of the opposing pitcher; the score; and the lateness of the inning. I recognize all scenarios where laying the ball down is the way to go. However, that's not what I am referencing here. I see the confusion on coaches' faces all the time, as in: “We're looking so good this inning. So why did I do our opponents a favor by handing them an out?”

Considering how much bunting goes on in collegiate softball, it's ironic how few suicide squeezes are attempted. The main reason, of course, is because runners must stay on the base until the pitcher releases the ball. That combined with how far in the infielders routinely play discourages suicide squeezes. In baseball, any decent bunt will score the runner from third. In softball, even a superior laydown might not bring that run home.

20) Taylor Gadbois ended an incredibly productive career at the University of Missouri with a fabulous senior season. Here is some of what she accomplished:

Batting Average
.396 overall
.410 vs. right-handed pitchers
.444 with 2 outs
.459 when leading off an inning

Stolen Bases
56 — first in SEC & second nationally
56 steals in 61 attempts — highest percentage nationally
.97 steals per game — second highest nationally
4 steals in one game vs. Ole Miss — most in one game in SEC.
Ended career as active stolen base leader nationally.

It's not so much that she had an excellent season. It's more that she would be super valuable on any team that sacrifice bunts way too much. She can move herself into scoring position pretty much whenever she wants. It's as if coaches who play things overly close to the vest have caused me to see Gadbois through a new lens. For teams that don't seem to properly cherish their outs, TG would be a dandy option as opposed to yet another humdrum sacrifice bunt. A coach who wouldn't savor the prospect of having Taylor Gadbois as his or her leadoff batter can't take “yes” for an answer!

21) I recently overheard two young women who were obviously teammates on a softball team discussing the fact that their ace pitcher refuses to wear a protective mask on the field. One opined that it was a toughness issue, while the other blamed vanity. The pitcher apparently had stated that the mask limited her peripheral vision and was uncomfortable. Are these the types of reasons some college players cite in opting not to use the protection?

22) A closer look at three excellent teams that were not showcased enough during the postseason:

Utah — Hannah Flippen was the Pac 12 Player of the Year. That is a huge honor. Flippen and Anissa Urtez are elite middle infielders. Katie Donovan, Miranda Viramontes, and Hailey Hilburn comprise an effective pitching staff. Shelby Pacheco is a highly regarded catcher. A slew of productive hitters — mostly outfielders — anchor an impressive attack.That group includes Heather Bowen, Kay Kay Fronda, Kristen Stewart, Delilah Pacheco, and Ally Dickman, who has an especially bright future. With a little luck, this ballclub could have finished in the World Series stage of the playoffs.

McNeese State — Erika Piancastelli is the Cowgirls' All-American catcher. Emily Vincent and Jamie Allred combined for a 34-8 record in the circle. Rachel Smith and Jolie Trahan rounded out a strong staff. Vincent, a fine hitter and fielder, also played some first base. Other major contributors to the batting attack were Marisa Taunton, Taylor Goree, Hailey Drew, Morgan Catron, Justyne McClain, and Tori Yanitos. A half dozen Cowgirls had double digit stolen bases. They're fun to watch.

USC Upstate — I've been studying their roster and it's dynamite. Holly McKinnon is the ace in the circle, with Lexi Shubert and Amanda Storch also key components. Abbie Millete is the catcher/field general. In addition, there are lively bats everywhere: Karla Beasley at first base, Megan Obier at second base, future star Ansley Gilstrap at shortstop, Amy Szymanowsky at third base, Kendsey Chappelear in left field, Brittany Case in center field, Ryan Rector in right field, and Kori Wancheck at designated hitter. The team's 9 best runners stole 108 bases. This is one potent offense!

