No. 9 Texas A&M
Last season's record: 41-18
Key returnees: Emily Albus, Util.; Mel Dumezich, P/2B; Amber Garza, 3B; Meagan May, C; Nicole Morgan, C/1B; Cassie Tysarczyk, OF
Key departures: Kelsea Orsak, Natalie Villarreal, Brittany Walker
Tournament finish: Lost in College Station regional (2-2)
1. A new era for the Aggies
It's a good thing Alabama got in under the wire with the SEC's first national championship in softball because Texas A&M brings two of its own with it to the conference. One of the sport's most tradition-rich programs beyond the West Coast, Texas A&M has its work cut out for it to hit the ground running in a league making its own history in a hurry. It can't hurt to have watched the school's fall and winter sports do the same -- G Guerrieri's women's soccer team battled Florida for SEC supremacy; Gary Blair's women's basketball team is holding its own; and the quarterback of the football team apparently had a decent season.
The Aggies face Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia on difficult road trips and don't play South Carolina, the league's weakest program, but they catch small breaks in getting Alabama at home and avoiding Florida entirely.
2. Dumezich out of the shadows
From a competitive standpoint, there are more challenges than perks in moving from the Big 12 to the SEC. But for Mel Dumezich, it's a chance to step out of the shadows cast by OU's Keilani Ricketts and Baylor's Whitney Canion (even if she couldn't shake Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, the other member of the All-American trio that dominated the Big 12 and pitched for Team USA). Entering her senior season, Dumezich is one of the best two-way threats out there. That she went 28-13 with a 2.01 ERA and 307 strikeouts last season as a pitcher was not out of line with her previous work, but a season in which she hit .306 with 20 home runs and a 1.154 OPS solidified her credentials as a cornerstone.
After striking out 99 times and walking 38 times as a hitter in her first two seasons, she finished last season with 39 walks and just 27 strikeouts and the production to show for the selectivity.
"Last year was really fun for Mel, and it was fun to watch her because you could really see her come into her own and get comfortable with the mechanics of her swing and just to relax at the plate," Aggies coach Jo Evans said. "She's one of the most competitive people I've ever coached, so her competitiveness just naturally kicks in. And now she's got the fundamentals and the mechanics, the understanding of her game, to go along with that competitiveness."
3. Support in the circle
Only one SEC pitcher topped Dumezich's 275 innings a season ago, and then only because Alabama's Jackie Traina had an extended stay in Oklahoma City en route to a title. There weren't many easy weekends in her old league, but there are even fewer in her new one. Texas transfer Rachel Fox isn't eligible until next season, so the best candidate to keep Dumezich fresh is sophomore Lauren Ainsley, who had an encouraging strikeout rate as a freshman but made most of her appearances in relief. That could continue, with Evans suggesting a more active bullpen was one option under consideration to spread innings around (Dumezich completed 31 of 40 starts in 2012).
4. Unprecedented power surge
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Texas A&M might as well have played in Minute Maid Park or Rangers Ballpark in Arlington or Yellowstone. The ball wasn't going out of the park no matter what the confines. We're talking as recently as 2009, when the Aggies slugged .394 as a team. This season's lineup might not include a player who slugs worse than .400. At the very least, the Aggies will go six or seven deep in run producers as well as any lineup this side of Oklahoma. That starts with Dumezich and Meagan May, the catcher who hit 14 home runs last season and is another year removed from a harrowing car accident that interrupted her ascent as one of the game's best sluggers. But it continues through Cassie Tysarczyk (.568 slugging percentage), Nicole Morgan (.573) and Amber Garza (.548).
The Aggies were 17th nationally in slugging percentage last season, and few of the teams that ranked ahead of them return both the majority of that power and a pitcher like Dumezich.
"This is by far the most powerful, explosive offensive I think I've ever coached," Evans said. "When I look down and see those nine hitters right now that I may potentially put in there, there's just an awful lot of power in there and ability to drive the ball."
5. Questions up the middle
Second baseman Natalie Villarreal graduated, leaving the Aggies to replace one of the best gloves in college softball, and shortstop Brittany Walker left the team with a year of eligibility remaining. Evans described the latter parting as amicable, but the combination of the two departures means the Aggies need a new keystone combination. Shortstop is likely to go to Taran Tyler, who had an extended audition as an injury replacement for Walker in Big 12 play last season. Second base is less set in stone, with Dumezich one option, in the (scant) time she isn't pitching, as well as promising freshman Alex Masek.