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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Stanford hits the road in order to return home Stanford hits the road in order to return home (May 18, 2005)

NCAA regional title could earn Cardinal a Super Regional

by Rick Eymer

Even while losing its final two games of the regular season, the Stanford softball team took another step forward over the weekend.

The fourth-ranked Cardinal (13-8, 40-14) claimed a piece of their first ever Pac-10 title despite losing to visiting Arizona, 1-0 on Friday night and 3-2 on Saturday after beating visiting Arizona State 3-0 on Thursday night.

"This conference has so much parity and having four teams tie for the title is an oddity in any league," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "It says a lot about this conference."

What says even more about the conference is that all eight teams qualified for the NCAA tournament which gets underway on Thursday. Stanford opens play on Friday in the Missouri regional. The Cardinal meet Robert Morris (29-20) in the first round. Missouri (42-13) and Southern Illinois (46-12) also meet in the first round of the double- elimination tournament.

"We're going on the road, which means a short practice week," Rittman said. "We're prepared for it and are giving the kids time for classes and finishing assignments."

Oregon State, Arizona and California also grabbed a share of the Pac-10 championship. The Beavers were awarded the automatic bid based on a tiebreaker, though Cal earned the No. 2 overall seed and Arizona was given the No. 3 seed. Stanford was seeded sixth, followed by UCLA (7) and Oregon State (8).

Cal, which did not place a bid to host a regional, travels to Fresno, while Arizona and UCLA were each awarded a regional. Stanford, which hosted a regional as the second place team in the Pac-10 last year, could host a super regional next weekend if it wins in Columbia, Mo.

"It all depends on who wins what regional," Rittman said. "The committee will review all the regionals after the weekend and announce sites afterward."

The winner of the Missouri regional will meet the winner of the Tennessee regional, which includes the host Lady Vols, seeded 11th nationally, along with Miami of Ohio, College of Charleston and Georgia Tech.

Stanford is making its eighth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament and will be trying for its second straight (third overall) trip to the College World Series.

"This is the best team at Stanford I've ever been on," senior outfielder Meghan Sickler said. "The offense is amazing; we can all hit. Every year this team has gotten better and better. I feel like we need to continue building on the regular season."

Sickler was one of six seniors honored on Saturday, a group that also includes Michelle Thiry, Katherine Hoffman, Elizabeth Bendig, Heather Shook and Leah Nelson. The seniors bring a 174-79 career record into the postseason.

"It's a huge help that we've all been there at the College World Series," Sickler said. "We've learned to control nerves and to produce under pressure. Every team is hard, so we have to play like its our last game. We have to be up for every game."

It's almost as though Stanford has been in tournament play all year. The Cardinal participated in seven in-season tournaments and with all eight Pac-10 teams qualifying, the conference season had the feel of tournament play.

Stanford has to feel pretty good about its chances this weekend after winning every conference series with the exception of Arizona, which ultimately cost the Cardinal the automatic bid.

"The experience factor is huge," said Rittman, who served as an assistant coach to Arizona's Mike Candrea for last summer's gold medal-winning United States Olympic team. "And the freshmen have just finished the Pac-10 season, so they've seen the best softball has to offer. But you have to respect every opponent because every team is going to be good from now on."

Freshmen like Michelle Smith, Becky McCullough, Erin Howe, Anna Beardman and Tricia Aggabao have made a major impact on Stanford this season. Smith set a school record with 18 home runs, and she also leads the team with 50 RBI. McCullough (18-6, 1.88) has pitched a team-high 179 innings.

Aggabao has started every game, while Howe and Beardman have started the majority of games.

Junior centerfielder Catalina Morris may be perhaps the best all-around leadoff hitter in the country, as she leads the team in hits (64), average (.362), doubles (14), triples (4) to go with 13 homers, 36 RBI, a .706 slugging percentage and a .407 on base percentage.

Junior shortstop Lauren Lappin (.344-5-26) was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team, and junior pitcher Laura Severson has a career record of 33-17.

This is the first season for a revised playoff system, with a super regional added before the CWS. The 16 regional winners will pair off the following weekend for a chance at one of the eight berths in the CWS.

Baseball has been using the format since 1999, though it differs in that baseball teams are more concerned about the pitching rotation than softball teams, which could conceivably use the same pitcher every game.

"We're entering uncharted waters but it's good for the sport," Rittman said. "It will match good teams and it makes it easier to host."

Stanford probably wasn't in much of a mood to celebrate its share of the conference title on Saturday, though the Cardinal rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh, and had the tying and winning runs in scoring position when the game ended.

"We lost two one-run games over the weekend," Rittman said. "Good teams make the most of their opportunities. Any time you have an opportunity to beat a team after battling back from three runs, you have to feel good."

Sickler, who reached base in all three at bats on Saturday, doubled to open the seventh. Aggabao singled to score Sickler and eventually scored on a wild pitch. Morris doubled and Lappin was walked intentionally, and both moved up on the wild pitch before Arizona ended things.

McCullough threw a four-hitter in Stanford's win over Arizona State. Morris doubled home two runs and Sickler drove in a run.

"It's been awesome; lots of fun," Sickler said of her career at Stanford. "But it's also said it's over."

Well, not quite over. Stanford feels has a chance for its first ever national title; a journey that begins Friday.

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