Secret of Best College Teams: Defense!

Florida Did It Best in 2017

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD - The NCAA website keeps a pretty dynamite archive of statistical data from the prior season based on team and individual performance.  It keeps rankings for 12 stat categories.  The team stat categories range from practical ones, like team scoring and team home runs per game, to the less than practical, like team doubles per game. 

I wanted to bring together all of the statistical categories provided by the NCAA website and see how the 64 playoff teams from 2017 ranked in each statistical category.  The table below lists each of the 2017 playoff teams, with the #1 seeds from 2017 occupying the top 16 spots.  Let's go to the data!


2017 NCAA Teams Statistical Category Rankings:




A few interesting things pop out when looking at this data:


1. It's amazing just how dominant Florida's defense was last season, especially considering that it plays in the toughest division in college softball.  Florida ranked #1 in both ERA and fielding percentage.  It surprised me that Florida's offensive numbers were not as dominant—especially in the power numbers.  Florida ranked 59th in home runs, 21st in scoring and 34th in slugging %, but the Gators were able to make up for it by consistently getting players on base—as evidenced by its #8 on-base percentage ranking.  The most important thing for a hitter is not getting out!  And the Gators excelled at that in 2017—combine that with a #1 defense and you have a recipe for success!


2. I was also surprised with just how high Arizona's offense ranked: #4 in batting average, #1 in home runs, #2 in scoring and #1 in slugging percentage.  No other team even came close to matching its offensive numbers.  But I feel like Arizona did not get much press as being an offensive juggernaut last year.   The press should have been paying closer attention to these numbers!


3.  Think stolen bases are important?  They aren't.  None of the top 16 teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in stolen bases.  The average national ranking for stolen bases was 79 in the nation.  Not exactly impressive.


4.  Want to know which category the top 16 seeds were most commonly at the top of?  Earned run average.  The average ranking of the top 16 teams was 20.8.  The next closest was fielding % at 28.8, followed by scoring at 38, slugging at 43, and batting average at 39.  So the one common theme among the top 16 teams was (as you might expect) defense! Read more.




Big 12 is Best College Softball Conference

2017 NCAA Playoff Stats Tell the Tale

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD - Lucky for all you softball fans out there, in my free time I like to prepare softball data for analysis.  This time I went through every game of the 2017 NCAA playoffs and tallied the victories per team.  I then matched up the teams to their respective conferences to see which conferences performed best in the 2017 postseason.  Everyone knows which teams performed best on the field, but when taking into account every game of the postseason, which conferences did best?  What are the top softball conferences in the country, in order?  I expected the SEC would be far and away the best conference by every measure including number of teams, number of victories, and number of wins per team.  But what I found was not quite as black & white as that. 

2017 Playoffs—Conference Rankings


1. Big 12

I have to hand out the #1 ranking this year to the Big 12.  Not only did the Big 12 have the championship team in Oklahoma, but it also was far and away the most successful conference on a per-team basis.  The Big 12 only entered 4 teams into the postseason (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Baylor) but those 4 teams racked up 21 wins.  And while Oklahoma accounts for 11 of the 21 wins for the Big 12, the conference still put up a remarkable wins-per-team ratio that was far and away the best of the 2017 playoffs.


2. SEC

The SEC has the strongest claim to the #2 slot because of the sheer volume of teams and wins.  And being the only other conference with a team in the WCWS final (Florida) doesn't hurt either!  I know this sounds crazy, but every single SEC softball program made the postseason!  They were a perfect 13 for 13!  And those 13 teams racked up 48 victories!  There were 136 total games in the 2017 postseason and the SEC accounted for 35% of them!  Unreal!  The SEC would have taken the top spot but for a Big 12 team winning the title, and for being so far behind in the victories-per-team numbers.


3. Pac-12

The numbers for the Pac-12 really surprised me.  The Pac-12 sent 7 teams to the 2017 postseason and they accounted for 24 victories.  But on a per-team basis, the Pac-12 was as strong as the SEC with 3.42 wins per team.  I like to talk about the shifting locus of softball from the West Coast in the Pac-12 to the Southeast in the SEC.  But the Pac-12 teams performed equally as well as the SEC.  Based on this data, maybe it is more accurate to say the SEC and Pac-12 now share the distinction of the best conference in college softball.  For these reasons the Pac-12 is my #3.


