Michigan softball is pretty darn good and they host an NCAA regional this weekend, which merits the preview treatment. Thankfully, we have a source who knows much more about college softball than me.
Right: Freshman slugger extraordinaire Sierra Romero.
The NCAA regional is a double-elimination tournament, so the only team Michigan is guaranteed to play is Valparaiso; if all goes chalk, Michigan would play Cal in Game 3 and go from there.
Friday, May 17
Game 1 -- Central Michigan vs. California
Game 2 -- Michigan vs. Valparaiso
Saturday, May 18
Game 3 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
Game 4 -- Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
Game 5 -- Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner
Sunday, May 19
Game 6 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Game 7 -- Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if necessary)
All games will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.
First-team All-B1G pitcher Sara Driesenga
Record: 45-10 (20-2 Big Ten, 16-0 Home)
Rankings: #7 USA Today, #8 ESPN, #8 RPI
Good wins (RPI): #11 Arizona State, #29 Arizona, #16 Texas A&M
Bad losses (RPI): #179 LIU-Brooklyn
Michigan mostly dominated in the Big Ten this year and fared pretty well when it came to facing ranked non-conference opponents (5-4, including wins against both Arizona schools), though they unexpectedly fell to RPI #24 Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines are the #8 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (full bracket .pdf here)—as you'll see, however, they didn't get the easiest of draws.
The offense is led by shortstop Sierra Romero, who earned mention in this space last week after an astonishing freshman season earned her big-time accolades:
Kind of good, part two. Six(!) softball players were named first-team All Big Ten after Michigan roared through the league schedule 20-2. Sierra Romero was both the freshman and player of the year, Carol Hutchins coach of the year, etc.
Here is Romero's Big Ten slugging percentage.
Also her on-base percentage was .659. That is nuts.
Other batting standouts include 2B Ashley Lane (.385/.435/.698*), 1B Caitlin Blanchard (.399/.467/.534), and OF Sierra Lawrence (.347/.424/.578). Romero's full slash line for the season is a ridiculous .378/.514/.854—in other words, she reaches base on more than half of her plate appearances and hits with a ton of power (in 164 at-bats, she hit eight doubles, two triples, and 22 home runs, the last mark a school record). Leadoff hitter Lyndsay Doyle (.304/.429/.360) is a patient hitter with base-stealing speed (10/11 this year), while catcher Lauren Sweet (.267/.330/.545) provides some pop at the bottom of the order.
The pitching staff is very good but a step below dominant. Sophomore righty Sara Driesenga earned first-team All-B1G honors, posting a 26-6 record with a 1.81 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 205 innings pitched—her control (63 walks) keeps her from being totally dominant. Sophomore lefty Haylie Wagner is the #2 starter—she finished 18-3 with a 2.53 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 119.1 innings. Wagner is more hittable than Driesenga but exhibits much better control (only 15 walks all season).
Cal star pitcher Jolene Henderson (via)
This is where I stop pretending to know anything about softball and let our mysterious softball source take over the scouting. All of the actual scouting content below comes from a source who's asked to remain anonymous; I've only done minor editing for brevity and provided the intro.
Record: 34-25 overall, 11-9 Horizon (that's bad)
Rankings: #186 RPI
Previous meeting: none
Good wins: ??? (win over Iowa State is only major conference victory, beat also-bad Youngstown State for tourney title)
Bad losses: Detroit (five wins this year, tied for second-least in NCAA)
Their lineup is pretty straightforward, with three girls to look out for and one that possibly might be an issue. Their top batter is Brittany Duncan (.349/.478/.514), who I'm told the key against is to go low—she's a big girl that can go long on anything up high, so anything other than a well-executed rise would be ill advised (Wagner seems to be known more for that type of pitch than Driesenga).
The next two to worry about are Janelle Bouchard (.333/.376/.548) and Kaitlyn Ranieri (.322/.429/.399), but they're both freshman and aren't anything [redacted source] has seen in person or on film. My recollection from seeing a game in person is that Amanda Korb (.387/.406/.613) is capable of hitting well, and more or less abused the freshman version of a good pitcher throwing mostly rise and curveballs, but she's only been at the plate 31 times, which makes a current injury or injury from earlier in the year possible. [ED-Ace: I can't find anything to indicate an injury, so I think Korb is just a potentially underutilized pinch-hitter.]
Expect them to start pitcher Taylor Weissenhofer (20-11, 2.29 ERA), who is also a freshman, and is "not fast but spinny with back door curve. [Throws] a lot of curves and off speed pitches," according to my source.
Record: 33-18 overall, 18-7 MAC (better than 11-9 Horizon, but Cal should win easily)
Rankings: #95 RPI
Previous meeting: M 11-0 (5-inning game)
Good wins: MSU and PSU are the only major conference wins, although the bottom of the B1G is not "major" for softball purposes.
Bad losses: Nothing really sticks out, but seven losses in the MAC doesn't indicate a consistently good team, few losses in the high 100's RPI.
