5 questions for softball season
1. Can any team stop Oklahoma?
Yes, we see you with your hand raised, Alabama.
It's the Crimson Tide who will try to defend the national championship this season after coming back from a game down in the best-of-three championship series against the Sooners in the Women's College World Series. And like the football team from Tuscaloosa, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy has a program with so much depth that it probably can replace what should be an irreplaceable senior class and keep winning into June behind All-Americans Jackie Traina and Kayla Braud. The difference is Nick Saban didn't have to go through a team such as Oklahoma for his repeat.
The Sooners went 54-10 last season and outscored postseason opponents 58-9 en route to the championship series. And they return eight players from coach Patty Gasso's starting lineup in the last game of the season.
Oklahoma came close to a title last season. It could come close to being one of the greatest teams ever this season.
Everything in softball starts in the pitching circle, and that's true here. The reigning USA Softball Player of the Year, Keilani Ricketts went 37-9 as a junior with a 1.08 ERA, 457 strikeouts and an almost 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But for all the continuity on the roster, especially the superstar in the circle, what pushes Oklahoma from favorite to prohibitive favorite is a new face. As a freshman at Arizona, Shelby Pendley earned all-conference honors -- no small feat in the Pac-12 -- by hitting .331 with 19 home runs. Eligible this season, she's now part of Gasso's lineup after transferring. Oklahoma already returned a middle of the order that hit 77 home runs in the persons of Lauren Chamberlain (30), Jessica Shults (20), Ricketts (17) and Georgia Casey (10). Add in Pendley, and those five players alone hit more home runs than 281 of the other 282 Division I programs.
Getting run over by the Sooner Schooner would be more fun than pitching to that lineup.
"It's unreal," Chamberlain said. "I think the best part of it is not one of us will ever feel the weight of the world on our shoulders to pick up our team. I know that if I don't particularly get my job done at the plate, I know I've got Shults, Keilani, Shelby, Georgia -- I can go up and down my lineup knowing my teammates are going to pick me up. I think having that extra added pressure off of my shoulders just enables me to have fun. I enjoy watching them hit. If I'm in the dugout and I'm watching one of my teammates hit, it's so exciting to watch, and I think our fans can agree."
The rest of the country? Not so much.
2. So can Oklahoma save the Big 12?
In the short term, maybe. In the long term, well, even that lineup has its limits. The Big 12 has a golden opportunity to win its second national championship this season, but it appears conference realignment will only further divide college softball into two camps: the SEC and Pac-12 on one side, and everybody else on the other side.
For the Big 12, two seasons removed from providing half the field for the 2011 Women's College World Series and most of Team USA's pitching staff, that means a future that might look like the Big Ten or ACC, with a traditional power or two at the top but a middle that has more in common with the likes of the Big West, Conference USA or WAC than it would like.
The Big 12 still has some advantages. The state of Texas remains a treasure trove of talent, and Oklahoma has long demonstrated its ability to pull top talent from California (it helps that in addition to a coach with strong California ties, its campus is just down the highway from ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, home of the Women's College World Series and the top travel ball competition each summer). But even if new arrival TCU eventually adds a softball program, as has been rumored, losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC while adding two schools in TCU and West Virginia that currently don't play the sport makes it impossible to compete as the equal of the Pac-12 or SEC.
Baylor coach Glenn Moore has been to the World Series twice in recent seasons and has one of the best softball facilities in the country. He points to a program such as Louisiana-Lafayette as an example of staying afloat nationally in a diluted conference and expresses some optimism about TCU's potential if it fields a team. But those are rear-guard actions in a battle the Big 12 already lost.
"I tend to lean on the pessimistic side, I guess, a little bit," Moore said. "The strength of the conference really prepares you for postseason. You can get there, but if you haven't seen that [conference competition], day in and day out, and you aren't prepared for it, then I don't know that you're going to go that far. That's where I think the SEC is really going to benefit. ...
"If it doesn't kill 'em, it's going to really prepare them for quite a few more national titles in the next 10, 15 years."
3. Which teams are this season's sleepers?
To win the national championship: Texas A&M
Criteria: Ranked outside top eight in USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25
Speaking of former Big 12 teams, the Aggies have the talent to make noise in their SEC debut. Questions about pitching depth remain, but No. 1 Mel Dumezich is a workhorse who also happens to be one of a number of proven and promising sluggers in the most powerful lineup coach Jo Evans has fielded in College Station.
