- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Less than 48 hours after the last pitch of the Women's College World Series, recent rivals Katie Burkhart and Megan Gibson found themselves sharing the same dugout at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City as teammates on a squad assembled to play the United States Olympic team. Such is life in softball, for which the end of the college season also marks the beginning of a summer free-for-all that runs the gamut from professional play in National Pro Fastpitch to the youngest levels of Amateur Softball Association tournaments.
And already the seeds of next spring's college success stories are taking root.
From championship contenders to conference sleepers, here are eight teams worth keeping an eye on in 2009:
Washington won't be the only Pac-10 team looking to break up the southern stranglehold strengthened by Arizona State's first national championship. The only other conference team to break up Arizona and UCLA's hardware hogging, Cal could be ready to make its first trip to the Women's College World Series since 2005.
Multitasking newcomer Valerie Arioto was as good as advertised as a freshman in 2008, leading the team with a .324 batting average (not to mention 48 walks and a .444 on-base percentage) and striking out more than a hitter per inning on her way to a 1.93 ERA in the circle. Her presence at the plate helped solidify a lineup that will have a good returning power core in 2009 with Gina Leomiti, Sanoe Kekahuna and Bernice Masaniai. And despite losing their share of senior contributors, the Golden Bears are poised for even better things at the plate this season with the arrival of a trio of fleet-footed freshmen outfielders in sisters Jamia and Elia Reid and Frani Echavarria.
Cal, which came close to missing the NCAA tournament altogether two years ago, had to learn to crawl before it could walk with a young team that pushed Florida in the Gainesville Super Regional last season. Whether it's ready to run to Oklahoma City this season may hinge on how frequently Marissa Drewrey lets opponents walk to first base. A complete success story as a sophomore, she bounced back from an up-and-down freshman season to post 29 wins and 312 strikeouts. If she cuts down on her walk rate (156 in 314 innings), even greater achievements are ahead.
Florida Gulf Coast
No team had more wins last season without making the NCAA tournament than Florida Gulf Coast. Picked to finish sixth in their first season in the Atlantic Sun, and ineligible for postseason play after making the leap to Division I, the Eagles tied for the regular-season title with a 16-6 conference mark, part of a 48-16 record.
NCAA tournament opponents may not get away quite so easily in the upcoming season.
The Eagles have some challenges to overcome if they're going to convert on their first opportunity to play in the postseason, namely replacing pitching ace Rachael Edinger. It was Edinger who threw a five-hit shutout against South Florida in one of Florida Gulf Coast's early-season surprise performances (a stretch that also included a 6-4 loss against Florida ace Stacey Nelson). But Morgan Campen enjoyed a successful freshman season as the team's de facto No. 2, and there is depth in rising senior Dana Frantz and two newcomers for next season. And it doesn't always take a shutout for the Eagles to win.
An offensive juggernaut in Division II, coach David Deiros' lineup adjusted rather adeptly to new surroundings, hitting .310 with a .908 OPS and averaging more than six runs per game. As the performance against Florida suggests -- one of the only times all season the Gators allowed four or more runs -- the Eagles can hit quality pitching. Losing Carmen Paez will be a blow, but Cheyenne Jenks ranked third in the nation with 73 RBIs and slugged .783 for the season. Fellow rising senior and Atlantic Sun first-teamer Jessica Paez added a 1.010 OPS to go with 22 stolen bases.
On a team that has a coach who served in World War II, arguably the two best players -- and two big reasons why the Panthers make this list -- weren't even born until after World War II veteran George Bush was inaugurated as president in 1989.
Lost among a remarkably deep class of freshmen nationwide last season, Catherine Lee and Alicia Mills didn't receive a lot of attention outside of the Colonial Athletic Association. At least we have three more seasons to give them their due. Lee hit 17 home runs in 55 games as a freshman, which will make her one of only two returning players next season who ranked among the top 10 in home runs per game (along with Utah's Kara Foster). Mills was part of a three-armed pitching rotation for the Panthers, but she had far and away the most impressive line with a 14-5 record, 1.19 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 117.1 innings. Throw in rising-junior slugger Danielle Roddy and ancient-by-comparison pitcher Madi Gore (almost certainly the only college softball player who lists Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso as one of her favorite athletes) and Georgia State has a heck of foundation from which to construct the program's first postseason bid.
At-large consideration for the NCAA tournament won't come easily if the Panthers don't improve on a nonconference performance that included four shutouts in four games against NCAA tournament qualifiers Auburn and Florida State, but the core is there.
Perhaps Brandice Balschmiter isn't quite heir apparent to the pitching throne abdicated by Angela Tincher and Cat Osterman. But neither Tincher nor Osterman ever had an offense behind her like the one in Amherst.
A rising senior who went toe-to-toe last season with the likes of Taryne Mowatt, Missy Penna, Brooke Turner and Donna Kerr, Balschmiter has quietly emerged as one of the best pitchers in the country. In her first three seasons, she put together a 92-27 record with a 1.00 ERA and 874 strikeouts. She struck out 309 in 267 innings last season and walked just 42 -- meaning she walked more batters as a freshman (102) than in the past two seasons combined (99). But what may send the Minutewomen to the World Series -- a trip they came a few outs away from making during Balschmiter's freshman season -- is a lineup behind the ace that's loaded with power and potential.
