- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The 2009 softball season just ended with Washington's national championship win in the Women's College World Series on Tuesday night, but we're already looking toward next year. Here are the answers to 5 Burning Questions on the 2010 season.
1. Who is the early, early, early favorite for Player of the Year?
Barring any sort of deal with the Mariners that takes her away from the college scene, Danielle Lawrie enters next season as the favorite to repeat as USA Softball Player of the Year. Three-time winner Cat Osterman is the only player to win multiple times.
Lawrie is the best player in the college game right now and already in the conversation of all-time greats. But putting aside her pitching for a moment, which isn't easy, there may be room for her to become an even more dominant presence.
She hit .289 with 10 home runs and a .544 slugging percentage as a sophomore in 2007, but after skipping last season to pitch for the Canadian Olympic team, her stroke at the plate didn't immediately return. She had only 18 hits in the regular season this year (granted, four of them were home runs), and as much as she seemed at home at the plate in the last three weeks, it wasn't until early in the NCAA tournament that she moved to the cleanup spot in the order on a regular basis.
In 12 postseason games, including five against two of the best pitchers in the nation in Massachusetts' Brandice Balschmiter and Florida's Stacey Nelson, Lawrie hit .308 with three home runs and 14 RBIs -- just six fewer earned runs than she allowed in the circle.
From the raw pitching arsenal that blew away the Florida lineup three times this season to the mental toughness and supreme self-confidence to escape elimination games and 300-pitch days, Lawrie is the complete package as a pitcher.
"There's a reason she's the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament, probably the best pitcher in the country and one of the best pitchers in the world," Florida coach Tim Walton said after the last game. "I don't know if it was just me or my imagination -- it was getting dark out there -- but it seemed like every time we'd get somebody on base, she revved it up another gear. In the last two innings, she revved it up probably two more gears."
Add in the potential for 15 home runs and 40 RBIs, and she truly is softball's best player, in every sense of the word.
2. Who are five of the top challengers to Lawrie's throne?
1. Charlotte Morgan, Alabama
Especially if another offseason helps heal the foot that she keeps almost permanently encased in a protective boot when away from the field, Morgan should continue piling up offensive numbers in her final season. She's also grown into an underrated pitcher for the Crimson Tide, although it remains to be seen how the chores in the circle will be distributed next season among Morgan, Kelsi Dunne, Amanda Locke and incoming freshman Lauren Sewell.
2. Ashley Hansen, Stanford
She'll have competition for votes from teammate Alissa Haber, but Hansen lived up to the hype as a freshman and is already one of the game's dynamic talents. Hansen can beat out infield choppers, slap doubles and triples into the gaps, and drive balls over the fence.
3. Amber Flores, Oklahoma
Hopefully for her sake, Flores will have an opportunity to cap a stellar career in Norman by playing up the road in Oklahoma City in the World Series. Regardless of how the team fares, Flores is too good a hitter to ignore. As a junior, she ranked eighth in the nation in slugging percentage and second in on-base percentage.
4. Brittany Lastrapes, Arizona
Like Hansen, Lastrapes will have a tough primary fight on her hands, considering teammate Stacie Chambers also returns after hitting 31 home runs this season. Both will be strong All-America candidates, but Lastrapes came close to Kaitlin Cochran territory this season, hitting .481 with power (17 home runs).
5. Adrienne Monka, Northwestern
Partly because of the way the Wildcats lost momentum down the stretch, Monka's spectacular debut was easy to overlook. But when a freshman playing a schedule as tough as Northwestern's slugs .900 with 19 home runs and has more walks than strikeouts, it's staggering to think what may be ahead.
3. That's a lot of hitters -- will all of this offense continue?
Other than the sight of the Huskies celebrating with the national championship trophy, the lasting image from this year's Women's College World Series will probably involve a grand slam -- whether it's Jazlyn Lunceford's miraculous pinch-hit slam for Alabama, Ali Gardiner's game-winning shot a day later against Alabama, or Lawrie's bases-clearing shot in an elimination game against Georgia. It was a week for offense in Oklahoma City.
In all, 120 runs were scored in 15 games, an average of eight runs per game. Both marks, total and average, are new records by fence-clearing margins. The old record for total runs was 95 in 1997 (in 16 games), and the old record for average runs per game was 6.8 in 1996 (the last World Series that wasn't played at Hall of Fame Stadium).
