Welcome to Bear Territory!
There's no non-jinxy-sounding way to say it: Cal is a heavy, heavy favorite in the Berkeley regional. Arkansas, Boston and Iona have RPIs of 45, 47 and 175 respectively. The 2nd to last team in the Pac-12 (Washington) has an RPI of 17. The 2nd lowest RPI in the Pac-12 is Oregon St. at 23. The point is this: Cal went 21-3 against a set of teams that are significantly stronger than the teams that will be heading to Berkeley.
Still, the teams coming west were good enough to make the playoffs and that means they've beaten some decent - in some cases, even elite - talent. Which means that Cal can't coast. I'll trust that a team with 50 wins knows how to avoid coasting.
We'll start our regional preview with Cal's Friday night opponent
Iona Gaels: 31-23 (12-4) Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
The Gaels managed a .500 record outside of the MAAC, but none of the teams Iona played jump out as particularly strong. Rutgers looks like the strongest team on their schedule and Iona lost both games at home. Iona has spent the majority of the season on the Eastern seaboard but like most teams up North took a couple trips south earlier in the season to avoid bad weather. Still, the 3,000 mile journey to face the #1 team in the country at their place is as daunting a challenge as the playoffs can hand out.
Iona has a solid if unspectacular offense, but pitching is the strength of the team. They led their conference in ERA, led by the duo of Alyssa Maiese and Sarah Jackson, who have extraordinarily similar statistics. For example, innings pitched (195.1 vs. 195), ERA (1.25 vs. 1.26) and K:BB ratios (4.52 vs. 4.25). I have no clue which one will start against Cal, but if the starter struggles we'll see the other come in.
Arkansas Razorbacks: 27-26 (7-21) Southeastern Conference
It's always a bit jarring to see a team that lost 75% of their conference games make the NCAA tournament, but such is the strength of power conferences like the Pac-12 and the SEC. And to Arkansas's credit, they've beaten some really good teams. Teams like 2 seed Alabama, 7 seed Tennessee and 10 seed Georgia. So there's immediate evidence that on a good day Arkansas has enough talent to beat any team in the country.
Then again, Arkansas also went 1-5 against the two SEC teams that didn't make the tournament, and a few of those games were somewhat lopsided. Which means that on a bad day things can get really rough.
The Razorback offense is all about power. They're 3rd in the SEC in home runs, they almost never sacrifice or steal bases, and they strike out a ton. And that's pretty good news for Cal fans, because Cal allowed all of 9 home runs this year and there are few pitchers in the nation with better strike out stuff than Jolene Henderson. It's hard to score against the Bears if you can't manufacture runs or string hits together.
Boston University Terriers: 40-14 (16-3) American East Conference
Like Iona, the Terriers hail from a small conference on the East Coast, but they challenged themselves with a tough non-conference schedule that included playoff teams South Florida, Maryland, Syracuse, Louisiana Lafayette and Louisville. More impressively, Boston went 3-2 in those five games, including shut outs of Syracuse and Maryland. Competitive losses against national seeds Louisiana Lafayette and Louisville are just as impressive.
Based on those 5 games alone I'm inclined to say that the Terriers are the biggest threat to the Bears, though they'll be hard pressed to score runs. Boston's strength is a pitching staff that has managed a 1.84 ERA thus far. Ace Holli Floetker doesn't rack up a ton of strike outs and doesn't hold teams to a particularly low batting average, but she doesn't seem to allow hard contact - over 184 innings she's only allowed 18 extra base hits, or about one every ten innings. Now that's impressive.
The offense has decent season stats but they only scored 8 runs in those games against playoff teams, which makes me wonder if they have the ability to hit elite pitchers. If not they'll count on their pitching and defense to keep things close and hope to scratch across a run or two.