Four top-25 ranked teams headline the 2022 Northern Lights Southern Nights tournament, which kicks off Feb. 10 with 19th-ranked Kentucky and Wisconsin in the Arctic Blast-Off.
The opening night showdown between Southeastern and Big Ten Conference teams sets the tone for one of the most stacked early-season invitations in college softball. USA Today’s No. 11 Missouri, No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 24 Liberty join Kentucky, while Northwestern sits just outside the Top 25 as the third-highest team to receive votes.
Northwestern is also one of five Big Ten teams in the loaded field – joining Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa – which also includes two ACC teams (Virginia Tech and Pitt ) and the SEC (Kentucky and Missouri).
Akron (Mid-American), Connecticut (Big East) and Eastern Kentucky complete the tournament.
No. 11 Missouri
Between Kimberly Wert, Hatti Moore, Brooke Wilmes, Emma Raabe and Jenna Laird, Missouri returns 64 production runs. The Tigers ranked No. 11 in the nation last year in homers hit with 91 — Cayla Kessinger is the only hitter to hit more than eight on the 2021 roster.
All that power makes Missouri one of the toughest rosters in college softball, and the Tigers are also returning their best pitchers from a season ago. Jordan Weber finished with a 2.82 ERA, struck out 105 and held opposing batters to an average of .180 in his 31 appearances and 27 starts.
Laurin Krings struck out 122 batters in 29 appearances and 13 starts, and pitched five full games. Megan Schumacher went 10-3 with a 2.69 ERA in 23 appearances and 11 starts.
All told, Missouri has a team more than capable of running into Oklahoma City after last season’s heartbreaking Super Regional loss to James Madison. The Tigers’ road to the Women’s College World Series begins in Northern Lights.
No. 13 Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is another Northern Lights entrant coming out of a 2021 postseason in which only one super regional series fell before the WCWS. The Hokies routed No. 15 overall seed Arizona State en route to the super regional final against second-seeded UCLA, where Virginia Tech won Game 1 of the series.
The Hokies feature one of the best pitchers in the nation in Keely Rochard, a senior who finished 2021 with 32 complete games, 348 strikeouts (second in the NCAA) and a staggering 1.38 ERA in 41 appearances and 38 departures.
Behind Rochard, Virginia Tech boasted the 12th-best ERA team in the nation. Rounding out his strength in the pitching circle, Va. Tech fires its four hitters who hit above .300 in 2021: Kelsey Brown (.384), Alex Milius (.330), Kelsey Bennett (.314) and Jayme Bailey (.309).
Bailey and Bennett also had 42 runs each and 21 homers combined.
No. 19 Kentucky
After falling to SEC rival Alabama in last year’s Super Regional, Kentucky is reloading to attempt another run at Oklahoma City in 2022. two of the SEC’s best hitters.
Coffel finished last year with a team-high 1.082 OPS, .330 batting average and 57 RBI. Kowalik ranked 14th nationally and second in the SEC with a .554 on-base percentage.
The Wildcats are also bringing back Renee Abernathy and Miranda Stoddard, two of the best home hitters from last season. Stoddard is also the most experienced returning pitcher.
No. 24 Freedom
The Flames advanced deep into last season’s Super Regional, knocking out No. 9-seeded Tennessee along the way. Autumn Bishop and Amber Bishop-Riley, two catalysts from last year’s team, carry the banner as senior leaders in 2022.
Bishop-Riley batted .382 with a team-high 49 RBIs and 19 homers. Bishop hit .321 with a team-leading 21 doubles, walked a team-high 29, and hit 12 homers. Kara Canetto had one of the best freshman seasons in America with a .385 batting average, 23 RBIs and 19 stolen bases, and Devyn Howard batted .312 for the Flames in 2021.
Liberty also fires its top two pitchers: Emily Kirby, who pitched 12 complete games in 34 appearances, and Karlie Keeney, who pitched 147 innings. Keeney finished with a 2.43 ERA and 17-5 record, while Kirby had a 1.92 ERA, .194 batting average and struck out 145.