4. ACC

The #4 ranking was harder to award than #1 thru #3, but I think the ACC, which entered 3 teams in the tournament, has to take the prize.  The ACC entered strong teams including North Carolina, Florida State, and Notre Dame.  These 3 teams won 7 games and earned a 2.33 win-per-team ratio.  The Big 10 was considered for the #4 ranking, but while the Big 10 had more teams in the postseason with 5 and more overall wins with 9, the Big 10 fell short of expectations and only managed 0.8 wins-per-team.  The Big 10 even had the #1-ranked team in the country at the time in Minnesota, but could not bust into the top 4 in wins-per-team.  And that failure cannot go unnoticed!  For that reason the ACC takes the #4 slot in my mind.


So there you have it!  The top 4 conferences ranked!  The Big 12 takes top honors with the #1 team and most wins-per-team. The SEC takes #2 with the most teams and victories, and the 2nd-most (tie) wins-per-team.  The Pac-12 surprises by equaling the SEC in wins-per-team, and the ACC rounds out the top 4 with the 4th-most wins-per-team.  The Big 10 is left out in the cold after performing below expectations.


Now if someone asks you what the best conference in college softball is, you can tell them you can rattle off more than the top 1, you can rattle off the top 4 in order! Read more.




California Dominates NCAA Softball Rosters

Almost One-Third of Players on Top College Teams Hail from The Golden State 

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD - As a fan of NCAA softball for over 10 years, I have visited the web pages of hundreds of college teams and looked through the rosters of dozens of teams.  Each time I look at a different NCAA team's roster, I get the feeling a significant number of players are from California--no matter what team I am looking at or where in the country it is from.  Am I just seeing things, or is there something to this?  I know California is a hotbed of softball talent, but does it really take up a significant number of roster spots on each NCAA team?  

Let's go to the data: 


For my sample I used the 16 teams that made the Super Regional in 2017.  I pulled the roster info for each team and found that out of 320 players, 102 or 32% were from California!  I was not expecting it to be that high.  I would have considered 10% to be high, but 32%!  Almost one in every three players on the top teams are from California.  And not only did California players make up almost 32% of the players, each of the top 16 teams from 2017 had at least one player from The Golden State. 

Based on my analysis, I must conclude that California makes up a disproportionately large percentage of NCAA softball rosters, and that California produces players that win at the highest level in the NCAA. 

I am surprised too that so many players from California are willing to travel so far away from home to schools all along the West Coast and to the central and southeast parts of the country to play ball.  The investment in coaches and facilities by conferences like the SEC must play a huge role in luring the talent away from California. 

It might be that the increasing parity we are seeing in college softball can be explained by the fact that California players are no longer limiting themselves to the Pac-12, but are fanning out geographically and bringing the benefits of their talent to more teams across the county!

If I was a college coach I would just go to California every off-season and recruit exclusively in The Golden State.  I would try to make an all-California roster, and I bet I would never lose a game!  Read more. 




Oklahoma Does It Again!

Defeats Top-Ranked Florida for Second-Straight NCAA Title

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

OKLAHOMA CITY - Ranked #1 through nearly the entire 2017 season and replete with first-class pitching and hitting, the Florida Gators were odds-on favorites to win it all this year.  The Gators were eager to comply, looking to avenge last year’s early exit in the Super Regional despite similar regular-season dominance.
Although they were defending NCAA champions, expectations were somewhat lower for Oklahoma. The Sooners looked like their postseason might end early, but they pulled off a furious comeback to make it into the Super Regionals.

Oklahoma was in one of the easier Regional pools this year.  The three other teams were Tulsa, North Dakota State, and Arkansas.  Arkansas is an SEC school, but Arkansas went 7-17 in conference and ranked 2nd to last in the conference in 2017.

 Maybe Oklahoma thought its Regional pool was too easy and overestimated it, because the Sooners were upset big-time in the first game, losing to North Dakota State 3-2.  It is very rare for a team that loses its first game in the Regional to move on to the Super Regional, and Oklahoma's back was definitely to the wall, but it found a way to win when it mattered.

