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. 3 Georgia
Last season: 50-13, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: All nine position players who started in the team's World Series opener last season return, as do all three pitchers who took the circle in that win against Washington. And it doesn't end there. Six of those players also started all four games during the team's World Series stay the previous season. At least in terms of Oklahoma City experience, Georgia is without equal.
Alisa Goler, Taylor Schlopy and Megan Wiggins deservedly get most of the accolades, but there's a reason so many players have started for so long. Catcher Kristyn Sandberg (.989 OPS), first baseman Brianna Hesson (1.012) and catcher/designated player Ashley Razey (.969 OPS) are run producers in their own right. Erin Arevalo and Sarah McCloud split starts effectively in the circle, and Alison Owen was a reliable presence in relief all season and as a starter late.
Who departs: Every player who started at least 20 games or pitched significant innings returns.
Who arrives: As might be surmised, there aren't a lot of open positions in Athens. But as all the experience also indicates, Georgia isn't afraid to let young players get on the field. Atop that list this season may be freshman pitcher Morgan Montemayor, an Arizona product who made a distinct impression on Goler when the All-American saw the freshman pitch for the first time.
"I can tell you; it was, 'Wow,'" Goler recalled of her initial reaction. "I hadn't seen her pitch at all until the first [fall] game. None of us had because the pitchers had been having separate practice times. And she came in and the first pitch she threw to the batter was easily high 60s. I was just like, 'Oh, this is going to be really good.' Because a lot of teams have pitchers that can throw gas, and we've got pitchers that like to work on their location a little bit more. But it's kind of nice to add another piece to the puzzle."
Preseason question: Is the third time the charm for a trio of All-Americans?
When Georgia reached the World Series for the first time in program history in 2009, it was the fresh-faced newcomer who didn't know it wasn't supposed to come within a win of the final series or celebrate every out, and sometimes every strike, like a kid having the time of her life.
A sophomore who enjoyed a breakthrough season for that edition of the Bulldogs, Goler is now a softball old soul, beginning work toward her Master's. Time passes quickly in college years.
"I look back, and whether it's my teammates who are freshmen or just the normal kids on campus, I look back and sometimes I laugh because I can see them stressing out about bus schedules and taking their first test and all that," Goler said. "So I guess I feel old in that sense."
Coaches and pitchers around the SEC would surely concur that Goler, Schlopy and Wiggins have been around a long time -- worn out their welcomes, in fact, in much the same manner as they've worn out opponents. All three started for the Bulldogs from the first time they put on uniforms, and other than injuries that slowed Wiggins as a sophomore, they've been in the starting lineup ever since.
Last season, the three hit a combined .402. Each slugged between .718 and .755, stole at least 10 bases and hit at least 10 home runs. Schlopy is a leadoff hitter in the Rickey Henderson mold, combining speed, power and plate discipline. Wiggins bats second and punishes pitchers who worry too much about Schlopy on first or Goler in the on-deck circle. She struck out just 51 times in 534 at-bats her first three seasons. Goler is the complete hitter batting third, a patient slugger who won't expand her strike zone and won't miss a mistake pitch. Just to make themselves that much more infuriating, all are also outstanding in the field, Schlopy in center, Wiggins in left and Goler at third base.
Coming from California (Schlopy), Georgia (Wiggins) and Illinois (Goler) they knew only of each other before arriving in Athens, but it became apparent there was a connection more significant than a shared talent for stuffing box scores.
"I think that you can learn a lot about someone by the way they practice every day because you see them all the time, whereas spectators only see you on game day," Goler said. "For me, playing in college here was the first time I was ever on a team that had such phenomenal players to play with, like those two. And being around them every day and seeing how hard they work and then also seeing how they were off the field, I would say within the first semester, I knew."
Dubbed "The Triangle" as freshmen by, well, themselves, they begin their final season together as the best top of the lineup in the country. They are older, wiser and still entirely quirky (witness the triangles they often flash each other with their fingers while on the bases). And the core of Georgia's championship aspiration is summed up by a single simple sentiment.
"It's kind of cool to start off every game with the three of us," Goler said.