- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It's never too early to start thinking about the next college softball season, a thesis I'll put to the test here with some premature questions for the 2011 season.
1. Who is the early, early, early favorite for player of the year?
Washington's Danielle Lawrie has left the building, so unlike a year ago, there isn't a clear-cut favorite for top individual honors. Even Lawrie's closest competition this season, UCLA's Megan Langenfeld and Georgia Tech's Jen Yee, were seniors.
So without going completely off the grid, how about someone for whom national attention is perhaps overdue?
The heir to Langenfeld's multipurpose throne, California's Valerie Arioto, does a lot of everything. As a junior this season, she led the Bears in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage at the plate and wins, ERA and strikeouts in the circle. For good measure, she stole 12 bases in as many attempts.
Arioto's plate discipline would be the stuff of legend if people wrote legends about things like walks (when you're in the same neighborhood as former Golden Bear and automatic intentional walk Veronica Nelson, you're doing something right). And if sophomore catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt, already a power threat, continues to develop in the cleanup role, Arioto may see enough hittable pitches to turn some of those walks into even more extra-base hits.
2. Who are five more players who could challenge for the award?
Katelyn Boyd, SS, Arizona State: She finished No. 36 in the nation in slugging percentage -- and played a month with a broken finger and thumb that left her unable to do much more than slap. On top of her prowess at the plate, she almost single-handedly solidified the middle of Arizona State's infield defensively.
Kayla Braud, 2B, Alabama: Watching Braud hit as a freshman, it seemed legitimately fair to wonder if she might someday hit .600 for an entire season. A slapper who can put the ball in the gaps or over the wall at times, she is a complete offensive asset.
Kenzie Fowler, P, Arizona: She more than lived up to the hype as a freshman, no small feat given how highly regarded she was coming out of high school. Her final start wasn't what she wanted, but she showed more than just talent in providing pitching as the Wildcats came through the loser's bracket at the World Series.
Taylor Schlopy, OF, Georgia: Honestly, flip a coin when it comes to Schlopy or teammate Alisa Goler (and maybe find something with three sides to bring Megan Wiggins into the equation). But Schlopy's combination of speed, power, outfield defense and energy gives her a strong campaign platform.
Jordan Taylor, P, Michigan: After splitting the No. 1 role with Nikki Nemitz for three seasons, it's her show in Ann Arbor next season. If she's at 40 appearances with 30-plus wins and 350-plus strikeouts for a World Series contender, she's in the thick of the race.
3. Will we run out of softballs with all the home runs?
It felt that way at the World Series with the rate at which balls flew over the fence. But after the NCAA single-season home record fell for the second season in a row, the demise of pitching and rise of offense -- and specifically the explosion of the long ball -- seems to be the hottest topic in town.
And there are almost as many reasons why it's happening as there are opinions on what it means for the health or ill health of the sport.
"The athletes are better. They're stronger, the technology is way better," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said during the NCAA tournament. "I could see it coming to a day where we copy college baseball again and get rid of all the composite bats. [But] I think it draws a lot of fans. When we first started, we'd have 200 people here, and it was 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and now they love it when Charlotte [Morgan] hits the ball 260 [feet]."
As Murphy suggests, it's a double-edged sword. The history of just about every sport in the United States, at least anecdotally, suggests casual fans like offense. On the other hand, when three hours becomes the norm for a college game, as it was in the UCLA-Arizona final, the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in that direction.
Which is why "composite" is the word most likely to define the upcoming season. Arizona coach Mike Candrea, whose 2009 team set the home run record that Hawaii broke this season, repeatedly suggested during the World Series that replacing composite bats with traditional aluminum bats is something softball should consider.
"I love the home run," Candrea said. "I just don't think that the home run should be hit by everyone in the lineup. And there are a lot of home runs being hit."
And barring the unlikely elimination of composite bats, that won't change in 2011.
4. How about an early "Eight for OKC" for 2011?
1. Arizona: K'Lee Arredondo is a loss on offense, but she's the only player who recorded even one hit this season who won't be back. And assuming highly touted incoming freshman Shelby Babcock can slide into the No. 2 pitching role, ace Kenzie Fowler should be able to build on a sensational freshman season.
2. Alabama: Charlotte Morgan will be impossible to replace on and off the field, but the Crimson Tide return almost everyone else. Heralded freshman Jaclyn Traina could team with Kelsi Dunne and Lauren Sewell in the circle, allowing Amanda Locke to continue emerging as one of the nation's best sluggers.
3. UCLA: Losing just three starters from a team that went 10-0 during the NCAA tournament would usually be a recipe for a repeat, but the amount of returning talent nationwide makes for unusual circumstances. Not to mention, one of those departing seniors is Langenfeld. A healthy return for All-American outfielder Katie Schroeder, who played just seven games this season, will be a boost. Repeat aspirations may hinge on how well Aleah Macon and Donna Kerr seize the circle.
4. Florida: Tim Walton stressed he wanted his program to become more athletic. Whether or not the incoming freshman class speeds that process, the Gators will be good enough to get back to Oklahoma City. Francesca Enea is a big bat to replace, but freshman Brittany Schutte looks ready.
5. Arizona State: The Sun Devils lose 109 starts in the field and 18 starts in the circle through departing seniors, but there's never a shortage of options in Tempe. Boyd is a player to build a lineup around, and freshman pitcher Dallas Escobedo, ESPN Rise's No. 1 recruit, joins battle-tested Hillary Bach.
6. Tennessee: As pleased as he was with this season's postseason run, Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly could never quite stop dropping hints about his giddiness for what's in store. Seven returning starters will be joined by a recruiting class ranked best in the nation by ESPN Rise.
7. Georgia: The Bulldogs don't lose a single player for 2011. Wiggins stayed healthy this season and fits between Schlopy and Goler in perhaps the most potent top of the order out there.
8. Missouri: Missouri made the World Series this year without injured ace Chelsea Thomas. And if Thomas is back at 100 percent next season, the Tigers have two proven postseason pitchers in Thomas and Kristin Nottelmann.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
It's never too early to start thinking about the next college softball season. From player of the year candidates to the teams to beat, here's a very early look at 2011.