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Friday, April 28, 2006

Lots of big games this weekend, as the regular season come down to the home stretch.

Starting with the Big 10, first-place Northwestern (11-2 in conference) visits second-place Michigan (9-3) for a Sunday double-header. These two games will likely play a substantial -- though not necessarily decisive -- role in determining who finishes first in the league. The reason the Wildcat-Wolverine head-to-head match-ups may not decide the conference championship is that each team has four additional Big 10 games remaining. Michigan plays Illinois before Northwestern, and then Michigan State later on. Northwestern faces these same two opponents, but in the opposite order.

Michigan pitcher Jennie Ritter is well-known for her performance last year in leading the Wolverines to the national championship.

Probably less well known, but not necessarily any less effective, is Northwestern pitcher Eileen Canney, who gained attention by striking out 28 University of Minnesota batters in an 18-inning game last weekend. I suppose that if Eileen were off her game a bit, it would be considered an "un-Canney" occurrence.

Adding further intrigue to Northwestern and Michigan's battle in the Big 10 regular-season race is that the conference tournament (May 11-13) will be hosted by whichever team finishes at the top of the standings. Considering the number of games remaining, third-place Ohio State (10-4) can't be counted out, either. I have just added the Buckeyes' team page to the list of links on the right-hand side of this page.

The highlight of Pac 10 play would appear to be UCLA hosting the Arizona schools. Three weeks ago, the Bruins swept all their games of a three-game trip through the Grand Canyon State, defeating Arizona St. once and the University of Arizona twice. This weekend, to balance things out, UCLA plays U of A once and ASU twice (here's a preview from the Daily Bruin, focusing on the UCLA-U of A rivalry).

Sunday's weekend finale, against the Sun Devils, is UCLA's Senior Day. An announcement on the UCLA softball site proudly proclaims:

After playing host to Arizona on Friday afternoon at 1 pm, the Bruins play host to Arizona State for the final regular season games of the 2006 season. Prior to Saturday's game, UCLA will present AIAW National Championship rings to members of the 1978 softball team, while Sunday will be Senior Day at Easton Stadium, honoring Caitlin Benyi, Andrea Duran, Alissa Eno and Emily Zaplatosch. Sunday's game against Arizona State is SOLD OUT.

Benyi (pronounced BAIN-EE) and Zaplatosch (nicknamed "Zap") have been teammates since high school (and perhaps even longer, considering youth play). They're from Arizona, making it interesting that they chose UCLA over local powerhouse U of A, a fact not lost on the writer of this article from a year ago.

Finally, concerning the Southeastern Conference, I wanted to discuss the University of Tennessee, about whom I don't think I've said much since launching this blog. Not only did the Lady Volunteers make it to last year's Women's College World Series of softball, but they very nearly beat out Michigan to advance to the championship round.

With star pitcher Monica Abbott returning, Tennessee really seemed poised for a breakthrough year this season (like Texas's Cat Osterman, about whom much has been written on this blog, Abbott throws lefty and is over six-feet tall). In fact, the Vols were returning four All-America players in all and were the pre-season pick of SEC coaches to win the league this year.

For whatever reason, however, Tennessee had some difficulties early in SEC play. A month ago, Tennessee was swept three straight by Alabama, and the Lady Vols also have SEC losses to Florida (twice) and Auburn. The second loss of the Alabama series had to have been especially heartbreaking to Tennessee. The box score says it all:

...........................................R H E
Tennessee........... 000 000 013 - 4 9 1
Alabama.............. 000 000 014 - 5 12 1

After both teams went scoreless in the regulation seven innings, Tennessee scored a run in the top of the eighth, only to have it matched by Alabama. When the Vols scored three runs in the top of the ninth, that presumably looked like a pretty safe lead, given the generally low-scoring nature of fast-pitch softball. But, as can be seen, 'Bama rallied for four runs and the win. A full article on that game is available here.

The Lady Volunteers have rebounded, however, and have now risen to No. 4 and No. 6 national rankings in the two polls (see links on the right). Tennessee's rising stock undoubtedly derives from a current 12-game winning streak. The opposition during the streak has not been terribly strong, however, mainly consisting of three of the weaker SEC teams, plus Austin Peay.

In a pair of three-game series that will each follow the format of Saturday double-headers and a single game Sunday, Tennessee goes to Georgia (ranked 9th and 11th nationally) this weekend, and hosts LSU (10th and 11th) the next. These series should go a long way in showing whether the Vols' high national rankings are truly deserved. To read more about Tennessee, I have also added the Vols' team page to the links section.