College Softball Notebook: Making Sense Of 2020's Chaotic Start
There’s been a common theme to the first three weeks of this college season — upsets, upsets and more upsets. But that’s not to say some teams haven’t established themselves above the rest. Defending national champion UCLA, despite losing two stars to the U.S. Olympic team, looks as dominant as ever. The battle for Louisiana may be decided in Oklahoma City. The ACC has taken a step forward, while the Big Ten has stumbled out of the gate. As conference play approaches, will things sort themselves out? Or will chaos reign all the way into May?
The Bruins look like the team to beat again. No Rachel Garcia? No Bubba Nickles? No problem so far for UCLA. The defending national champions have hardly broken a sweat en route to a 15-0 start. The lowest batting average of the Bruins’ full-time starters? That would be .361. Aliyah Jordan is hitting a whopping .550, and Jenavee Peres — a grad transfer playing her final year of eligibility after giving birth to her son — has four home runs in eight games and is slugging an incredible .923. A heavy pitching workload has not caught up to Megan Faraimo just yet — she’s 9-0 with a 0.73 ERA in 57.2 innings.
But the rest of the Pac-12 is right on UCLA’s heels. Every team in the Pac-12 has a winning record, and it’s not like they’ve been playing cupcakes, either. Oregon is the only unbeaten team in the Power Five besides the Bruins, Washington is hanging in there without all-everything shortstop Sis Bates and even Oregon State and Cal have put up strong showings. But the surprise of the conference has to be Utah, which has raced to a 12-2 start while playing in some of the college game's most prestigious tournaments. The stellar non-conference showing should help the Pac-12 improve upon the five teams it sent to the NCAA Tournament last year.
There has been plenty of mid-major madness. Louisiana knows it won’t get any favors from the selection committee for competing in a non-Power Five conference, so the Ragin’ Cajuns have challenged themselves plenty early on. They split two hotly-contested, one-run games with rival LSU and did the same with extremely strong Oklahoma State and Texas squads. James Madison, the only mid-major to reach a Super Regional in 2019, has big wins over Texas Tech and North Carolina. North Texas pushed the Longhorns to extra innings and boasts an outstanding pitching staff led by Hope Trautwein, who struck out 21 batters in eight innings against Texas A&M Corpus Christi last week.
But perhaps the most impressive mid-major thus far has been UCF, which already has eight wins against the Power Five. The Knights run-ruled a ranked Tennessee team on back-to-back days last weekend, led by the outstanding pitching of Alea White and an extremely balanced and potent offensive attack. If UCF continues winning at its current pace, the Knights could contend for a national seed.
Kaitlyn Menz is still the master of the Sooners. It’s been a rough showing for the Big Ten, which had three national seeds a year ago but has very few marquee wins in the early going in 2020. Wisconsin, however, picked up the biggest one yet with a 4-3 victory over Oklahoma at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. Sound familiar? That’s because the Badgers also beat the top-seeded Sooners at last year’s NCAA Regionals, snapping Oklahoma’s 41-game winning streak before ultimately coming up short. Kaitlyn Menz was brilliant both times, allowing nothing outside of a three-run third inning in Sunday’s win. And in both meetings, Wisconsin used small ball effectively, scoring on bunts, errors and even a steal of home.
The biggest tournament of the weekend is once again in Southern California. The national focus turns from Mary Nutter to the Judi Garman Classic, as many of the nation’s best head to Fullerton, Calif. Washington has perhaps the most intriguing slate, with big matchups against LSU, Texas and Michigan. The Wolverines and Longhorns will also face each other, giving Michigan a big opportunity to bounce back from its first rough weekend of the year. The Maize and Blue started 10-0, highlighted by a run-rule win over Florida, but suffered three straight losses last weekend in South Carolina, including especially tough ones to Iowa State and Liberty.