Thursday, March 29, 2007

This upcoming weekend of college softball will arguably be one of the best of the entire regular season. This assertion rests on three points:

1. League play begins in the Big 10 and Pac 10, meaning that all four "power conferences" (the Big 12 and SEC being the others) have now entered this stage.

2. As elaborated below, the Big 10 and Pac 10 each have some excellent match-ups for their opening weekends of conference action.

3. The Big 12, which opened conference play last week, will feature a "Clash of the Titans," with Texas A&M playing at Oklahoma in single games Saturday and Sunday. Saturday afternoon's contest will be televised on ESPN2.

Let's go back to the opening of conference play in the two remaining conferences. In the Big 10, Northwestern hosts Michigan for games on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Just a few days ago, the Wildcats defeated the Wolverines in extra innings at the Louisville tournament. UM and NU have each played in the championship round of the NCAA Women's College World Series in recent years, the Wolverines edging UCLA for the 2005 national championship, and Northwestern falling to its namesake Wildcats of Arizona for the 2006 title.

The Pac 10's docket for this weekend, from the composite schedule on the conference's softball page (see links section on the right), is shown below. It's easiest to think of Pac 10 scheduling in terms of geographic "traveling pairs," such as the Arizona schools (U of A and ASU), the Oregon schools (UO and OSU), and the northern California schools (Stanford and Cal-Berkeley). For example, unless they're playing each other, Arizona and Arizona State will either both be at home or both on the road in the same general location. If the Arizona schools were each playing one of the Oregon schools to start off a weekend, they would then switch opponents to close it out. The one little quirk to the system is that USC and Washington State don't field softball teams, so UCLA and Washington serve as partners to each other. With that in mind, the following schedule should make perfect sense!

Fri., Mar. 30
ARIZONA at WASHINGTON, 1 p.m.
ARIZONA STATE at UCLA, 1 p.m.
CALIFORNIA at OREGON, 3 p.m.
STANFORD at OREGON STATE, 3 p.m.

Sat., Mar. 31
ARIZONA at UCLA, 2 p.m.
ARIZONA STATE at WASHINGTON, 1 p.m.
CALIFORNIA at OREGON STATE, 1 p.m.
STANFORD at OREGON, 1 p.m.

Sun., Apr. 1
ARIZONA at UCLA, 1 p.m.
ARIZONA STATE at WASHINGTON, 1 p.m.
CALIFORNIA at OREGON STATE, 1 p.m.
STANFORD at OREGON, 1 p.m.

As can be seen, Arizona and ASU, the two highest-ranked Pac 10 teams nationally, travel to the UCLA/Washington duo, and the "NorCal" schools travel to the Oregon schools. Another complexity is that each team plays three games on its trip, two against one opponent and one against the other; for example, Arizona plays two games at UCLA and one at Washington. However, UCLA and U-Dub will later travel to the Arizona schools, with UCLA playing once at U of A and Washington playing twice there. In the end, Arizona ends up with three games each against UCLA and Washington. In order to work as a scheduler for the Pac 10, you have to pass a test of differential and integral calculus (just kidding).

Below Arizona and ASU, four teams -- UCLA, Washington, Oregon, and Stanford -- are ranked in comparable positions nationally, in the vicinity of 10-15, with the specifics varying by which poll one looks at. The remaining two teams, Oregon State and Cal, have been somewhat disappointing thus far, but with the opening of conference play, hope springs eternal.

Perhaps playing at home will allow UCLA and Washington to do some damage against Arizona and ASU. We shall see!