Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 16 LSU
Last season: 45-16, lost in Baton Rouge regional
Who returns: The list includes the reigning freshman ERA champion and another player who coach Yvette Girouard says might be the best left fielder she's ever coached. In other words, the cupboard isn't bare. Now a sophomore, Rachele Fico's 1.15 ERA in a team-high 158.2 innings topped all freshmen nationwide in a season in which that was saying something. Ashley Langoni, the aforementioned left fielder, is also the Tigers' returning leader in slugging percentage (.527). Seven other players who started at least 37 games in the field or 16 in the circle also return, including SEC all-defensive team honoree Jessica Mouse at third base.
Who departs: The two players who best positioned the Tigers to compete in the runs-race that has become the SEC in recent season. Kirsten Shortridge (.439 on-base percentage, 45 stolen bases) was among the best leadoff hitters in the game, and Rachel Mitchell (.962 OPS, 19 stolen bases) was the best all-around run producer behind Shortridge in the order. The circle also took a hit, with the graduation of Cody Trahan (13-5, 1.47 ERA last season).
Who arrives: A cast of thousands. All right, six, but six freshmen who Girouard can't stop praising for their work ethic. Outfielder Simone Heyward will likely inherit Shortridge's leadoff spot, while either Alex Boulet or Jacee Blades could also start in the outfield, at least until senior Ashley Applegate returns from a fractured bone in her hand. Freshman pitcher Meghan Patterson could also play a role behind Fico and Mack.
Statistically speaking: Despite ranking seventh in team bating average and fifth in on-base percentage, LSU had five players with an on-base percentage of .400 or better, the same number as Tennessee and Georgia.
Preseason question: Is LSU built to compete in a world of sluggers?
As is usually the case in Baton Rouge, the TIgers have pitching, with Fico poised to inherit an even larger role than she filled while living up to her ample prep hype. They also have the SEC's best defense by fielding percentage, perhaps most notably in the form of Mouse, once she recovers from a recent foot injury that may have her wearing a protective boot for another week.
But do pitching and defense still win games, let alone the championships the old adage promises?
"There's no question we've to score some more runs," Girouard said. "We had a ton of pitching last year. We've tried to make ourselves a little bit more balanced here with a little bit more speed in our lineup. But yeah, when I filled out the preseason form, it was scary voting for Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama and Florida; they have a ton of great players on all of those teams."
The old-school staples worked well enough for the Tigers in 2010, producing a 20-8 conference record despite the team's .400 slugging percentage -- a far cry from those approaching and surpassing .600 from rivals like Alabama, Florida and Georgia. And considering LSU went 2-6 against those teams, that's a bit of an issue, especially with Mitchell's departure taking away a power bat. What the Tigers did, they did well. They were the conference's most efficient team in the running game, stealing 125 bases against just 12 times caught stealing. And as the individual on-base percentages suggest, they didn't waste plate appearances.
Of course, even if LSU wanted to move beyond manufacturing runs, moving into the otherwise sparkling new Tiger Park last season made it a necessity.
"The dynamic of the park is something that we're still kind of adjusting to," Girouard said. "In the old park, the ball just flew off the bat. We were enclosed, the wind was basically at the hitter's back. Where we are now, the river dictates a lot of the wind currents and it can not only change in an inning, it can change pitch to pitch. The park plays huge. I'm not going to blame it all on that fact as to why we haven't kept up with the home runs, but it has been a huge factor into why our numbers have gone down with home runs."