23) Last year I got caught up in Ally Carda's roller coaster ride at the WCWS. In 2016, I came across the best all-around diamond prospect that I have seen in eons. (Yes, I do claim to be an expert in such matters. Ask anyone!) It happened organically and not all at once. I was watching a game on the SEC Network one evening and this thought occurred to me: “Why shouldn't I regard Hailey Lunderman as the best defensive shortstop at the college level right now?” (To be fair, Kelsey Arnold, Amber Serrett, and a few others wouldn't be out of line lobbying for that same exalted title.) A few days later, I was asking “Why shouldn't I think of Lundy as the best bunter in softballdom?” She can disguise her intentions up until the last split second and then bunt the ball on a dime. After that, I dared to wonder whether HBL might be the best slap hitter in all the land. She has tremendous bat control and is lightning quick. Lunderman can already drive the ball and should develop more power as she ages. Hailey has a picture book swing and a rocket arm. She also has the perfect demeanor and temperament for diamond play and is a cerebral athlete who will rarely miscalculate or make a mistake. I assume she's coachable and a supportive teammate as well. Before she transforms into a unique athletic presence, I can imagine Lundy going through a phase where she appears to be a combination of Caitlin Lowe and Andrea Duran — high praise indeed. Outside of all these attributes, HBL is a fairly ordinary ballplayer! Everyone knows Hailey Lunderman is a major talent on her way to being a great player. I just think they don't know how great. I'm happy to be on the record with this slam dunk of a prediction.

24) Feedback is always welcome and will be cheerfully accepted and evaluated. I've tried sending links via Facebook to potential readers in the past, but without much success. Most of the individuals I was attempting to contact did have a presence on that site, but my transmissions more often than not ended up in “lesser” inboxes of which the recipient is often not even aware That's because the prospective readers and I were not connected on Facebook. If you're curious to know whether there is email beyond spam in your “other” inbox — sometimes called “filtered messages or “message requests” — you can Google “filtered messages” on Facebook or elsewhere. Please don't hesitate to share my links with teammates, former teammates, coaches, and others who may be interested in softball discussion and dissection. If you want to assure receiving links as soon as they become available, either send me an email address or friend me on Facebook. My email address is timothykpollins@gmail.com.

 

Diamond Appraisal

Guest post By Tim Pollins

Diamond Appraisal

24-carat thoughts that ran through my mind — such as it is — while I was watching the 2015 Women's College World Series. In no particular order:

1) There don't seem to be as many slap hitters now as was the case a few years ago. Teams are belting more home runs these days, so it could just be that the emphasis is now on power. As it is, I go back and forth on the subject of the slappers. At times I recognize that they're adapting to the dimensions of their sport and operating efficiently with a priority given to reaching base as often as possible. The batting averages of the best proponents of this style — virtually all are left-handed batters with speed (think Natasha Watley and Kayla Braud) — bear that out. Even so, I see too many at-bats where the slappers take half swings and don't challenge the defense at all — meekly popping the ball up, tapping a routine grounder, or striking out on a pitch out of their reach. In addition, slap hitters who are moving up in the box throughout an at-bat are practically inviting the umpire to call a pitch that is a foot or more off the plate a strike. A high percentage of the most egregious calls I've seen in recent years have been to the detriment of southpaw “moving targets” who appear to discombobulate the game officials. In order to be a genuine asset as a slap hitter, a player must be: able to find holes in the defense; a superb bunter who can disguise the intent to bunt until the last second; and quick enough to beat out a majority of the decent laydowns. The very best slap hitters, of course, mix things up by occasionally lacing line drives to all fields. Caitlin Lowe and Haylie McCleney spring to mind. Yet I am even sometimes tempted to inquire of them if they are positive that swinging away more often wouldn't be an even better option for players blessed with speed, decent power, tremendous bat control, and drawn-in infields. Among regular hitters, the bunting leaves a lot to be desired. Every player on every softball and baseball team should learn how to bunt. It's a fundamental skill that is deficient at all levels of both sports.

2) The quality of defense being played in this postseason tournament is outstanding. The fielders are sure-handed; their reflexes are incredibly sharp; and there are live and accurate arms all over the diamond.

3) So many pitchers in this competition have developed “to die for” changeups that are a treat for the eyes/cameras, but a cruel joke on the dazed and confused hitters trying to reconcile this optical illusion of a pitch with the steady diet of heat and movement with which they already tangle. My one gripe against the performers in the circle is that some step up on the pitching rubber but then seemingly take forever to start their delivery. That's not fair to the hitters. I've seen one or two occasions where the home plate umpire penalized the pitcher for “delay of game” or whatever handle that violation goes by, but it likely should be called more often. That might eliminate the problem altogether.