Oklahoma battled back and defeated Arkansas 5-3 in the losers' bracket, then beat North Dakota State in a revenge game 10-2.  The Sooners were then faced with the formidable task of defeating unbeaten Tulsa twice in a row to advance.  Oklahoma won the first game 6-4, then came up big again to beat Tulsa 3-0.

The Sooners then advanced to the Super Regionals to face #7-seed Auburn.  Oklahoma ace Paige Parker set a new postseason-best by striking out every Auburn starter at least once in a 4-0 win in game one.  The remainder of the pitching staff—and in particular, first-year transfer Paige Lowary—returned the favor in game two with a 5-2 victory and a ticket to the 2017 Women’s College World Series (WCWS).

Eyebrows were raised as Alabama beat Florida in game one of their Super Regional matchup, but Florida quickly waded through the Tide, winning the next two games 2-0 and 2-1 to advance to the WCWS.
As expected, Florida trounced Texas A&M in game 1.  The Gators humiliated the Aggies 8-0 in a 5-inning mercy rule victory.  Florida sent ace pitcher 1-A Kelly Barnhill to the mound, and she blanked the Aggies over four innings and only allowed 3 hits while striking out 5.  Florida then sent ace pitcher 1-B Delanie Gourley to the mound for the final inning, and she retired 3 out of 4 batters to end the inning.

The Florida bats pounced early and churned 2 runs on 3 hits in the first inning.  Florida manufactured 2 more runs off 2 hits and a walk to go up 4-0 after 2 innings.  Florida then put up 1 additional run in the 3rd and 3 runs in the 4th.  After a 5th shutout inning, the game was over by mercy rule.

Florida was on a mission, and it was going to be very tough to beat as it added another trouncing to its resume.
LSU was fresh off of an upset victory over UCLA and had to be confident it could play with any team—until it met Florida.  Ace pitcher Kelly Barnhill delivered again for the Gators with a 2nd straight shutout victory.  Barnhill pitched a complete game 2-hitter with 8 strikeouts and 3 walks.

Florida's defense was excellent, but its offense was even better: Janelle Wheaton and Kayli Kvistad hit home runs and collectively drove in 4 runs.  Florida's offense put up 9 hits and 7 runs in 7 innings.  Very impressive.
In two WCWS games, Florida had outscored its opponents 15-0!  That is domination!

Florida then beat Washington 5-2.  The Gators were up 5-0 on Washington until the 7th inning, when the Huskies were able to put up 2 pity runs.  Florida used its 2nd ace pitcher Delaney Gourley to face Washington, and she delivered!  Gourley pitched 7 innings and only allowed 2 runs and 2 hits in the 7th inning.  She also struck out 10.  She was magnificent!

But the real story was Florida's continued offensive assault against other WCWS pitchers. Florida hitters put up 7 hits over 7 innings and manufactured 5 runs.  The top of the Florida lineup was especially impressive: it put up 5 of Florida's 7 hits and was responsible for 4 of Florida's 5 RBI.

If Florida hitters and pitchers continued to put up numbers like this, they would win the WCWS handily.
Meanwhile defending champ Oklahoma advanced past Baylor (6-3), Washington (3-1) and Oregon (4-2) to set the stage for a dream best-of-three final series against #1-seed Florida.

The word epic is rarely an understatement, but that perfectly describes what happened in game one as the Oklahoma Sooners won a 17-inning nailbiting roller coaster slug match.

Oklahoma was up 2-1 in the top of the 7th with 2 outs and 2 strikes, but Gator Sophia Reynoso hit a ball to the outfield that dropped just short of the Oklahoma fielder's mitt and allowed speedy Alesia Ocasio to score all the way from 1st base.  On to extra innings!

In the 12th inning Oklahoma's Fale Aviu hit a 2-run blast to put Oklahoma up 4-2.  After switching sides, Oklahoma was again up with 2 outs and ready to close the Gators out.  There were Gator baserunners at 1st and 2nd.  Then Gator Amanda Lorenz hit a shot to the gap that scored 2 Florida runs and again tied up the game.  Florida had saved themselves from defeat again!!

