Five questions for softball season
A new season brings new questions. As opening day approaches, here are five to ponder for the season ahead.
Is this a season without a favorite?
The champion remains the champion until another team lifts the trophy. That isn't the same thing as remaining the favorite.
There is always a temptation to confuse what we just saw with what we will see, which is why even though Oklahoma had one of the most talented rosters in memory and put together a strong case as the greatest team of all time over the course of the 2013 season, it wasn't No. 1 in last year's preseason USA Softball Top 25. That spot went instead to Alabama, the defending champion at the time, even though its roster looked quite different after losing key senior contributors. We know Oklahoma was the best in 2013. How about 2014?
The Sooners remain on the short list, but it's difficult to call them favorites.
Lauren Chamberlain is only now beginning the second half of a career that seems guaranteed to end with numerous NCAA records rewritten. And for all of her production, teammate Shelby Pendley edged her out as the Big 12 Player of the Year. Destinee Martinez and Georgia Casey return as proven assets from a lineup that dominated college softball. All good so far.
But Keilani Ricketts, Jessica Shults, Michelle Gascoigne and Brianna Turang are gone. All started the championship-clinching game in June, and all four spent the summer playing professionally. Ricketts, of course, was a two-time national player of the year and one of the most dominant players in recent memory. Without her or Gascoigne, the Sooners are starting essentially from scratch in the circle with Stanford transfer Kelsey Stevens and others.
Repeats are difficult. Repeats with different pitching aces even more so. Since 1998, only has Arizona managed it.
So which team steps up? Well, experience counts. Only once since the advent of super regionals has a team won a title one season without having reached at least a super regional the previous season (and there were extenuating circumstances in that case, as Washington won the title in 2009 after Danielle Lawrie missed the previous season because of the Olympics and Ashley Charters sat out with an injury).
Experience only helps, of course, if it sticks around. In that same span, no team has won the title after losing its top two hitters from the previous season. That is bad news for Tennessee, No. 1 in both major preseason polls but a team that lost All-Americans Lauren Gibson and Raven Chavanne in addition to pitcher Ivy Renfroe and another of its best hitters in Kat Dotson.
Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Washington fit snugly in the profile of aspiring champions. Arizona State does, too, with a caveat that we'll get to momentarily. As much as any season in the past decade, college softball has a lot of contenders but no clear favorite to take the title from Oklahoma.
What will happen at Arizona State?
Not since UCLA's Sue Enquist retired following a World Series appearance in 2006 has a program coming off an appearance in Oklahoma City gone through a coaching change, so there will be plenty of eyes on new Arizona State coach Craig Nicholson. Before making his surprise move to Auburn this past summer, all former Sun Devils coach Clint Myers did was win two national championships in Tempe and reach the World Series in seven of the past eight seasons.
And it's not like he left the cupboard bare for his successor.
If not for the uncertainty introduced by the coaching change, Arizona State might be the favorite. It returns Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue, pitchers who combined to start 61 of 62 games a season ago. It returns a pair of All-American-caliber players at key positions in catcher Amber Freeman and shortstop Cheyenne Coyle, in addition to six more position players who started at least 40 games, four of whom had on-base percentages better than. 400.
There will be small differences, a technical on-field detail like a desire for hitters to stay more inside the ball or an off-field change in routine, but there is little need for an overhaul.
"With having a bunch of people back, there wasn't a lot of moving around," Nicholson said of his experience upon taking over the program. "There weren't a lot of moving parts this fall, really, other than me. That's kind of given this team a stability, just because there is so much veteran leadership on this ball club."
That leadership includes Escobedo. To whatever degree she is ultimately part of the debate about the best player in the country, Escobedo is easily one of its most compelling figures. After winning a national championship as a freshman ace, she went 54-14 with 562 strikeouts the past two seasons. It's absurd to call that an unsuccessful encore. And yet for any number of reasons, from the weighty expectations that come with winning a title as a freshman to a propensity for allowing home runs and her modest ERAs, there is a sense she still has something to prove.
As much as the roster remains the same, the sense of a fresh start that accompanies Nicholson's arrival from Ball State might help the ace.
"We haven't talked a lot about it, to tell you the truth," Nicholson said of cutting Escobedo's home run rate. "I think for her, it's just believing in the philosophy of one pitch at a time and going through the process and not really worrying about the results. If she throws the ball where she wants to throw it and with the movement she wants to throw it with, she's not going to give up the number of home runs this year."
And so a new day begins for one of the sport's premier programs.
"Sometimes, not just Dallas but any pitcher or any player, sometimes you get a little bit wrapped up in the big picture," Nicholson continued. "And you forget about the process and what it's going to take to be successful. That's one of the things we've talked a lot about with the whole team is just buying into the process and worrying about the next pitch.
"You don't have to worry about Oklahoma City right now. You've got to worry about today and tomorrow."
Why is Georgia the most interesting team in the country?