4) Not that I'm attempting to force my values on anyone else, but batting gloves are the handiwork (get it?) of the devil. Those demons are downright diabolical. I don't see how anyone can hit properly while wearing them. Kudos to the likes of Lexi Overstreet, Tiffany Howard, Annie Aldrete, and Kasey Cooper for eschewing the use of gloves and not buying into the mass hypnosis that prevails on baseball and softball fields the world over. One among many reasons for ceasing to participate in the batting glove madness is that if you're not wearing them, there's at least an 80 percent chance you won't have to readjust them before every single pitch!

5) Perhaps the weakest aspect of the college softball game is situational hitting. It's lacking and on the road to awful. Sure, I'll give the pitching and defense credit for hunkering down in clutch scenarios, but bases loaded and nobody out seems to yield zero runs more often than the one or more runs that ought to be the norm. And that's just one situation. When a ball only needs to be put into play somewhere, there are strikeouts aplenty. When anything on the ground will score a run, popups to the infield abound. When a fly ball to the outfield will secure a win, double play grounders are everywhere. One saving grace is that the state of the game in this regard is no worse in college softball than it is in college baseball. In fact, with light-hitting batsmen swinging from their heels and striking out at the same rate as genuine power hitters of the past, this is a plague on Major League Baseball as well. Pretend this isn't a huge problem if you want, but it's part of the lost art of mastering fundamentals that has become a hallmark of otherwise admirable modern diamond play.

6) The University of Florida's 2014 squad is the best softball defense I have ever seen. The 2015 Gators are more or less equally great. That was not an unexpected development, as most of the players were the same in both seasons. Florida has won the last two national titles with a fine offense that I would characterize as slightly below elite (as demonstrated by their alarming lack of success with runners in scoring position in these playoffs). However, their dominant pitching and stellar defense along with that potent attack combined to capture well-deserved back-to-back championships.

7) Baseball has always been my favorite sport. More recently, however, I check in and kinda/sorta enjoy the Men's College World Series when it's convenient for me to watch, but I go out of my way to take in as much of the Women's College World Series as possible. I was delighted earlier this year when my brother informed me that during coverage of the men's Big Ten conference baseball tournament final between Michigan and my beloved Maryland Terrapins, one of the announcers declared that as much as he likes the men's sport — he'd rather watch the women play because the games are quicker and more dynamic. I wholeheartedly concur with that assessment.

8) The sportsmanship exhibited throughout the WCWS is refreshing. The players have obviously been instructed not to argue with the umpires. As frustrating as it must be to be called out on a pitch nowhere near the strike zone, the players almost never register their displeasure even when we know it must be there. All disputes are within the exclusive purview of a team's head coach. This sometimes lets the umpires off the hook a bit, but it's a trade-off I'm happy to endorse. Also keeping morale up is the funny goings-on in the dugouts featuring chants, songs, props, silly faces, and the like. It's all ever so infectious!

9) Carol Hutchins is my favorite college softball coach. She is so entertaining to watch. If the sound on my TV was out and I somehow could see Hutch but not the field, I reckon I'd know what was going on courtesy of her facial expressions, gestures, and body language. In addition, two things happen when Coach Hutchins speaks: A) wisdom is dispensed; and B) I listen. Aside from being a fabulous coach whose record speaks for itself, everything Hutch says strikes me as a heaping helping of useful information that I should probably write down.

10) I'd be curious to know how these Player of the Year awards are decided. In what I think must be the official selection process, ten players are listed as being POY candidates. A while later, three finalists are identified. Finally, the winner is announced. In 2015, the finalists were Cheridan Hawkins, Lauren Haeger, and Sierra Romero. You can always make a strong case for Romero, but the honor rightfully went to Haeger. It was kind of a no-brainer. Lauren outpitched Cheridan in the circle, though not by all that much. The clincher? Hawkins normally doesn't bat and Haeger is in the middle of a strong lineup and one of the best home run hitters in the country. But that result got me thinking back to the 2014 award. The finalists were Ally Carda, Sierra Romero, and Lacey Waldrop. Again, a convincing argument could be made for Romero, the game's most feared hitter over the past two seasons. Waldrop won and I had no problem with that. I had seen many of her games and — although she is not a classic power pitcher — she had a magical season and a dizzying array of effective pitches that put and kept hitters off balance. (And that ever-present smile!) Yet I can't help wondering why the award didn't go to the same type of player in both 2014 and 2015. Lacey had a better campaign in the circle than Ally did, but Waldrop didn't bat and Carda hit third for the powerful UCLA offense and had a terrific season at the plate. Could Waldrop have been the superior pitcher by enough to offset Carda's excellent pitching/hitting contribution to her team? Doubtful — which doesn't necessarily mean that the honor went to the wrong player. Perhaps there is something in the POY voting guidelines that addresses this? In any case, Waldrop was a deserving recipient. She had a truly special campaign.

