June 4, 2007

By Ann Schatz
Special to

The Championship Series is here and, regardless of what the seedings say, the two best teams in college softball are playing for the title.

Here is what each team needs to do to take the title:

Arizona obviously knows how to win championships and feels good about its chances of defending its title.

Coach Mike Candrea instills confidence and the belief that his team belongs in every one of his players. That is evident in Taryne Mowatt, and how she patiently waited behind Alicia Hollowell for her chance to lead the Wildcats. She has been as impressive as anyone I have ever seen in grabbing her chance at the spotlight and making the most of it. She has gone every inning in the World Series. However, between that and having come through the loser's bracket after a heartbreaking loss to Tennessee last weekend, you have to wonder if she is gassed after throwing 36 innings.

That is why the first game of the Championship Series is so important for Mowatt. The fact that her team finally gave her some run support in the second game against Washington was huge. When they played Tennessee the first time around, they got on base against Monica Abbott, but couldn't score runs. The Wildcats need to pay back Mowatt for that game and say, "I owe you one." They took a big step towards doing that in the last game against Washington.

Every time Arizona asks Caitlin Lowe to come up with a big hit, she does, but she needs to set the table early and often. The Wildcats are not a power-hitting team, so they have to get some two out hits and get to Abbott early. The longer Abbott goes, the more dangerous she becomes.

The Wildcats have committed only two errors in Oklahoma City, but one came against Tennessee, leading to the difference-making run in the game. They have to play perfect defense and make the Lady Vols earn everything they get. If they can get to Abbott early, play perfect defense and get Mowatt some run support, they can win it all.

Any conversation about Tennessee has to start with Monica Abbott. She is their star. The reason she has been able to break through this year, as opposed to last year, is because coach Karen Weekly has worked hard with her to use all zones, develop more pitches and, more than anything else, build her confidence.

She is more confident than ever before and steadier in the circle because of it. You can see in her facial expressions and body language that she does not get unnerved, as she might have in the past. She might give up hits, but she scatters them and doesn't give up the big hit. Her performance against Northwestern Sunday was masterful, allowing just two hits while striking out 17. She has also beaten Arizona in the World Series, but needs to remember that it is Arizona, and that they are the defending champs for a reason.

The India Chiles comeback is an inspiration that this team can really rally around. Everyone said she was done for the Series with a knee injury, but there she was, pinch-hitting and coming through with a big hit, then playing in the outfield afterwards. As great as the Lady Vols' lineup is, it is Chiles' presence on the field and in the dugout that makes a difference.

I mentioned Caitlin Lowe on Arizona and her importance at the top of the lineup, but Lindsay Schutzler is just as important in that spot for Tennessee. The Lady Vols have a little more power than Arizona, but Schutzler is crucial to their success setting the table. If Mowatt can get touched early by Tennessee, with all the innings she has pitched already in the Series, the Lady Vols have a chance to break the game wide open later. This lineup can hurt you with speed and power, and they need to give Abbott some runs and room to do her thing, rather than rely on her to win 1-0 or 2-1 every game.

The keys for both teams really are the same, and it seems pretty basic, but at this point, every play is crucial. A two-out hit just might be the difference in the entire Series, since the two best teams are here.

With that said, I am going with Tennessee, simply because of Monica Abbott, by the slimmest of margins.





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