Only 16 teams remain in the 2014 NCAA softball tournament, as the Super Regionals are set to commence on Thursday. These teams will compete in best-of-three series to determine which will move forward toward the coveted College Softball World Series.
We've already seen some surprising results following the double-elimination regionals.
Unranked Michigan went 4-1, earning a right to move on and play No. 8 Florida State in the Super Regionals. Nebraska—another unranked team—also finished regional play 4-1 and will face No. 2 Alabama.
Those twists and turns—among others—were largely due to solid team efforts; however, the play of a few top-tier athletes stood out among the rest.
These are the players to keep an eye on as the Super Regionals get underway.
Let's take a look at a few standouts.
Hailey Decker, Nebraska
Nebraska not only defeated No. 15 Missouri twice during regional action, the Cornhuskers simply dismantled the Tigers.
Decker was the main reason why.
The resilient Cornhuskers forced an extra game after defeating Missouri 11-4 on Sunday. In the final game, Nebraska's hot hand continued, winning again—this time by a score of 8-1.
Winning by a combined 19-5 was a huge feat for Nebraska, but what Decker did in those two games can't be ignored.
Over those two contests, Decker went 5-for-8 against the Tigers, with four of those hits going yard. She finished with a grand total of eight RBI.
Apparently, Missouri threw everything but the kitchen sink at Decker to no avail, according to a tweet from Graham Hays of ESPN:
New meaning to hitting for the cycle. Nebraska'a Hailey Decker said the four pitches she hit for HRs today were: drop, rise, change, curve.— Graham Hays (@grahamhays) May 18, 2014
Decker gave her thoughts during an interview with Hays:
I'm not really used to hitting rise balls; I'm used to swinging and missing. So to hit a rise ball out was nice. And I had been struggling with the changeup previous games. As a hitter, I think that's one of my strengths, is being able to see the off-speed. I was getting pretty hard on myself, so I think I was most relieved about that one.
If Decker is hitting pitches she's normally accustomed to missing, that could be bad news for No. 2 Alabama on Thursday.
Haylie McCleney, Alabama
Speaking of the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, they have quite a stellar player of their own.
McCleney is one of the nation's top hitters. Her .462 batting average leads the SEC, and she has the nation's third-best on-base percentage at .578. She's recorded 11 doubles and nine home runs this season, helping her RBI total to reach 41. McCleney also stole 34 bases this season on 37 attempts.
Batting isn't the only thing McCleney does well—she also has one of the best gloves in the tournament.
McCleney made this wicked diving catch against SIU Edwardsville:
The human highlight reel also made SportsCenter with this fantastic grab:
Expect plenty of fireworks from McCleney throughout the remainder of the tournament.
Lauren Haeger, Florida
Haeger is the perfect definition of a dual-threat player.
Against a good UCF team in regional play, Haeger practically beat the Knights by herself.
Over that game, she needed 81 pitches to complete a five-hit shutout of UCF, helping the Gators sweep the series and move on to the Super Regionals.
That wasn't Haeger's only accomplishment in the Gators' 7-0 win. She also opened up the scoring for Florida in the first inning by blasting a two-run jack to center field.
Gator softball excitedly tweeted her blast:
Lauren Haeger has left the building! 2-run shot to center scores Tofft and gives the #Gators a 2-0 lead in T1!— Gator Softball (@GatorZoneSBall) May 18, 2014
After the game, Haeger spoke about her performance with Jordan McPherson of Alligator.org:
If they don't score, they don't win. So, we take everything inning by inning like it's its own game in itself and we just want to win every inning. I was a little bit more calm than usual. The first inning, I'm going to be completely honest, I was kind of everywhere and I just needed to settle down a little bit. But after that, I settled in really nicely.
This season, Haeger has dropped her ERA to just 1.57, striking out 61 batters and allowing just 20 earned runs though 89 innings pitched. She boasts a 10-2 record in 22 appearances.
On the offensive side of the ball, Haeger holds a .322 batting average with 56 hits, five doubles, 19 home runs and 64 RBI this season.
She will certainly continue to be a valuable weapon for the Gators as they continue toward a World Series berth.