11) I'm not able to watch every minute of every game in the postseason, of course, but I am puzzled about why the announcers seldom bother to clue the viewers in on some of the sport's rules and policies. For example, large team meetings take place on the field at irregular intervals throughout any given game. I'm not just talking about pitching, lineup, and pinch running changes — but also informal strategy planning or whatever. How many of these chat fests are permitted? If you don't know the exact answer, could you “ballpark” it for me?! In the WCWS, the most such meetings I've ever witnessed in a game is 42. As the four highest numbers of powwows were 42, 42, 42, & 41, I assume the teams are “limited” to 42 such skull sessions per contest. These odd gatherings are pretty much the only things that slow down the proceedings to any degree. I try to be productive during those breaks in the action.

12) While watching the WCWS with a couple of friends several years ago, I made the mistake of asking why so many hitters were showing bunt yet swinging away on pitch after pitch after pitch. I wasn't satisfied with either answer and asked three more individuals in the next day or so. By then I had five different motives! To this day, I don't know or care what the reason is for doing that — I'm sure it's not to fake a bunt — but the important thing is that it's hurting more hitters than it's helping. If you get the bat back in time, fine. No harm, no foul. Unfortunately, numerous hitters make the adjustment too late in some of their at-bats. At the moment when they need to be set, the wrists of many players are still moving back. I can easily see this as it's happening. The result is a boatload of popups to the infield and numerous other lame swings. In a few cases, the adjustment is being made so late that the batter is paralyzed and can't pull the trigger on an extremely hittable pitch. I say all this with absolutely no fear of contradiction. It seems likely most coaches are aware of the risks and rewards (if any) associated with this ill-conceived ritual. Maybe that's why fewer hitters are employing this “misstep in waiting” than they were a few seasons back.

13) The format for the WCWS is endlessly fascinating. The 64 teams chosen to compete are divided into 16 mini double elimination tournaments. Only 16 schools are nationally seeded. Those 16 ballclubs host that first round of play. It's not clear whether the 48 non-seeded teams are ranked from 17 through 64, but I suspect not. It appears that setting up a number of regional matchups is more the order of the day. One team and one team only emerges from each of the mini tourneys. One or more of the 16 seeded squads usually fails to advance. In this competition, only the two lowest seeds bit the dust. Following that first round, the 16 remaining teams battle it out via 8 “best two out of three” tilts, with the matchups being set according to the overall bracket. Round three consists of the surviving 8 teams competing in a brand new double elimination tournament to determine which two schools will vie for the title in the final “best of three” championship series. This format is exciting and fair. Seeded teams get home field advantage early on, which makes the regular season meaningful. Best of all is that — in all four rounds — a squad cannot be eliminated until it has been bested twice. So there's no crying “fluke” when a powerhouse fails to move on. It's quite a clever setup.

14) The current rules do not mandate that batters attempt to get out of the way of pitches that subsequently hit them. That would be fine if hitters didn't lean out over the plate, but they do. (Yes, I'm aware those calls can go against the batter, but they seldom do.) The result is offensive players getting on base cheaply. Some teams catch onto shifting tendencies in their sport quicker than others. So it is no shocker that defending champion Florida was way ahead of the curve on this issue in 2015. The Gators were hit far more often than any other team in the regular season and that carried into the postseason. My notes are difficult to read, but in the championship game, there were either 9 or 39 batters hit by pitches and that took away from the game, if only a tiny bit. A change needs to be made before next season. Otherwise, dozens of other teams will become as adept at being hit by pitches as Florida and the product on the field could turn into a joke and/or a loss of credibility.

15) Baserunning is a mixed bag (pun intended). There's the occasional error in judgment, as well as a smattering of less forgivable mental mistakes, but nothing consistently bothersome. With multiple pinch runners available and less than stellar bunting among the non-slappers, more attempted steals might be beneficial.