Balschmiter's classmate Whitney Mollica remains a lineup cornerstone with a .343 career average, but the story last season was the youth movement behind the upperclassmen. Entering her junior season, Sarah Reeves (25 walks and a .535 slugging percentage in 2008) is a 15-to-20 home-run hitter waiting to happen. Alongside Reeves, rising juniors Carly Normandin (23 extra-base hits) and Whitney Williams (20 extra-base hits) enjoyed breakthrough seasons at the plate. And yet it was catcher Jessica Serio who took top honors for the class, and the team, with a .365 batting average.
A great pitcher is enough to make a team a sleeper. Throw in a deep lineup and you've got yourself a contender.
All right, so tabbing Nebraska as a sleeper weeks before the beginning of a campaign that saw the Cornhuskers miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in years reflects poorly on a scribe's powers of prognostication. But in the absence of foresight, stubborn persistence must suffice. Nebraska returns its entire lineup in 2009, and while that might seem like a mixed blessing given the group's offensive production in the season just completed, it's actually a good thing. The Huskers raised their team batting average from .240 in 2007 to .270 in 2008 and raised their on-base percentage from .318 in 2007 to .343 in 2008. Merely duplicating the latter number in each category ought to get the program back into the postseason for two reasons: Robin Mackin and Molly Hill.
The team's projected ace, Hill battled injuries from the outset and never hit her stride with a 15-17 record and 3.27 ERA. But the rising senior should have plenty of cover to regain her command (her walk rate soared in conference play) because of Mackin. A transfer from Fresno State who sat out the 2008 season in order to play for the Canadian Olympic team, Mackin is well-suited to providing the same sort of one-two punch Nebraska prospered with two seasons ago between Hill and Ashley DeBuhr.
Like Washington, Northwestern pulls off staggering amounts of purple with more panache than anyone this side of Prince. Perhaps more germane to the pursuit of a national championship, the Wildcats also share the Huskies' wealth of World Series experience, featuring a core of players left over from 2006 and 2007 trips to Oklahoma City.
Northwestern loses a key leader with the graduation of Darcy Sengewald, but coach Kate Drohan's offense returns 255 of 270 RBIs among a group of hitters that combined to approach a .500 team slugging percentage and .385 team on-base percentage.
And thanks to the winters that come with living alongside Lake Michigan, ace Lauren Delaney's arm should be sufficiently iced in time for the opener. Most aces can count on working full-time in Oklahoma City, but the key to getting Delaney to that gig will be getting some innings out of Jessica Smith in the regular season. Opponents hit .254 against Smith during her freshman season -- not significantly worse than some other No. 2 pitchers. Her troubles came in part from walking 38 batters in 45 innings. If she can take one leg of the proverbial pitching relay next season, Delaney should be able to handle the other three with relative ease.
Stephen F. Austin
One of the closest games Texas A&M played during its postseason run to the final series of the Women's College World Series came in its very first outing. Playing on the Aggies' home turf in College Station during regionals, Stephen F. Austin dropped a 2-0 decision against the top seed. Ladyjacks freshman ace Monika Covington allowed just five hits in six innings, didn't allow a walk and struck out seven. The team's season ended when Covington took another hard-luck loss in a 2-0 loss against Auburn, but it was as impressive a performance as a team could make without scoring a run.
A lefty who was both a first-team all-Southland selection and the league's top freshman, Covington will return for her sophomore season. So will a number of key bats from an offense that looked better during the regular season than it did during regionals (although leading hitter Jessica Tullos was among graduation losses). Even after losing key seniors, Texas A&M and Houston appear to still be the class of the state. But sometime Big 12 heavyweights Texas and Baylor may once again be pushed by a team from the Southland in 2009, just as both were in dropping decisions to Texas State in 2008.
Can you name the only team in the country that beat both Arizona State and Alabama last season? All right, so that's selective sampling, considering the Sun Devils and Crimson Tide shared relatively few common opponents, but now that we're gathered inside this little conceit, let's linger over the team from the shores of Lake Washington.
Not only did coach Heather Tarr guide her Huskies to wins against Arizona State and Alabama, she coaxed 30 wins and a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 out of a team that opened the season without its four best players from the previous season -- Ashley Charters, Dominique Lastrapes, Danielle Lawrie and Dena Tyson -- and then lost Lauren Greer to a season-ending injury after just 14 games.
Catcher Alicia Blake (formerly Alicia Matthews) emerged as a legitimate offensive star, hitting .345 overall and .328 in conference play, and freshmen Jace Williams, Morgan Stuart and Aleah Macon turned potential into immediate production. All return next season, along with 396 of the team's 411 hits from the season just concluded.
Lawrie and Charters will also return, assuming the former emerges unscathed from her stint with the Canadian Olympic team and the latter is able to fully recover from the hip surgery that forced her out of action this spring.
The somewhat surprising dismissals of assistants Eve Gaw and Geoff Hirai in early June added a note of instability in a program that had too much of it before Tarr took over prior to the 2005 season, but the pieces appear to be in place for a championship run.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Already the seeds of next spring's college success stories are taking root. From championship contenders to conference sleepers, here are eight teams worth keeping an eye on in 2009.