No. 8 Missouri
Last season's record: 47-14
Key returnees: Corrin Genovese, Nicole Hudson, Jenna Marston, Lindsey Muller, Kelsea Roth, Chelsea Thomas
Key departures: Ashley Fleming
Tournament finish: Lost in Columbia super regional
1. Straw that stirs the drink
That's how Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine described senior pitcher Chelsea Thomas, an assessment unlikely to earn an argument (even if she was curiously omitted from the preseason all-conference team voted on by the coach's new peers in the SEC). Already a college All-American and a member of Team USA the past two summers, Thomas went 27-9 with a 1.16 ERA and 306 strikeouts in 229 1/3 innings last season, only to fall short of another trip to the World Series when a combination of two red-hot LSU pitchers, Rachele Fico and Brittany Mack, and the equally sizzling temperatures in Columbia, Mo., wore Thomas down and eliminated the host Tigers in a super regional.
Missouri will go as far as she leads it, but even a pitcher who ranks fourth in strikeouts and wins among active Division I players has room for improvement.
"To me, it's all in the area of command of her pitches," Earleywine said. "The only times Chelsea has gotten into trouble or been beat or hit hard is when she gets in hitting counts by throwing too many balls. Specifically, to hitters that aren't the best hitters in the lineup, being more aggressive and going right at those kids instead of getting into full counts and running your pitch counts up and overthrowing against the 7-8-9 hitters trying to get strikeouts."
2. Comfortable catcher
Every season finds familiar faces playing new positions in college softball, but few moves were as surprising as Missouri's shifting Jenna Marston from shortstop to catcher prior to last season. A first-team All-Big 12 selection in each of her first two seasons, Marston showed off a big arm and good range at shortstop. Nevertheless, with a need behind the plate last season, she found herself at a position she hadn't played since high school, catching one of the hardest throwers in the sport. Freshman Corrin Genovese, one of two Missouri players to start all 60 games, ensured shortstop remained a plus position defensively, but a year of experience should only help Marston do the same at catcher.
"She had a big undertaking, and I thought she did well," Earleywine said. "But again, here's a kid now who this year just seems like a totally different person. She's so much more comfortable. She knows how to prepare. She knows what she needs to work on. Last year she was just hopeful to catch the ball a lot of times, and this year she actually looks like a polished catcher."
The move behind the plate coincided with a precipitous drop in power for Marston, who went from 16 doubles as a freshman and 15 as a sophomore to just six a season ago. Earleywine rejected the idea that the two were related, instead pointing to a couple of technical flaws in Marston's swing that he felt were corrected in the fall.
3. More runs, more wins
It isn't a complicated formula. Thomas is the team's cornerstone, but getting back to the World Series will also require more support from her teammates. The Tigers scored 316 runs last season, down nearly a run per game from 2011, and slugged just .416, down significantly from a season earlier and barely enough to crack the top 100 nationally. A lineup that regularly featured four or more freshmen looked the part. Earleywine singled out two members of that class, first baseman Kelsea Roth and outfielder Kelsi Jones, as reason for offensive optimism this season. Both showed power amid debut struggles last season and could help at least ameliorate the loss of Ashley Fleming.
4. Missouri's other senior star
Maybe a program like Missouri needs a pitcher like Thomas to make a run at a national championship, but it doesn't hurt to find a player or two like Nicole Hudson. A three-time all-conference selection in the Big 12, including a first-team nod as a sophomore, Hudson started 184 games in her first three seasons at Missouri, mostly at third base. All she does is produce. She's tied for seventh in career doubles (and will reach third with just three more this season), fifth in slugging percentage and sixth in home runs, and handles the hot corner superbly. She rarely gets the attention she deserves, and may well miss the USA Softball preseason watch list for player of the year, but she is a rock.
5. New road trips
The frosty reception Missouri received in the preseason all-conference voting was just the first challenge for the program in its new SEC home. In addition to new opponents to scout, there are logistical hurdles involved in longer road trips, and Earleywine expressed concern about finding ways to keep his players from wearing down. But for the players, particularly coming off that early postseason exit at the hands of what is now a conference foe, change may have an upside.
"When you stay in the Big 12, if you're a senior and you play those teams for three or four years, it gets old," Earleywine said. "And this is really going to help us stir up the pot and give them a fresh look and some fresh teams and some fresh stadiums. In that regard, we're all very excited because of the newness of it."