This year's NCAA softball tournament, with games today at 16 regional sites, features no overwhelming favorite, says former Olympian Stacey Nuveman, now an ESPN commentator. So this could be anybody's tournament — potentially even Washington's.
The Huskies (35-16), beneficiaries of a surprising No. 6 overall seed in the 64-team tournament, begin play today in Lincoln, Neb., in a four-team, double-elimination regional. Washington opens against Omaha-based Creighton (39-12-1). Also competing in Lincoln are host school Nebraska (37-18) and Georgia (43-26).
The survivor of this three-day smackdown advances to a super-regional round next weekend. If it's the Huskies, they will host the winner of the Tuscaloosa regional, which includes 11th-seeded Alabama (51-7), a team that two weeks ago was the nation's No. 1 team.
"This year's field is more open than it has been in recent years, with fewer truly dominant pitchers," said Nuveman, a former All-American catcher at UCLA, in an e-mail interview.
"The Women's College World Series has historically been won by a team with a stopper in the [pitching] circle, and but for a couple of teams, I just don't see that kind of dominance in 2007," she said. "Everyone has shown they are beatable."
Nuveman said Washington faces a challenging regional round: Creighton won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles, Nebraska gets to play in front of its large, loyal fan base; and Georgia comes from a conference that had three of the nation's top five teams.
NCAA Softball Regional
Today: UW (35-16)
vs. Creighton (39-12-1),
in Lincoln, Neb., 2 p.m., KKNW (1150 AM)
Tilting the odds in the Huskies' favor is the presence of sophomore pitcher Danielle Lawrie. Beyond her 24-10 record and 1.54 earned-run average, the British Columbian right-hander, who likely will pitch for Canada in the 2008 Olympics, ranks third in the NCAA in strikeouts per seven innings (12.2), fanning 373 in 214 innings.
"Lawrie is certainly one of the best in the country, but needs to display a bit more consistency," Nuveman said. "She has all of the weapons — and I know this as an analyst and as a player facing her while with Team USA. If Lawrie is on her game, the Huskies really could make some noise."
Third-year UW coach Heather Tarr expects Lawrie to be at her best.
"She's shut down some big hitters this year," Tarr said. "That sense of urgency just has to carry over beyond the 3, 4 and 5 hitters to the No. 6 hitter. She understands that. She grabbed a hold of that about a third of the way through the Pac-10 schedule.
"Having gone through the Pac-10 season, I think we're one of the better prepared teams for this tournament," added Tarr, noting that Pac-10 teams have won 19 of 25 NCAA softball titles. "Still, as a team, we haven't proven that we're that consistent yet. Once we do, watch out."
Lawrie is one of three potential All-Americans on UW's roster, along with senior first baseman Dena Tyson (batting .427 with a team-high 17 home runs) and junior shortstop Ashley Charters (.392, 31 stolen bases in 35 attempts).
All three are All-Pac-10 first-team selections. On Thursday, Lawrie and Tyson were named All-Pacific Region first-team choices. Charters was selected to the second team.
• Tarr won her first postseason game as UW coach in 2005 by defeating Creighton in Lincoln.
• Nuveman's pick to win it all? Top-ranked Tennessee (54-5), which is hosting a regional as the No. 5 seed. (Arizona is seeded No. 1.)
"Monica Abbott is the nation's premier pitcher," Nuveman said. Abbott leads the nation in strikeouts per seven innings with 14.5.