But despite the sensational comebacks, it all unraveled for Florida in the top of the 17th when Oklahoma freshmen Shay Knighten hit a towering 3-run bomb that put the Sooners up for good 7-4.

This was the longest game in WCWS finals history!! What a historic match!!

Oklahoma jumped out early in game two, putting up 4 runs in the first 2 innings.  Florida answered back with 3 runs in the 2nd and added a 3rd run in the 3rd inning to make the score 4-3.  The Sooners eventually edged out the Gators 5-4 to win it all.

Oklahoma had 4 pitchers pitch in the decisive 2nd game.  Paige Parker pitched the first 3 innings but was pulled after giving up 3 runs over the first 1.2 innings.  Freshman Mariah Lopez then carried the load for 2.1 innings.  Nicole Mendes entered the circle in the 5th inning, then handed the ball off to Paige Lowary who pitched 2 innings of shutout ball in the 6th and 7th to seal the victory.

Sophomore Shay Knighten was named the WCWS championship series most outstanding player.  She came up with big hits in both games to give the Sooners the lead that eventually won the game.  In game one Knighten hit a 3-run home run in the top of the 17th inning to put the Sooners ahead 7-4.  The Sooners went on to win 7-5 in the bottom of the 17th.

In game two Knighten hit a bases-clearing double that scored 2 runs and gave the Sooners a lead they held through the final inning to win the title.  All in all, Knighten hit .350 in 20 at-bats with 7 total hits, 2 doubles, a home run and 8 RBI.

The Sooners now have four national titles in softball.  Only Arizona and UCLA have more with 8 and 11, respectively.  Is playing in Oklahoma City too much of an advantage for the Sooners?  Maybe it's time to give another venue a chance!  Read more.




James Madison—Playing with the 'Big Boys'

Mickey Dean Builds an Elite Program at a Midsized School

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD James Madison softball is one of the best stories going in the softball world right now.

James Madison is a midsized school of 19,262 students in the mountains of north central Virginia.  James Madison is relatively new to the softball world—it has only had a Division 1 college program since 2002.  And the softball team from 2002-2012 was decently good with a respectable 283–252 record, appearing in the Colonial Athletic Association Championship Tournament twice.  But that is nothing compared to where the program has gone through since 2013.

Since then the program has reached new and elite heights, primarily due to its hiring of Mickey Dean as head coach.

Dean arrived on campus with an amazing list of credentials, including pitching coach for the Venezuelan National Team (2002-2008) and head coach for the National Pro Fastpitch Chicago Bandits (2004-2010), winning five NPF Regular Season Championships and the NPF Championship Series in 2008.  He was named NPF Manager of the Year three times, coaching one of the best-known pitchers in softball history, Jennie Finch, in the process.

Dean has helped turn the James Madison program from a middling backwater outpost to a consistently elite softball program.  During his tenure, Dean has led the program to an 185-48 record, including a 70-7 in-conference record and two Colonial Athletic Association conference championships—two in four years! 

2016 was an especially impressive year as Dean led the JMU Dukes to a 50-6 overall record, a CAA conference championship, an NCAA Regional title, an NCAA Super Regional appearance, and an overall 11th rank in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll.  The team also had two All-American Team selections in pitchers Jailyn Ford and Megan Good.  Mickey Dean was rewarded in 2016 with a contract extension through 2021. 

So far in 2017, James Madison is ranked 14th in the nation and has a 37-6 record.  James Madison has wins over much larger programs including Mizzou, Oklahoma State, South Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, UCF, Maryland, and a split series against #7 ranked Auburn. There is a good reason why James Madison is ranked #11! 

It's nice to have some new blood amongst the elite softball programs.  And James Madison is such a cool "rags to riches " story.  James Madison's football team also won a national title in 2016.  From bringing in elite coaches like Mickey Dean to its  success in other sports, James Madison has made a massive investment in its sports programs, and it is fun to see it pay dividends!

James Madison is a great midsized-school underdog team to root for when the NCAA playoffs roll around at the end of May.  Go Dukes! Read more.


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