16) Some of the schools use former stars on staff to coach first base in the national tournament. A few examples are the incomparable Lisa Fernandez at UCLA, recent standout Madison Shipman at Tennessee, and the legendary Caitlin Lowe at Arizona. The fun for me in watching the first base coaches on all postseason teams is seeing which ones seem hyper aware of when the camera is on them. It's entertaining to view them through this prism. I'm just saying.

17) Is it easy enough to tell exactly when the pitcher releases the ball so that baserunners can get a fair jump? Also, is it obvious to an umpire when a runner leaves the base too early? I sometimes think I see runners jumping the gun, but the games are shot in a way that makes it difficult for viewers to make that determination. Do umpires just assume they miss a certain percentage of these calls and only enforce the rule for flagrant violations? Part of what I'm wondering is why there aren't more stolen bases. It seems to me that there are plenty of speedsters capable of swiping bags — unless they dare not start moving until well after the pitch is released. With several pinch runners available each game, teams ought to be pilfering more bases. If steals were increased, teams wouldn't have to rely on bunting as much as they now do.

18) The stadiums that are being built on college campuses are wonderful and a sign that softball as a sport is thriving. It's a trend I definitely enjoy tracking.

19) Have I actually seen some “check swing” calls being made by a second base umpire? If so, it doesn't strike me (no pun intended) as the way to go. That official doesn't have a decent view at all. Then again, this call is often so tough that you can't even blame the umps for missing on a number of those rulings. I wish there were a better way to make such distinctions. A machine of some sort might one day be the answer. Overall, the umpires in the WCWS hustle and have commendable attitudes, but they all have trouble establishing a consistent strike zone that has a chance to stay in place for an entire game. I've noticed one unfortunate new wrinkle this postseason. We've all seen umps in the past do “makeup” calls. If they deem a pitch that's clearly in the strike zone to be a ball, they'll call the next one that's close a strike. In this tournament, however, I've witnessed game officials “doubling down” on their mistakes — by which I mean two nearly identical bad calls that go against the pitcher or the hitter in the same at-bat. It's part of the game that needs to improve.

20) On a single telecast, I believe I heard four different second basemen referred to as 1st Team All-Americans. As it turned out, one of those players (Alex Hugo) had been identified as a 2nd Team All-American, but that still seemingly left some explaining to do. It appears as if Emily Carosone beat out Sierra Romero and Kelsey Stewart as the 1st Team All-American second sacker. That shocked me, but a look at Carosone's numbers (arguably against better pitching than Romero faced) suggests that maybe you could throw a blanket over all three of these excellent middle infielders. I guess it didn't matter anyway because Romero and Stewart were both named 1st Team All-Americans, with “At-Large/2B” appearing beside their names. Because most teams often or always use a Designated Player in their lineup, there is an All-American opening at that spot that can be filled by any offensive player. That hitter can play any position or even no position at all. And because 1st Team All-American is a roster and not just a lineup, there is also room for a few more offensive players. So perhaps we should be thankful that there aren't six or seven second basemen listed as 1st Team All-Americans on this hypothetical team! Even so, I won't apologize for jumping up to do a little research when I suspected our dream team might be too flush up the middle.

21) There are four coaches I tend to think of all at once and for positive reasons only: Florida's Tim Walton, Oregon's Mike White, Alabama's Patrick Murphy, and Auburn's Clint Myers. All are outstanding field generals, but what I especially like about this foursome is that they seem to set exactly the right tone with their teams. Whatever the proper mix of being laid back and intense is, they have implemented it to perfection. They're unfailingly polite and upbeat and are candid and forthcoming during in-game interviews. They simply hit all the right notes with everybody. Having said that, there was a week during this tournament when all four of them — separately! — laid into the umpires with a fair amount of vitriol. I don't think I had seen more than a glimpse of that from any of them previously. Am I putting them down for stepping out of character or ratcheting up their default temperaments? No way! The members of that coaching quartet were in the right on all four occasions.

