It's time for five developments worth knowing from the second week of the college softball season.
1. The second act of Jordan Wallace
Considering Louisiana a year ago hosted a super regional amid one of the best atmospheres in college softball and returned to the Women's College World Series for the first time in six years, it would be reasonable to think folks in the soul of Louisiana might have welcomed a version of 2015 that played out exactly like 2014.
But as that proved impossible before Valentine's Day came and went, a dose of 2013 may save the day.
One of the most remarkable things about Louisiana's success a season ago, beyond what is inherently remarkable about a Sun Belt program composed mostly of players from Louisiana and Texas remaining among the sport's upper crust, was that it happened despite the team's presumptive ace all but vanishing from the scene. It was Jordan Wallace who nearly pitched the Ragin' Cajuns to the World Series in 2013, coming within a few outs of beating Michigan twice in one day to win a super regional in Ann Arbor.
Courtesy of Louisiana
Jordan Wallace nearly pitched the Ragin' Cajuns to the World Series in 2013, and she's recaptured that form early this season after struggling badly in 2014.
And it was Wallace who earned a tryout with Team USA after that season, a sophomore campaign in which she went 32-9 with a 1.70 ERA and 382 strikeouts in 255 1/3 innings. Yet when the team showed up in Oklahoma City last year for the World Series, it was Christina Hamilton earning all the attention in the circle, both for the stylish black frames she wore and her 29-4 record and 1.56 ERA.
Wallace, by contrast, was an afterthought by then, reduced to an extra arm by a loss of control that produced 110 walks, 33 wild pitches and 26 hit batters in 102 1/3 innings.
So look where we are now.
With Hamilton limited to just two innings so far this season with a shoulder injury, Wallace leads the team with 24 innings, despite dealing with her own arm issues. That workload included a 13-strikeout two-hitter against NC State during the season's opening week and two more shutouts this past weekend, a one-hitter with nine strikeouts against Idaho State and a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts against Mississippi Valley State.
And while batters still want to be light on their feet around her -- she hit four batters in her season debut -- they also aren't getting free bases with anything close to the same frequency as a year ago. In her first 24 innings this season, Wallace walked just five batters and struck out 46.
Louisiana coach Michael Lotief, who seems to pull softball rabbits out of his hat on a regular basis, said a season ago that Wallace's struggles played a key role in the team's development. Other players were forced to step up without the security blanket of a dominant pitcher (at least until Hamilton proved herself). The story of success in 2015 might be a little different. It might be about a team learning it still has an ace on whom it can rely.
2. Lauren Haeger launches candidacy
No, not for president, although plenty of people will be traipsing through Florida in the months to come as part of that process. Haeger used her bat and her arm to unofficially launch her bid for USA Softball Player of the Year. It's a crowded field, but the Florida senior looks like the kind of candidate who could be in the race for the long haul.
In six games this past week, including five games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams NC State and Iowa, Haeger drove in 10 runs and hit .533 (8-for-15) with five walks. Good, right? And that wasn't even the part of her game that merited weekly accolades from the SEC. Instead, those came as a result of her work in the circle. Haeger the pitcher earned three of the team's six wins and didn't allow an earned run in 15 innings. She did walk two batters in the finale against NC State, which came as a mild surprise, if only because they were the first she had issued all season. Her nearly 20:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is off the charts (Delanie Gourley and Aleshia Ocasio were mighty good, too).
Not coincidentally, while much of the top 10 already bears blemishes, No. 1 Florida is cruising along at 11-0.
So valuable at the plate and in the circle, Haeger also spent considerable time at first base in past seasons. Taylor Schwarz relieved some of that time a season ago and will again this season. That gives Haeger more time to focus on two things she does so very well. She might not be the best pitcher in the country, she might not be the best hitter, but she might be close enough on both counts by Memorial Day to still be there as the votes are tallied to determine the season's best player.
"In her first three years we've asked a lot of Lauren Haeger," coach Tim Walton said before the season. "Jennie Finch is probably one of the better examples; you don't find a kid very often who can play a position well, who can be a No. 1 pitcher and who can also be a three, four or five hitter for you. The amount of time that it takes to master all three is very, very difficult.
