Oregon softball has breezed into the Women's College World Series, going a perfect 5-0 through the regional and super regional rounds to lock up their second trip to Oklahoma City in three years. As the #1 seed, there's an expectation that the Ducks will make a serious run at a national championship. The road to the title isn't easy, but I see seven steps to a national title for the top-ranked Ducks.
Step 1: Force Florida State into mistakes. The Ducks open play Thursday against the ACC champion Seminoles, who are as good an 8-seed as you'll see. Starting pitcher Lacey Waldrop has been arguably the best pitcher in D-1 this year, with a season ERA of 1.01, and a 13-1 record since April 13th; she's a tough matchup, even for Oregon's potent offense. But Florida State is prone to giving away runs; their 37 unearned runs are the most of any team in the WCWS. In FSU's seven losses this season, the pitching staff is averaging only 5.28 K/7 - down from their season average of over 7 K/7, and the Seminoles defense has committed 16 errors. In particular, 2B Tiffani Brown and 3B Briana Hamilton have combined for 21 errors on the season. Look for Courtney Ceo and Alyssa Gillespie at the top of the order to try and pound the ball on the ground and make something happen.
Step 2: Continue the balanced offensive attack. The top three in the order of Ceo, Gillespie, and Janie Takeda are a constant and relentless source of offense for the Ducks. But it was the bottom three in the order - Kailee Cuico, Karine Shaver, and Nikki Udria - that were instrumental in Oregon's playoff success so far. Udria had a double and three RBI in Oregon's first Super Regional win over Minnesota, and the trio combined for 4 runs and 7 RBI in the playoff-opening win over Utah Valley. The success of the top of the order is what got the Ducks to OKC. But if the bottom of the order keeps hitting, this is a championship team.
Step 3: Hawkins locks it up. With Oregon's offense averaging over seven runs a game this season, even an average pitching staff would have been enough. But Cheridan Hawkins, tasked with the tall order of trying to replace Jessica Moore as Oregon's ace, has been marvelous this season, among the country's leaders in strikeouts, ERA, and hits allowed. In the playoffs, she's been more than enough on the mound, winning all four of her starts. But Hawkins has also given up four home runs, uncharacteristic for a pitcher who's only given up 17 home runs all season. This trend towards allowing the long ball is concerning with a potential second game looming against Florida, whose 83 home runs is the fifth-most in the country this year. In fact, all three teams on Oregon's side of the bracket rank in the top 25 in the country in home runs. Hawkins is one of the best pitchers in the country, and hopefully this current run of home runs allowed is a blip, rather than something that can doom Oregon's title chances.
Step 4: Win the first two. Should Oregon win their opener against Florida State, they would play the winner of Baylor and Florida. Win that one, and the Ducks are in the driver's seat for their half of the bracket. Whichever team that emerges from the loser's bracket would have to beat Oregon twice in a row to advance to the final. Oregon hasn't lost twice in a row since May 9th and 10th...in 2013. The loser's bracket is a sports Hunger Games, a marathon of win-or-go-home games that tests a team's bench and pitching depth. The winner's bracket is a magical land of fresh players and margin for error. I'm gonna recommend that the Ducks go with the latter option.
Step 5: Keep the defense solid. Avoiding mistakes and giving away outs is imperative in softball, and Oregon has managed to avoid the errors thus far in the playoffs, committing only one in their five wins. When Oregon has lost, it has been in part because of defensive breakdowns; each Oregon loss since March 1st has featured at least two errors committed by the Ducks defense, including eight errors in their last two losses. If Cheridan Hawkins can trust her defense, she can be more aggressive in the strike zone and put the pressure on the hitter. But an unreliable defense will cost outs, runs, and confidence, and could kill Oregon's chances at a title.
Step 6: Let the other half of the bracket beat each other up. The other side of the bracket is just as formidable as Oregon's; Oklahoma and Alabama are the last two national champions, Louisiana-Lafayette is undefeated in the playoffs - including two-straight wins over Arizona, and Kentucky took out UCLA in Los Angeles to get to Oklahoma City. Now I'm all for fair competition, and I don't want to see anyone get hurt. But physically worn out and emotionally drained is a completely different story. I want every game on that side of the bracket to be a nail-biter, a slopfest, and preferably an extra inning marathon. Whichever team gets out of that side of the bracket, I want them completely out of gas when they face Oregon.
Step 7: Get the lucky bounces. Every team that wins a national championship, in any sport, has at least a moment or two where it seems fate is on their side. Whether it's a grounder in the hole instead of a grounder at a fielder, a three-pointer that gets a lucky bounce, or a running back's knee that just doesn't hit the ground, the difference between a champion and a runner-up can be those "game of inches" plays. Oregon needs those to go their way to emerge victorious from a bracket where any of the eight teams can make a serious run at the title.