WCWS: Player To Watch from All 8 Teams

Ben Heck@@benheckONContributor IIIJune 3, 2011

WCWS: Player To Watch from All 8 Teams

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    The Women's College World Series kicked off yesterday, with eight teams participating in a double-elimination style bracket for a shot to play in the best-of-three championship series set to begin on Monday June 6 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

    For those that enjoy parity in sports, the good news this season is that 2010 Champions UCLA didn't even make it out of the Gainesville Region bracket, dropping two straight games to the then-No. 4 seeded Florida Gators.

    Here is my list of players to watch from each team in the 2011 WCWS.

8. Missouri: Chelsea Thomas, SP

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    Thomas was the reason the Missouri Tigers dropped its first game to the Gators last night, as she surrendered six earned runs in six innings pitched. She did strike out eight batters, but Florida's high-powered offense, led by the power-hitting Megan Bush, lit the scoreboard up against the Nation's ERA leader (.83 in 245.7 innings pitched before yesterday).

    On the brink of elimination, the Tigers need a very strong outing from Thomas against the Sooners tomorrow afternoon.

    Photo from kniakris.com

7. Baylor: Dani Leal, IF

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    Leal is by far the best hitter the Baylor Tigers currently possess on its roster, and as a senior from Mexico City, Mexico was named an All-American along with teammate and starting pitcher Whitney Canion.

    As a versatile infielder, Leal led the team with 14 homers and 38 RBI as the Bears finished the regular season at 45-13 and a 3-0 record in the College Park Regional in late May.

    Update: Thanks to a walk-off solo home run by backup catcher Kelsi Kettler in the bottom of the seventh, Baylor has defeated Oklahoma State 1-0 in the team's first game of the double-elimination tournament.

    Photo from big12sports.com

    Also keep an eye on pitcher Whitney Canion.

6. California: Jolene Henderson, SP

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    There isn't exactly one hitter that jumps off the charts for the California Golden Bears, but sophomore start Henderson's 0.87 ERA and 39 wins in 50 appearances surely gives Cal a great chance at winning each time she steps on the mound.

    As a hitter (she also plays first base), Henderson has hit six home runs and drove in 23 runs from the batter's box. That's what I call a versatile ball player.

    Photo from yahoo.com

5. Oklahoma: Keilani Ricketts, SP

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    With sophomore catcher Jessica Shultz out with ulcerative colitis, Oklahoma will have to rely more on the left arm of sophomore pitcher Keilani Ricketts.

    Without Shultz's Big 12-leading 18 home runs and 58 RBI (fourth-most in Big 12), the Sooners' offense is obviously feeling the affects of the absent power. But, what they aren't feeling the absence of is the dominance that is Ricketts.

    In 41 starts this season, Ricketts posted a 1.48 ERA with a conference-leading 447 strikeouts.

    Ricketts, along with Baylor's Whitney Canion and Alabama's Kelsi Dunne, has been one of the Conference's most dominating pitchers in 2011 and could even be considered top 10 in the entire NCAA.

    Photo from wacsoftball.blogspot.com

4. Oklahoma State: Kat Espinosa, SP

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    Oklahoma State's hitting as a team is very solid, with two players (Chelsea Garica and Julie Ward) finishing with double-digit home run totals and five players (Garcia, Ward, Alysia Hamilton, Mariah Gearhart and Ari Morrison) with a .300-plus batting average for the season.

    But starting pitcher Espinosa, a sophomore, seems to make the biggest individual impact on the Cowboys' games.

    As a freshman last season, she was named to the All-Big 12 first team after making 33 starts, and in 28 starts this season, posted a 23-8 record, 2.13 ERA and pitched 16 complete games.

    Update: In a very strong outing yesterday afternoon, Espinosa's Oklahoma State ball team dropped a 1-0 game to Baylor. Espinosa gave up just the one run on four hits while notching five strikeouts.

    Photo from newsok.com

3. Florida: Megan Bush, Utility

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    The Gators' senior utility player hit her 21st home run of the season in yesterday's WCWS opening victory over Missouri, a 6-2 win. The two-run round tripper put her in a tie for fourth-most homers on the season.

    The two runs that scored on that homer gave her 80 RBI on the season, and her .350 batting average continues to rise as the 52-10 Gators have now won four straight games, dating back to a three-game series with the UCLA Bruins on May 22. They took 2-of-3 from the defending champs that day.

    Photo from gatorcountry.com

2. Arizona State: Annie Lockwood, INF/OF

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    Lockwood, ASU's leader in the dugout, hit 16 home runs and drove in 64 runs for the Sun Devils this season.

    The 5'8'' junior was 0-for-2 in yesterday's 3-1 victory over Oklahoma while playing in right field but don't expect her to stay that quiet for the rest of the tournament. Lockwood will leave her mark on ASU's run for a national championship with her powerful bat, whether you like it or not.

    Photo from usasoftball.com

1. Alabama: Kelsi Dunne, SP

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    In Alabama's first game of the 2011 WCWS yesterday, the senior pitcher led her team to victory with a six-inning, 11-strikeout performance in which she allowed just one hit and not a single run against 19 California batters.

    Dunne's ERA for the season was a jaw-dropping 1.12 as she posted a 28-4 record.

    As expected, Dunne was named to the All-SEC first team after her dominant senior year.

    Roll Tide.