Of the five pitchers who threw at least 10 innings here, only Lawrie finished with an ERA under 2.00.
All of which was an appropriate coda for a season in which offense seemed to rule. A season in which Arizona's Stacie Chambers flirted with the individual single-season home run record and a season in which her team obliterated the team single-season record. A season in which Pac-10 teams scored an average of 5.39 runs per game, up from 4.75 last season and 4.98 the season before that, and the SEC saw a similar spike. (To be fair, scoring in the Big Ten and Big 12, the other two major conferences, held steady.)
So what remains to be seen is whether this season marked the beginning of a shift in eras in which better coaching, scouting, technology and participation make hitters more dangerous at the same time parity spreads pitching talent even thinner. Or if it was merely a blip on the radar, like a cool summer day that doesn't foretell a coming ice age.
4. So who are five non-Canadian pitchers with a chance to shine?
1. Nikki Nemitz, Michigan
As good as the hitters above are, there's a distinct possibility Nemitz ends up as one of Lawrie's top challengers -- on the field in Oklahoma City and at the ballot box. She added pitches and confidence after last season and grew from a very good pitcher to one of the elite. And like Lawrie, she's not bad with the bat, either.
2. Morgan Melloh, Fresno State
In two seasons at Fresno State, the Indiana native has thrown 77 percent of her team's innings and recorded 904 strikeouts. That's an ace.
3. Whitney Canion, Baylor
She ran out of steam at the end of a long freshman season, and Baylor coach Glenn Moore deserves credit for shutting her down before the final day of the Michigan Super Regional rather than risk further damage. Assuming there aren't any long-term physical issues along the lines of those that derailed Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher Ashley Brignac's sophomore season, Canion is a dominant power pitcher who knows she needs to add and refine pitches to reach her peak. That's a nice combo.
4. Becca Heteniak, DePaul
Osterman's current pupil at DePaul has been a consistent force throughout her time in Chicago (79-23 career record), but every season there seems to be at least one standout senior who takes the slight step forward to an even higher level. Like Megan Gibson, Lisa Ferguson and even Tracie Adix at DePaul, that might be Heteniak.
5. Danielle Spaulding, North Carolina
On numbers alone, Spaulding is a monster. Nobody came close to her this season in strikeouts per seven innings (14.3), and she was No. 27 in the nation in ERA. But she hasn't ever thrown 200 innings in a season for the Tar Heels and will likely need to as the ace of a staff without Lisa Norris.
BONUS: Kenzie Fowler, Arizona/Rachele Fico, LSU
A split vote, but no two freshmen will garner more attention than the headliners in the incoming class. It doesn't hurt that with Fico, a Connecticut native, heading to the SEC and Fowler staying home in Arizona, there will be endless fodder for the SEC-Pac-10 debate as the two find their footing.
5. How does the early top 8 look?
Predicting this the day after the World Series is about as useful as predicting the weather on the first day of next year's World Series, but why wait to be wrong?
They lose some vital pieces, most notably second baseman Ashley Charters and catcher Alicia Blake, who has long called all of Lawrie's pitches. But the good news is Lawrie's pitches will be back, along with a full season from shortstop Jenn Salling. And considering how much freshmen and sophomores such as Kimi Pohlman, Morgan Stuart and Niki Williams kept improving in the postseason, the champions are well positioned to defend their title.
Even if there's a little less offense, a little more pitching and a little more defense should make for a longer and more successful stay in Oklahoma City.
Stacey Nelson is a huge loss, but Stephanie Brombacher has a chance to be special. The Gators have plenty coming back to support her at the plate and in the field.
In a world in which pitching seems to be in increasingly short supply, the Wolverines are loaded with two aces, not to mention almost their entire lineup returning.
Incoming freshman Destiny Rodino adds to the pitching depth, and the healthy return of Samantha Camuso will keep the Bruins' lineup loaded from top to bottom.
The incoming battery of pitcher Jolene Henderson and catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt adds even more punch to a roster ready to get the Bears back to Oklahoma City.
The search for championship pitching continues, but incoming freshman Keilani Ricketts may be the answer. There's certainly plenty of continuity in the lineup to help her along.
There is a lot to replace, but the Tide have always managed to do that better than anyone in the SEC. With Morgan as an anchor, there's also a lot already in place.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.