The box score on MGoBlue should be your main guide here, but I'll provide some color substance. Michigan saw Kara Dornbos (15-11, 2.47 ERA) and Kristen Kuhlman (4-2, 3.82) as the 1-2 in their last outing; expect Dornbos to start. She was pulled after giving up 8 ER in three innings at Alumni Field.
Batting wise, Wagner held CMU to two hits and Cal's Jolene Henderson is a better pitcher than Wagner. Either team should shut down a fairly mediocre MAC offense with relative ease. CMU did finish the year on a bit of a hot streak, winning 7/8 and going undefeated in the MAC tournament.
Record: 36-17 overall, 10-14 Pac-12 (don't be fooled here—the Pac-12 has seven of the top 30 teams in the country based on RPI)
Rankings: #18 USA Today, #22 ESPN, #18 RPI
Previous meeting: none
Good wins: Won two of their three games against Arizona, beat #26 Baylor and #21 Hawaii in the same tournament. Otherwise struggled against top competition, going 3-12 against ranked Pac-12 teams when Arizona is excluded.
The only game that approached bad loss territory was a 1-0 loss to #77 Oregon State, but that came on the heels of two wins over the Beavers by a combined 11-1 score. As commenter Alton pointed out, I was looking at the wrong RPI sheet—Cal doesn't really have a bad loss this year.
Jolene Henderson's talent cannot be overstated, she is an absolute monster and will be up for Cal HoF or jersey retirement or whatever honors the AD over there gives out, with the only "dark spot" being that they were knocked out in the WCWS semifinal last year and she hasn't won a national title. She's arguably the number two pitcher in the nation (one is pretty well claimed), and that's where I would put her. Cal and LSU are the only teams through Super Regionals where Wagner and Driesenga will be outmatched talent-wise, in my opinion.
Henderson (30-9, 1.23 ERA) favors a curve, but has an excellent changeup when she can get her spots, and obviously can pitch just about anything. She does not have overwhelming (68-70mph in softball) speed, but obviously makes up for it in movement, accuracy and is praised universally for her poise. One thing that's very important to remember is that Henderson is coming off a knee injury; had she been healthy all year there would be a regional in Berkeley almost definitely.
[Addition from a later email: The better pitching evaluation for Jolene Henderson is that she does have top end speed (I've seen at least 70mph on the ticker, the world record for a single pitch is 75) and kills by pitching that in tandem with a killer changeup, 15mph difference at times. Curve evaluation would stay the same, excellent, probably above anything other than the fastball or the changeup, but her arsenal is deep and scary in general. This is me noting her confidence and poise again.]
Cal lacks the firepower to win a shootout with Michigan, which has a formidable batting lineup. If Michigan can score three or four, expect a win for M, although shutting down Cal completely is well within the abilities of either M pitcher if she can throw well that particular day, which will make a tough matchup for M's batting order much easier, obviously.
Khala Taylor is the number two batter in the order, and Cal's only slapper with a good set of statistics, batting a team high .342, slugging .386 (that's good for a slapper) with an on base percentage of .359 (not that great for a slapper, but respectable especially in a conference as strong as the Pac-12). Cheyenne Cordes is the leadoff with a not-so-great batting average of .325 but a good on-base percentage of .430. The catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt hits fourth, hitting .286, slugging a team-high .686 with an on-base of .377. Danielle Henderson (Jolene's sister) bats fifth and owns the team-high with a .432 OBP while batting .287 and slugging .510.
Cal is going to try and put Cordes on base any way possible, will likely have Khala try to force a tough decision with a light slap or a bunt (she's a former track star that probably beats out a play the defense assumes is a fielder's choice a lot) and then bring up Ziegenhirt and D. Henderson to hit for the fences. If Michigan can get through this group without giving up runs, they will do just fine. If that's not working, M falls into trouble quickly because hits and runs will be extremely tough to come by against the best pitcher they've seen all year.
I'd also add that MGoBlog's resident seeding/RPI/NCAA expert Alton had an opinion on Ann Arbor's seeding, where 8 M got 17 Cal, and in exchange got the equivalent of two four seeds. Neither CMU nor Valpo is a credible threat to advance. (Valpo upset Louisville last year, but lost their pitcher and several hitters to graduation.) Cal is quite possibly more likely to advance than any other two-seed in the tournament, and definitely is among the top eight seeds.
ESPN has a broad overview of each of the regionals—here's their bit on Michigan, the proclaimed favorite to come out of Ann Arbor:
The favorite: No. 8 Michigan
Michigan stumbled on a couple of occasions down the stretch, but that didn't prevent it from clinching a coveted top-eight seed. A run-starved lineup that overachieved when it reached a super regional a season ago matured into a juggernaut, its slugging percentage climbing from .415 to .535. Some of that comes down to freshman star Sierra Romero (1.369 OPS), but five regulars are slugging at least .500, up from two a season ago. The difference between a team that can get to the World Series and one that can do something there may come down to what the Wolverines get from Sara Driesenga and Haylie Wagner in the circle. The staff's 2.92 Big Ten ERA is dicey.
Many thanks to our anonymous source for a remarkably informative preview—hopefully, if Michigan advances, we'll have much more coverage in the same vein.
*For those unfamiliar with baseball/softball slash lines, that's batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.