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. 11 Hawaii
Last season: 50-16, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: Kelly Majam returns after leading the NCAA in home runs, ranking as one of five players to slug better than .900 and in the top 30 in on-base percentage as a redshirt freshman. And none of those numbers have much to do with why her return is perhaps the preseason's best story. Shortly after Hawaii exited the Women's College World Series, Majam was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Coach Bob Coolen estimated she's at about 75 percent at the moment, having undergone her most recent radiation therapy on Dec. 27, but 75 percent of Majam the hitter is a big deal. And seeing Majam the person back in spikes is an even bigger deal.
The Rainbow Wahine return their five most productive hitters from last season, including Majam. Third baseman Melissa Gonzalez (1.265 OPS) and shortstop Jessica Iwata (1.153 OPS) form one of the best left sides of the infield in all of college softball, while Jenna Rodriguez (1.118 OPS) and Alexandra Aguirre (.979 OPS) will flank Majam in the outfield. There's also plenty of experience in the circle, where Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby return. Another in a line of Australians at Hawaii, Parnaby quietly ranked 14th among freshman pitchers in strikeouts per seven innings.
Who departs: They weren't the statistical leaders, but last season's seniors advanced to a super regional as freshmen and the World Series as seniors, so there was clearly something there. Catcher Katie Grimes, second baseman Traci Yoshikawa, outfielder Kanani Pu'u-Warren and first baseman Amanda Tauali'i all contributed to last season's memorable run.
Who arrives: A lot of the openings will be filled by returning players in new roles, but freshman Sharla Kliebenstein looks to be the favorite to replace Grimes behind the plate, while Jazmine Zamora and Kaile Nakao are fighting for time at second base with junior Dara Pagaduan.
Statistically speaking: For a team that hit 158 home runs last season, one hit in 15 at-bats over two seasons might seem odd numbers to single out. But Coolen suggested junior Sarah Robinson, younger sister of former Hawaii star Kate Robinson, is ready for the same sort of breakthrough third season her sister enjoyed.
Preseason question: Will Hawaii dwell on a season to remember?
Given the amount of time the team spent on the road in May, the quality of the opponent in top-seeded Alabama and the nature of the walk-off home run against the Tide in Tuscaloosa, Hawaii did indeed score one of the most memorable upsets in NCAA tournament history to advance to the World Series.
That is not the same as saying it was one of the biggest upsets.
The Rainbow Wahine, after all, were seeded No. 16 in last season's bracket, beat Stanford and Cal in the regular season, won the WAC by a wide margin, broke the NCAA single-season home run record and then beat the Cardinal again on the Pac-10 team's field in a regional. Hawaii was a World Series-caliber team all along; it just followed an unforgettable route to Oklahoma City.
And with so much talent returning, this season should unfold with the program right back in the middle of the race to the World Series -- as long as this team doesn't spend too much time thinking it's last season's team. Coolen said he was embarrassed with himself when, after winning the WAC in 2003, the 2004 team with many of the same faces fell flat on its face. So when this season's team convened for the first time last fall, he asked the returnees to reminisce and share their stories of an ESPY-winning season with the newcomers.
It was a one-time only invitation.
"After that meeting, I said, 'It's over; it's now over. We are now focused on a new year,'" Coolen recalled. "We have a whole new set of expectations. We have a whole new set of lineup possibilities. We have a whole new set of equipment that we're using. So all the pictures, all the reminders, everything is now over after that first meeting, which is something I had to do because I did not want to live in the past."