Because Georgia, which seems to operate on a slightly different voltage than the rest of college softball, is always an interesting team. But also because these Bulldogs could come from the fringes of the Top 25 to win it all this season.
Georgia, which lost to Arizona State in a super regional a season ago, aces the continuity test. The Bulldogs return eight of 10 players who amassed at least 100 at-bats a season ago in a lineup that ranked second in the nation in slugging percentage and fifth in runs per game. They also add a proven elite hitter in Kansas transfer Alex Hugo, who ranked ninth among major conference players in slugging percentage a season ago.
This may not be a lineup on the historic model of what we just saw from Oklahoma, but it may be the best in the country this season and on par with those led by Alisa Goler, Taylor Schlopy and Megan Wiggins that got Georgia to the World Series in the past.
Also represented this season are 383 of the 390 innings recorded by their pitchers a season ago. That's a mixed blessing, considering the pitching was not championship-caliber last time out, but two of the three returnees -- Chelsea Wilkinson and Geri Ann Glasco -- were freshmen learning on the job.
Georgia plays a disappointingly soft schedule out of conference, so we won't know much about the Bulldogs until SEC play. But while there are plenty of elite pitchers out there, there isn't a Ricketts or a Lawrie blocking the path to a title. This may be a year when a team can win a championship with great hitting and good enough pitching. It would buck conventional wisdom, but then again, that's sort of what Georgia does best.
Can anyone stop Lauren Chamberlain?
If we're talking about opposing pitchers, it seems increasingly unlikely. If we're talking about the USA Softball Player of the Year race, well, that seems doubtful, too. Ricketts won the latter award for the second time in a row a season ago, but Chamberlain earned a place as one of three finalists, the only underclassman in the trio and part of the first set of teammates to make the list since 2002. Escaping the shadow her teammate cast is just one more in a long list of remarkable accomplishments for a player who may just be the greatest college hitter of all time by the time she's done.
Chamberlain is the nation's leading active home run hitter, which is more than a little ridiculous considering she has two seasons remaining at Oklahoma. Not only is she also the active leader in slugging percentage (with a .986 mark that would comfortably set the NCAA career record if it holds up), but the gap between first and second on the list of active leaders is equal to the gap between second and 20th. She has, in other words, lapped the field.
The main rival: Haylie McCleney, Alabama. Advanced statistical metrics have been slow to come to softball, but there is every reason to believe they would treat her as well as baseball metrics treat Mike Trout. Chamberlain is far more than merely a slugger (or merely the best slugger of all time), but McCleney is perhaps the most complete player in the college game at the moment, in much the same way Arizona's Caitlin Lowe and Arizona State's Kaitlin Cochran were at various points in the past decade. Even after her 22 extra-base hits as a freshman (to go with a .465 batting average and 30 stolen bases), people at Alabama insist she has only scratched the surface of her power.
The pitchers: There has never been a year in which the list of three finalists didn't include at least one pitcher. There isn't an obvious candidate to continue that streak, but there are probably a dozen pitchers who could pull ahead of the pack. Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe showed credentials when she went toe to toe with Ricketts last June. Baylor's Whitney Canion, Arizona State's Escobedo and Alabama's Jackie Traina all have 30-win, 300-strikeout potential for programs in the spotlight (and championship pedigrees in the case of Escobedo and Traina), while South Florida's Sara Nevins and Louisiana-Lafayette's Jordan Wallace could similarly post numbers too gaudy to ignore.
Is the time now for the ACC?
In a word, no. In a few more words, but maybe soon. The ACC will again likely play the role of bystander in the national race. The conference's lone World Series appearance in the super regional era came courtesy of Angela Tincher's arm, a once-in-a-generation talent and an equally improbable recruiting miss by schools that didn't push Virginia Tech for her services. With bona fide ace Lacey Waldrop still in the circle and much of its lineup retained, Florida State could push for a national seed in the NCAA tournament, but even it begins the season ranked No. 12, as in not expected to make it Oklahoma City.
Still, there are signs of strength from a conference that has historically punched below its weight.
From the perspective of softball competitiveness, the additions of Notre Dame and Syracuse this season and Louisville next season more than make up for the coming loss of Maryland to the Big Ten (even Pittsburgh, while a Big East struggler for a long time, has a new facility on par with anything in the region). That Duke will add softball and look to take the field in 2018 is more good news, even if Clemson, Miami and Wake Forest remain on the sideline for softball. If Stanford and Northwestern can thrive, why not Duke, with its success in other women's sports?
Look around the league, and from Waldrop to Notre Dame outfielder Emilee Koerner, NC State shortstop Renada Davis, North Carolina pitcher Lori Spingola, Georgia Tech shortstop Ashley Thomas and quite a few more, the ACC has a slew of players of national consequence. It isn't the SEC or the Pac-12. It isn't even the Big 12 or Big Ten. But it no longer seems stuck in neutral, either. It isn't yet a league to fear, but it's becoming a league worth watching.