Incoming all-stars, SEC contenders among 2008's top story lines

Originally Published: July 20, 2007
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

It's not difficult to get a summer softball fix, what with the alphabet soup of options provided at various levels of amateur, professional and international competition by the NPF, PFX, ASA and USA, but it's a sign of the times that all quickly are becoming known mostly as a way to see tomorrow's college stars or your favorite stars of the past.

With attendance, television ratings and interest soaring, college softball is where it's at. And with that in mind, it's never too early to start thinking about 2008 (and even it if is, you need something to read on the beach).

The eight teams below aren't any sort of pre-preseason top eight or a prediction of the teams that will be on hand at next spring's Women's College World Series. What binds them together are stars and story lines that will make them some of the more interesting teams to watch come February.

Alabama
Monica Abbott gave it her best shot, but the SEC is still looking for its first national championship. And although Tennessee isn't going to tumble out of the picture, Alabama might be poised to inherit the lead in the race to provide the missing piece of the puzzle for a league that views itself as a rising superpower.

A shoulder injury derailed Lauren Parker at the end of last season, but the SEC's leading hitter will be healthy and back in the heart of one of the nation's most potent offenses. Of the nine players with at least 100 at-bats for a Crimson Tide offense that hit .335 with 79 home runs and 189 stolen bases last season, eight will return (granted, Mandy Burford's 10 home runs and 31 stolen bases represent no small loss as the lone exception).

What makes the Crimson Tide as potentially intriguing as they are potentially impressive is the situation in the circle. Rising senior Chrissy Owens went 24-5 with a 1.30 ERA last season, numbers that ought to only bolster Alabama's outlook. But Owens lost her role as the team ace to Blair Potter, who has since graduated, during the postseason.

Arizona
Based on the ESPYS voting, people are already well aware of one reason to watch the two-time defending champions. But Taryne Mowatt's quest to lead the Wildcats to a third consecutive title (she was used mostly as a hitter in Oklahoma City two years ago) isn't the only reason to keep an eye on the nation's premier program.

The annual migration of players coming and going as part of the four-year cycle of college sports is nothing new, but the Wildcats are putting their own unique spin on things. Losing four-time All-American Caitlin Lowe -- as well as Kristie Fox and Chelsie Mesa from the middle of the infield and the middle of the order -- hurts, but every team has to replace seniors.

What makes Tucson different is the need to find a replacement for the coach every four years, as well.

Just as he did in 2004, Mike Candrea will take a sabbatical from his college job to focus on his role with the U.S. national team as it prepares for the Olympics. That leaves the task of guiding a typically dazzling recruiting class -- including familiar names such as Brittany Lastrapes (younger sister of former Washington star Dominique) and Lauren Schutzler (younger sister of former Tennessee star Lindsay) -- through its first season to trusted assistants Larry Ray and Nancy Evans.

Oh yeah, as you might hear mentioned once or twice next season, the only time Arizona hasn't qualified for the Women's College World Series in the past 20 years was in 2004.

Kent State
The only team on this list not to qualify for the NCAA Tournament this past season -- winning the MAC regular-season title before faltering in the conference tournament and missing out on an at-large bid -- Kent State has the look of a sleeper this time around.

So what sets this team apart from other mid-majors with postseason aspirations? The others don't have Kylie Reynolds in the circle.

Sharing the load as a freshman with Brittney Robinson, who has since graduated, Reynolds posted a 14-7 record, 1.30 ERA and 254 strikeouts in 151.1 innings. Just as impressively for a newcomer, she walked only 22 batters.

And as if to answer any concerns about the size of the stage on which she offered her pitching soliloquies, Reynolds went toe to toe with some heavyweights during an early tournament in Hawaii. In her first start against the host Rainbow Wahine, she went six innings, allowing five hits and two earned runs and striking out five. Not satisfied with a respectable effort against a great hitting team, she came back a day later and held Hawaii to three hits and no earned runs in six more innings (Reynolds also struck out nine without allowing an earned run against Oregon that week).

Georgia Tech
A player who hit .107 might be the secret weapon for a team with one of the nation's most potent offenses next season.

In her first year at the helm, former Georgia assistant Sharon Perkins turned a good offensive team into a record-setting team. The Yellow Jackets hit .322 with 96 home runs and a .536 slugging percentage on their way to a school-record 54 wins. All three offensive marks ranked among the top 10 in the nation, and the batting average and slugging percentage represented ACC records.

