Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his Top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 1 California
Last year: 45-13 overall, 15-6 Pac-10 (lost in Women's College World Series)
Who returns: Everybody returns. Really, everybody. For all reasonable purposes, California returns the roster that made it to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2005 and finished two games behind Arizona State in the Pac-10, the only team in the conference to finish within six games of the eventual national champion.
Start the list with Jolene Henderson, the ace in the circle who went 40-10 with a 0.99 ERA and 333 strikeouts in 333.1 innings as a sophomore last season. Without Valerie Arioto (that's right, Cal returns its entire roster and welcomes back a player in Arioto who posted All-American numbers as both a pitcher and hitter before injuries wiped out her 2011 season), Henderson took the ball again and again in the nation's toughest conference and never wilted. There's even reason to think Henderson, who finished third on the team with six home runs at the plate but hit just .217 overall, could be even more valuable this season as her bat develops.
Cal was not a dominant offensive team last season, slugging just .401 and averaging 4.9 runs per game (ranking the Bears No. 125 and No. 67, respectively, in the nation). But in addition to Arioto, already a middle-of-the-order slugger for the United States national team, Cal returns special individual parts. In addition to being nearly impenetrable on defense, third baseman Jace Williams (.474 on-base percentage) and shortstop Britt Vonk (.502 on-base percentage, 26 stolen bases) tormented opposing pitchers. Outfielder Jamia Reid, one half of a twin combination with outfielder Elia, also spent a lot of time on base (.412 OBP), if not a lot of time on first base (31 SB).
Who departs: Amy Bishop recorded one start among 13 appearances last season, making her the only California player who appeared in a starting lineup who isn't back this season.
Who arrives: : For obvious reasons, this won't be the easiest lineup to break into, but Cheyenne Cordes isn't just any freshman. Take your pick of prep plaudits and Cordes probably carried it with her when she arrived on campus, from Gatorade Player of the Year in California to ESPN Rise first-team All-American. Perhaps most notably, and certainly most recently, she was named USA Softball's junior player of the year after winning gold with Team USA in the ISF Junior World Championship. Cordes started all 11 games in the tournament in South Africa this past December, the only American player to do so, and hit .577 with a team-leading 12 RBIs. She played third base and shortstop for Team USA, two positions that already seem to be in particularly capable hands at Cal with Williams and Vonk, but talent tends to find its way into lineups.
Another familiar name among the freshmen -- and there are five newcomers, despite all the holdovers -- is Danielle Henderson, younger sister of Cal ace Jolene and an infield/utility talent in her own right.
Preseason question: Is Valerie Arioto the difference?
Even if California had last season's roster back intact, its championship credentials might be subject to questions pertaining to pitching depth and power at the plate. Its continuity would also have been a conundrum.
Could Henderson really handle such a heavy workload two seasons in a row against the kind of schedule California chooses to play out of conference and has to play in conference? Could the team score enough runs to make a go of it in Oklahoma City, where it simply didn't have the bats to match up with Alabama or Florida?
What makes both questions seem far less pressing is Arioto's return. Her ability to regain the form that helped her post a .590 on-base percentage and .819 slugging percentage in 2010, walking 81 times and hitting 19 home runs in 63 games, isn't in any doubt after watching her play for Team USA this past summer and fall. Arioto went 5-for-13 with 10 walks in eight starts in the Pan-Am Games. She didn't pitch for an American side already loaded with good arms, but she threw more innings than Henderson in 2010 for Cal, finishing 21-9 with a 1.43 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 205.2 innings.
"Valerie Arioto is just one of those young women that just loves to play ball," Team USA coach Ken Eriksen said. "She loves to practice, she loves to play, she loves to hit, she loves to be involved with a bunch of great people and great teammates. She's such a happy person, happy-go-lucky, and that's the way she plays the game. I hope she continues with that youthful enthusiasm for the rest of her life; she's going to be successful in whatever she does."
Like Danielle Lawrie, who returned after a year away from the college game in 2009 and led Washington to a national championship, that success may make a stop in Oklahoma City this spring.