22) Do I understand correctly that Florida and Auburn never played each other during the 2015 regular season? That doesn't seem right. It's a shame conferences have swelled to the point where two football teams ostensibly in the same league are never scheduled to meet and where basketball teams supposedly in the same conference are unable to arrange for home and away games against league rivals. But I figured baseball and softball could rise above such shenanigans. To me, if Team A and Team B do not compete on the field, court, pitch, or whatever — I don't see how they can claim to be in the same league. With over 50 games available to be scheduled per team, these two schools couldn't fit in a doubleheader somewhere? Better yet, map out the conference schedules first and then see how many dates you have open for teams not in your league. Are there other SEC teams that didn't play each other in 2015? If so, is this a ploy to limit the number of losses SEC teams incur prior to postseason tournaments? If so, the league needn't bother. The SEC's success in the national tournament in recent years is a testament to the outstanding quality of play therein. The league will not lack for bids or high seedings in any upcoming events. So please schedule the games that scream to be played.

23) I mentioned earlier about how I wish the game announcers would fill the viewers in on such issues as how many team meetings are allowed on the field per contest. I have a couple more queries along those same lines. How is it decided who is the home team in a given game? Often the answer is obvious, but sometimes it isn't. I also noticed that a bracket switch was made late in the tournament with regard to one or more elimination games. For what reason was that done? If I'm not mistaken, the men's baseball tournament declined to make a similar switch at the same juncture. What's the deal? I found ESPN's coverage of the complex playoff system to be excellent overall. As for the talking heads themselves: Adam Amin speaks a whole lot like Bob Costas. Happily, he also seems to be as prepared and detail-oriented as his soundalike. If you're watching a game and think that something needs to be brought up, Amin will broach that topic. His enthusiasm for the sport is also very much on display. He has been a revelation. Add Amanda Scarborough's trenchant analysis and you have a terrific team behind the mikes. I remember when Beth Mowins and Pam Ward used to sound far more alike than they do now! Mowins' understated yet comprehensive play-by-play is an ideal match with veteran analysts Jessica Mendoza and Michele Smith. Considering how long they've been interpreting in-game developments, it's impressive that Mendoza and Smith always seem to find new points to make. (I do sometimes wonder whether they like or hate each other!) Holly Rowe, Danielle Lawrie, and Laura Rutledge also did fine work in the postseason. While I can understand why some find Cheri Kempf to be a bit strident, I view her as someone who gets things done and is a tireless advocate for both college and pro softball. Kempf knows the sport from all angles and Pam Ward got the best out of her in a couple of studio discussions. Then there's the case of Curt Schilling joining the broadcast team for the three games between Florida and Michigan for the national title. Although Schilling's presence on the telecast was more awkward than successful, it wasn't a disaster. At least partially due to his daughter's impending collegiate softball career, we know Schilling likes, respects, and admires the sport. In any case, Curt was generous in his praise of the women who compete at such a high level. While Schilling later admitted that he had bullied his way into a role as special game analyst, isn't that better than the dismissive attitude we might expect to find from some of the ESPN baseball insiders past and present? Every new fan helps to grow the sport. Schilling didn't add anything especially insightful to the telecasts, but that's largely because Mowins, Mendoza, and Smith had that ground covered. And when Mendoza ended up as part of the Men's College World Series coverage, that made the late addition of Schilling to the WCWS team go down even easier. My only other minor concerns about the broadcasts were as follows: a) Amin made one miscue when he asserted that Madison Shipman had gone from being the SEC Player of the Year in one season to being the National Pro Fastpitch Player of the Year in the next campaign. Actually, Shipman was the Rookie of the Year in NPF. Andrea Duran, Shipman's partner on the left side of the USSSA infield, won the POY honor and she is as fine an all-around player as there is in the sport. b) There was a crucial bad call at first base in a WCWS game where the umpire doubled up a runner who had scampered off first base on a line drive that was caught. Replays showed that the runner was back with time to spare. The analyst proceeded to chide the baserunner for making a false initial move toward second base rather than fault the umpire for blowing an easy call and taking a team out of a possible big inning. c) Finally, on bad call pitches and plays that are not in doubt, it would be nice to hear “that pitch was 8 inches off the plate” or “the runner was clearly out” more often than the standard “that was close,” which means nothing. If you have the technology to identify awful calls, do it. Even so, the coverage was splendid for the most part.

