The top-seeded Cal softball team (56-5) opens play in the College World Series on Thursday vs. LSU (39-23) in a 12:30 p.m. PDT game that will be televised on ESPN2.
On the same side of the bracket, fourth-seeded Oklahoma (50-8) takes on South Florida (50-12).
The winners meet Friday at 4 p.m. PDT, the losers clash on Saturday at 9 a.m. PDT. Both of those games also will be aired on ESPN2.
The opposite bracket begins Thursday with No. 2 seed Alabama (55-7) facing SEC rival Tennessee (52-12) and third-seeded and defending champ ASU (51-9) battling Pac-12 counterpart Oregon (44-16).
In its 12th trip to the CWS, Cal is hoping to duplicate the title it won 10 years ago.
Here’s a look at the competition in the Bears’ side of the bracket at Oklahoma City:
* LSU: The Tigers, under first-year coach Beth Torina, finished second in the SEC Western Division behind Alabama. They are 5-1 in the postseason, having allowed just three runs in their victories. But they are 1-8 against the rest of the CWS field, including a pair of shutout losses to Oklahoma and a 14-3 drubbing at the hands of Cal on Feb. 19 in Las Vegas.
LSU relies on its pitching, defense and station-to-station offense. The Tigers are hitting just .221 with 13 home runs — 10 fewer than Cal senior Valerie Arioto has by herself.
LSU’s top hitter is senior outfielder Ashley Langoni, whose .265 batting average, six home runs and 30 RBI all are team bests.
But the pitching tandem of Rachele Fico and Brittany Mack is formidable. Fico has been the ace this season, compiling a 20-11 record with an NCAA-leading 0.92 earned run average. Fico did not pitch when Cal blasted four home runs against the Tigers.
* OKLAHOMA: The Sooners, champs of the Big 12, have won eight in a row, 13 of 14. They figure to be Cal’s biggest threat on this side of the bracket after outscoring their regional and super regional opponents by a 45-5 margin.
Oklahoma is No. 2 nationally in home runs per game (1.64) and tied for first with 95 overall. Freshman first baseman Lauren Chamberlain has 27 home runs and 71 RBI, junior catcher Jessica Shults has 19 homers and 57 RBI, and pitcher Keilani Ricketts has 16 homers and 43 RBI to go with a .407 batting average.
Ricketts, from Archbishop Mitty HS in San Jose, also has compiled a 33-7 pitching record. The 6-foot-2 left-hander is third in the NCAA with 393 strikeouts and is a finalist for USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year award.
The Sooners are a California-built squad, with nine players hailing from the Sunshine State, compared to five in-state players. Ricketts, Chamberlain and Shults are all Californians.
* SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls of the Big East also boast great pitching, but cannot match Cal or Oklahoma offensively. They bat .262 as a team with 27 home runs, Sophomore shortstop Kourtney Salvarola, with a .327 average, is the club’s only player hitting above .300. Senior outfielder Janine Richardson leads the club with seven home runs.
But sophomore left-hander Sara Nevins has carried USF with a 31-6 pitching record, 323 strikeouts and a 1.03 ERA. The Bulls’ team ERA of 1.18 is second nationally, behind Oklahoma’s 1.15 mark.