"Not to say I'm comparing Lauren to Jennie Finch, but my analogy is it's very hard to appreciate what it takes to be great, not just good, at all those things."
3. Cal bats break out of hibernation
It wasn't going to be easy for California to replace pitchers Jolene Henderson and Valerie Arioto. After back-to-back World Series appearances with those two and a winning season with Henderson on her own, Cal tumbled to a 23-29 record a season ago, including a 4-18 mark in the Pac-12, and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985. The Bears couldn't come close to filling the void in the circle and ranked last among Pac-12 teams in ERA.
It still isn't clear if the pitching larder is sufficiently restocked, but the team is 9-0 in large part because it's hitting .423 and scoring nine runs per game. That included 51 runs in five games this past week against UC Davis (twice), UC Riverside, Fresno State and Sacramento State. The production is promising because, while overshadowed by the pitching, the offense also fell off a cliff a season ago. Cal ranked next to last among Pac-12 teams in runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
It helps that Cheyenne Cordes, Danielle Henderson and Kylie Reed, three of the four true run producers the Bears had a season ago, are back. All Cordes did this past weekend was hit three home runs and drive in 12 runs. It helps that Britt Vonk, the Dutch international who sat out last season, is back and hitting .591 with five stolen bases through nine games. And it helps still more that freshman Jazmyn Jackson gives the team a leadoff hitter who hit .600 this past week (12-for-20) after also hitting .600 her first week.
Will there be pitching? We'll see. But there will be run support.
4. Michigan makes a statement
No team had a more impressive week than Michigan. It is going to have a lot of opportunities to be that team.
Michigan is likely to play at least one game against a top-10 team in four of the season's first five weeks. The lone exception comes at the end of the month with two games against Arizona State in Tempe, a challenge even if the Sun Devils aren't back in their accustomed place in the top 10 by then. Even by the program's own scheduling standards, it's a lot to ask. But so far, so good. After a 2-1 loss against Florida a week ago, Michigan swept a pair of games from Florida State in Tallahassee this past week, in addition to wins against Georgia Tech (twice) and Western Kentucky.
What all these big games in the opening weeks will hopefully shine some light on is the state of Michigan's pitching. After the offense came through in a 6-5 win in the first game against Florida State, Michigan's Megan Betsa got the best of Lacey Waldrop in a 2-1 pitcher's duel. A week earlier, Haylie Wagner held Florida in check in a 2-1 loss. And Sara Driesenga, so good in the team's World Series run two seasons ago but unable to recapture that form a season ago, is 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA and a better than 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But Betsa also has 16 walks in 18 2/3 innings (she survived six in the win Saturday), Wagner needed a lot of run support in the first game against the Seminoles and Driesenga hasn't gotten a start yet in a marquee game.
We don't know who Michigan's pitchers are yet. We don't know what Michigan is yet. But the Wolverines are going to have every opportunity to show us exactly who and what they are.
5. Akron's ace arrives
Softball fans in Akron just welcomed a proven pitcher to town, veteran Sarah Pauly joining incumbent star Rachele Fico with the Akron Racers of National Pro Fastpitch, but they need not wait for summer to arrive to check out an ace. Erin Seiler wasn't the only pitcher from beyond the major conferences to make her mark this past week -- reigning espnW player of the week Miranda Kramer of Western Kentucky beat Nebraska and went toe to toe with Florida State's Waldrop by throwing a two-hitter with 15 strikeouts, but the University of Akron ace made the Mid-American Conference look good.
Seiler beat Syracuse twice at a tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, limiting the ACC school to 11 hits and four earned runs in 14 innings while striking out 19 batters. She added a two-hit shutout against Bethune-Cookman and struck out 14 in a complete game win against host Jacksonville. Already among Akron's all-time leaders in strikeouts, Seiler is the reigning MAC pitcher of the year and could, if her early strikeout rate is any indication, be on the verge of taking another step forward.