Friday, April 14, 2006

In this posting, I preview this weekend's top college softball match-ups. Before doing so, it should be noted that UCLA has overtaken Texas as the No. 1 team in the nation, according to both major polls (see links on the right-hand side of the page to access these rankings).

The Bruins swept two games from the University of Arizona in Tucson last weekend, an accomplishment sure to capture the attention of the nation's softball observers. Not only are UCLA and Arizona the most successful softball programs historically in the 24 years of NCAA play, winning 10 and 6 national titles, respectively. The two schools also have both been ranked in the top 5 nationally this year.

Also this past week, the UCLA Daily Bruin (for which I wrote from 1980-1983, although, ironically, never covering softball) ran a feature on outfielders Whitney Holum (Jr.) and Krista Colburn (So.), two players who have elevated their games this year, thus adding offensive depth to a UCLA line-up that also includes more established hitters Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran, Jodie Legaspi, and Emily Zaplatosch.

(Note that, where the DB feature article on Holum and Colburn alludes to a game "[a]gainst Michigan on a nationwide broadcast of last year's national title game...," the contest in question was a March 15, 2006 rematch of last year's NCAA championship final between the Bruins and Wolverines, broadcast live on ESPN 2 and won by UCLA; it most certainly is not referring to the actual 2005 final, which, of course, was won by Michigan.)

Texas meanwhile was defeated by Texas A&M last Wednesday, April 5, in Austin, thus contributing to the Longhorns' fall from No. 1 (although they continue to receive some votes for the top spot). Texas did rebound from the A&M loss with a weekend series sweep over Missouri, but according to this report on the TexasSports website, didn't look so great in victory.

As noted on the official Pac 10 softball webpage (link in the upper-right portion of this page), this weekend's conference games feature the traditional rivalries: Arizona vs. Arizona St., Oregon vs. Oregon St., Stanford vs. Cal, and UCLA vs. Washington. UCLA vs. Washington??? Well, USC and Washington St. don't field softball teams, thus leaving the Bruins and Huskies, respectively, without their natural geographic rivalries, so they end up playing each other on Rivalry Weekend. One of the two UCLA-UW (or as the locals say, U-Dub) games from Seattle will be taped for broadcast on Fox Sports Net cable channels around the country.

Looking at both sets of national rankings, one sees six Pac 10 squads in the top 10 (UCLA, Arizona, Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, and Arizona State), Washington at No. 14, and Oregon not in the top 25, but still receiving some votes. Thus, every single Pac 10 game played is going to feature two fine teams.

In the Big 12, Saturday's game featuring Texas at Oklahoma will be nationally televised on ESPN, at noon Central. It'll be a good chance for fans in Lubbock, Texas to see the Longhorns before they come play at Texas Tech on Thursday, April 20. Oklahoma has been ranked around 20th in the nation lately, but is only 4-7 in the conference. Nebraska and Baylor, the current third- and fourth-place teams in the Big 12, play in Lincoln. Second place Texas A&M is at Iowa State. Other series include Texas Tech at Kansas, and Oklahoma State at Missouri. Colorado and Kansas State don't field teams.

Turning to the Big 10, defending national champion Michigan (currently in second place by a game to Michigan State) is at Iowa. The Spartans will be at Wisconsin.

Finally, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) features a series between the first- and second-place teams in its Western Division, Alabama (15-0 in conference and No. 3 in both national polls) and LSU (12-3 and No. 11), in Tuscaloosa.

Scheduling formats differ widely by conference, something I'll discuss in more detail in a future posting. Teams will sometimes play two games over a weekend, sometimes three. Some conferences are split up into geographic subdivisions (as seen with the SEC), others are not. The Big 12 keeps standings separately for North and South divisions in football (to determine who plays in the conference championship game), but not in other sports.