To reach the Women's College World Series: Tulsa
Criteria: Ranked outside the top 16 in USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25
The catch here is that Tulsa must find a way to stay out of Oklahoma's regional, where its season ended each of the past two years. Lacey Middlebrooks, younger sister of Boston Red Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks, is Conference USA's preseason pitcher of the year after going 20-6 with a 2.15 ERA last season, but she has a fight on her hands for top pitching honors on her own team with junior Aimee Creger (19-6, 184 strikeouts in 151 1/3 innings) around to share innings. The top five hitters also return, paced by Jill Barrett's average, Caitlin Everett's speed and Samantha Cobb's power (and including the versatile Middlebrooks, whose .924 OPS trumped that of her older brother).
To reach a super regional: Mississippi State
Criteria: Not ranked in USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25
It didn't take long for former Alabama assistant coach Vann Stuedeman to turn things around in Starkville. The Bulldogs return some key components from a team that went 33-24 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, including slugger Jessica Cooley and pitcher Stephanie Becker. They also add two players who could push them into a super regional. Pitcher Alison Owen sat out last season after transferring from Georgia, where she posted a 1.93 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings in 2011. Infielder Logan Foulks is a recent arrival eligible immediately after transferring from North Carolina, where she slugged .596 last season.
4. Who will challenge Ricketts for USA Softball Player of the Year?
Whitney Canion, Baylor: She missed most of last season with a knee injury, but Canion is back. And the last time she made it through a full season, the campaign ended after a trip to the World Series in which she pitched a 13-inning, two-hit shutout against Missouri. She has 30-win potential in the circle and 15-homer potential at the plate.
Raven Chavanne/Lauren Gibson, Tennessee: It's impossible to split up these two, which might ultimately make it more difficult for either to make a run at the award. But Chavanne, a third baseman and one of the fastest players in the country, and Gibson, a second baseman with world-class power in a small frame, should put up big numbers for a team with championship potential.
Jolene Henderson, California: She's already locked in a battle with Ricketts for the lead in career wins among active players (Ricketts leads 98-96 entering the season), so why not wrest away player of the year? Over the past two seasons, Henderson is 78-14 with a 1.13 ERA and 665 strikeouts. And you won't find a person in the sport who has a bad word to say about her.
Stephany LaRosa, UCLA: Pitching will determine whether the Bruins are a postseason factor or once again an afterthought, strange as that still sounds when it comes to this program. But it won't hurt having a bat like LaRosa. All she did as a freshman was hit .426 with 17 home runs, 61 RBIs and a 1.292 OPS.
Jackie Traina, Alabama: Playing either offense or defense might be good enough for Nick Saban's team, but two-way ball is still the rule for the star of one of Alabama's other defending champions. Traina is a carbon copy of Ricketts as a player with All-American skill as both a pitcher and hitter -- and she's the one who came out on top in Oklahoma City.
5. Who are five pitchers in a position to shake up the season?
Mackenzie Audas, Soph., UCF: There are few more intriguing races than the one for the unofficial title of best team in Florida. For perhaps the first time since Tim Walton arrived in Gainesville, his Gators aren't favorites. Fresh off a World Series appearance, South Florida claims that status. But don't count out UCF. Even at the end of a long freshman season, Audas allowed just five hits in two starts in the NCAA tournament. The Knights lost those games, but she finished the season with a 1.28 ERA and 279 strikeouts in 229 2/3 innings.
Nancy Bowling, Fr., Arizona: The last time Arizona truly counted pitching depth as an asset was 2006, when Taryne Mowatt went 21-5 and struck out 250 batters as the No. 2 behind Alicia Hollowell. How did Arizona do that season? (Hint: It involved a trophy). This is a young team with a lineup that took a hit when Pendley transferred to Oklahoma, but if high school All-American Bowling, whom Mike Candrea compared to Nancy Evans, is as good as advertised and senior Kenzie Fowler returns from fall back surgery in time to hit her stride in Pac-12 play, the circle could lead.
Dallas Escobedo, Jr., Arizona State: Few could catch up to Escobedo's rise when the freshman led Arizona State to the national championship in 2011. The rest of the country made up a little ground last season, but Escobedo is now one of the veteran voices on a Sun Devils team loaded with young power. If she keeps a few more balls in the park, the program's third title in six seasons is possible.
Rachele Fico, Sr., LSU: The good news is coach Beth Torina's first recruiting class might bring needed run support for last season's surprise World Series team. Last year's offense stuck Fico with a 20-13 record that was no way indicative of how well she pitched. But with partner Brittany Mack no longer around, Fico presumably will be asked to repeat her production while throwing even more innings. If she's ready, May could find the Tigers lurking once again.
Jessica Moore, Sr., Oregon: Look around the country and try to find a pitcher who has more to do with where a program sits on the softball landscape. All she did in her first three seasons was reach three super regionals and one World Series with a program that was flailing before she and coach Mike White arrived. If the Pac-12 wants the title back, Moore's Ducks might be its best bet.