24) Having coached dozens of teams in the past at numerous levels, any second-guessing I engage in must be prefaced with the following guideline: “A coach knows his or her team far better than anyone else and so is in the best position to make in-game decisions.” In addition, we must keep in mind that players sometimes miss signs or improvise. As a result, nothing I say here is intended to point an accusing finger at anyone. In Michigan's showdown against UCLA, the game announcers correctly made a big deal out of the fact that Sierra Romero — the sport's most feared hitter — laid down a bunt with runners on first and second and nobody out in an early inning even though this was already no pitcher's duel where any one run was all that precious. You can make an argument either way. For me, the litmus test in that situation is what would my reaction be if mine were the team on defense? All things being equal, I would be thrilled to have Romero sacrifice herself to move the two runners up a base. She laid down a decent bunt, moved the runners along, and one of them (I believe) scored later in the inning. An analogous scenario I found equally intriguing — but which drew no comment from the game announcers — was when UCLA's cleanup hitter came to the plate in the third inning with Ally Carda on first base and nobody out. The Bruins were down a run in what was destined to be a high-scoring affair. If memory serves, said number four batter in the order was the hottest hitter in the tournament at that time. Shockingly, she laid one down. I was mystified by the notion of a team sacrificing its premiere hitter to move a fast runner up one base so early in the game. No rally ensued. And I believe the same scenario with the same team members played out similarly a little later in the game. An injury, perhaps? Here are a variety of reasons why many teams should bunt less than they do now: A) Moving a runner up isn't automatic or anywhere close to that. B) When a slap hitter isn't batting, the bunting in the college game is mediocre. C) It has been shown that having a runner on first base with no outs is a better position to be in than having a runner on second base with one out. D) Sometimes the decision to bunt is made too early, by which I mean it doesn't take into account factors like the pitcher's inability to get the ball over the plate or to command her pitches. “Small ball” offenses sometimes let a struggling pitcher off the hook. Make her throw a strike before you turn to the bunt. (While attending a game in person once, I saw two hitters in the same lineup sacrifice bunt on 3-0 counts. I almost had a tizzy!) E) When I coached, I was loath to give up any of our offense's 27 outs. With only 21 outs in college softball, I would be even less willing to kick away such valuable assets. F) When you have better hitters giving themselves up so that lesser hitters can drive runners in — well, that's unorthodox for a reason. G) Trying to steal second base might occasionally be a less risky option than attempting to bunt the runner over — all the more so if the player has good wheels. H) There are enough wild pitches and passed balls so that baserunners might end up advancing that way at no cost or risk. I) Maybe the most underrated reason for opting for something other than a bunt is because giving up that out greatly lessens the possibility of a big inning. As the saying goes: “play for one run/ lose by one run.” Anyway, after bowing to Michigan by a score of 10 to 4, UCLA had to come back the next day to face Auburn in a “loser goes home” contest. It was an amazing game, with the Bruins scoring 5 runs in an early inning and AU fighting back with 6 runs in their half of the same frame. Ally Carda had thrown 117 pitches against the Wolverines and would throw 205 against the Tigers. At some point, she just had nothing more to give. Half of her pitches were bouncing before they got to the plate. She was running on fumes and a temporarily dead arm. Incredibly, however, she kept UCLA in the game inning after inning and even took Auburn to an extra frame. I believe she also reached base on several plate appearances in clutch situations. Carda gave up 10 earned runs that night and walked a dozen batters, but it was as courageous and uplifting a performance as I have ever witnessed. I've never been more proud of anyone I was rooting for in a game. If Ally Carda didn't wear batting gloves, she'd be perfect!

In summation, I have written the above as an avid fan of women's college softball. When I end up spending this much time analyzing anything, though, I'm bound to discover both pros and cons as I did here. I hope readers will respect the fact that my positive — yet balanced — appraisal was not faultfinding of anyone by name and offered only mild and constructive criticism otherwise. College softball is in great shape, but improvements are always possible and should be encouraged.

I'm hoping that the takeaways from this opinion piece will include the following: Try to hit without batting gloves. Make sure you pull the bat back in time to take a proper swing. Learn to bunt expertly, but opt for more big innings. Yes, I was kidding about the 42 meetings and the 39 batters hit by pitches, but both totals — whatever they really were — are higher than they should be.

I trust that feedback is welcomed — or at least tolerated — in the college softball world and further that the sentiments herein stand in mute testimony to my high regard for this sport. Even so, any and all pushback will be cheerfully accepted, read, digested, considered, and re-analyzed. Bring everything you've got and then bring a little bit more — you'll need it. And please know you'll be throwing popcorn at a battleship! I don't take anything personally.

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