The bad news is that of the top 35 teams in slugging percentage, only Northwestern made it to Oklahoma City -- and the Wildcats had Eileen Canney in the circle.

Losing first-team All-American outfielder Caitlin Lever to graduation hurts, but the Yellow Jackets still have a candidate for national honors in first baseman Whitney Haller and two other returnees who hit 20 home runs in Savannah Brown and Brittany Barnes.

And they have Tiffany Johnson, who posted that .107 average as a part-time third baseman in her first season after transferring from Florida A&M. Of course, she also limited opponents to a .193 batting average, striking out better than a hitter per inning, while going 17-6 in the circle. If Johnson emerges as the kind of ace those numbers hint at, the Yellow Jackets will be going places in the postseason.

Hawaii
The Rainbow Wahine enjoyed the most successful season in program history last year and gained countless fans on the mainland with a postseason run that culminated in pushing eventual finalist Tennessee to a decisive third game in the Knoxville Super Regional. But this list is about teams worth watching in 2008, so what is last year's feel-good story doing here?

For starters, Hawaii lost just two players to graduation. The departure of slugger and team leader Tyleen Tausaga is an enormous blow, but the return of 62 of the program-record 84 home runs hit last season should soften the pain. Pitchers Kate Robinson and Justine Smethurst also return after combining to post a 36-10 record while limiting opponents to a .207 batting average in 53 starts.

Just as important, coach Bob Coolen's team returns all the experience gained in winning the WAC championship and the Los Angeles Regional.

Louisiana-Lafayette
Welcome to the Ashley Brignac era in college softball.

The Gatorade High School National Player of the Year didn't stray far from her Louisiana roots in choosing a college, and her decision makes the Ragin' Cajuns instant contenders to return to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2003.

If you want numbers, Brignac brings them. As a senior at John Curtis Christian School, she posted a 0.00 ERA, struck out 421 hitters and allowed just 14 hits in 159.2 innings. And at the ISF Junior Women's World Championships in June, on a pitching staff that included UCLA's Megan Langenfeld and Arizona State's Megan Elliott, Brignac got the starting assignment in all three medal-round games, including a four-hit shutout against defending champion Japan in the semifinals.

As is likely to become de rigueur the next four years, all of that overshadows a pretty good team already in place for co-coaches Stefni and Michael Lotief.

Michigan
Not that it stopped them from coming within a game of the Women's College World Series, but the Wolverines seemed almost surprised by their success last season. What appeared destined to be a rebuilding year -- after the graduation of a senior class that included the battery of Jennie Ritter and Becky Marx -- quickly evolved into more of a minor renovation for a young group that pushed Baylor to a decisive third game in the Waco Super Regional.

Freshman Angela Findlay (.367 batting average, .939 OPS) emerged as a star in waiting and nearly upstaged sister Samantha Findlay (.325 batting average, 1.032 OPS) at the plate. Along with Alessandra Giampaolo and Maggie Viefhaus, the Findlay sisters give coach Carol Hutchins the prospect of a deadly middle of the order this season.

Like the younger Findlay and Viefhaus, pitcher Nikki Nemitz made the most of her freshman season and showed plenty of poise in the postseason. Adding highly touted 6-foot-1 freshman pitcher Jordan Taylor, whose perfect record as a senior at Valencia High School in Southern California drew comparisons to the likes of Michele Granger and Lisa Fernandez, gives Michigan plenty of depth in the circle.

UCLA
Let's hope the rest of the softball world enjoyed its brief respite from the Bruins lounging around Oklahoma City in June because Kelly Inouye-Perez's team isn't likely to miss the Women's College World Series for a second year in a row.

Granted, that Lisa Dodd, Tara Henry and Jodie Legaspi are now on the receiving end of mail asking for their alumni dollars is a significant blow, and the young Bruins may well find themselves on the wrong end of some scores in February. But young players such as Megan Langenfeld, Kaila Shull and Julie Burney will be better for the experience gained this season. Add in the return of Ashley Herrera, granted an additional year of eligibility after tearing her ACL in the season opener this year, and a recruiting class many are calling the best in the country, and the Bruins are in good shape.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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