Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his Top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 2 Arizona State
Last year: 60-6 overall, 17-4 Pac-10 (Won national championship)
Who returns: The ace in the circle and the two best hitters return, not too shabby for a team that posted the above record last season and won six games in the Women's College World Series by a combined 34-12 margin.
Dallas Escobedo was the most highly anticipated member of last season's freshman class nationwide, a superstar prep pitcher in Arizona who picked her hometown school. And yet she still managed to exceed expectations, going 37-3 with a 1.51 ERA and 326 strikeouts in 255⅓ innings and holding up both mentally and physically across the grueling Pac-10 season and postseason run. Sure, like any pitcher, there are parts of her game she can improve -- she gave up 22 home runs as a freshman -- but it was an All-American debut by any standard.
Katelyn Boyd and Annie Lockwood return behind Escobedo and ahead of just about all peers at the plate. One of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year last season, Boyd is the complete package. As a shortstop, she has the range and arm to be a defensive asset (granted, errors aren't the best measure of defensive value, but seven errors in 66 games says something about Boyd's wizardry with the glove). At the plate, she hits for power (.785 slugging percentage, 18 home runs), shows patience (52 walks, 20 strikeouts, .549 on-base percentage) and punishes opponents on the bases (20 stolen bases in as many attempts). Lockwood's blend of power and plate discipline might be even more impressive than that of her teammate. As a junior last season, Lockwood led the Sun Devils with 19 home runs and struck out just 14 times in more than 200 plate appearances.
Beyond that All-American trio, Talor Haro, Alix Johnson and Sam Parlich also return from the starting lineup in the final game of the Women's College World Series. Considering no Arizona State regular hit worse than .300 last season, all three are assets in their own right. Johnson, in particular, held her own as a freshman (.462 on-base percentage) and could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.
Who departs: It's a list of more than passing significance. Their impact went well beyond the box score, but Kaylyn Castillo, Krista Donnenwirth, Lesley Rogers and Mandy Urfer are major losses in purely tangible terms. Those four combined for 38 percent of the team's hits last season and routinely held down four of the top six spots in the batting order. All also contributed to the overshadowed element of Arizona State's success -- a defense that committed just 26 errors in 66 games. Donnenwirth, in particular, finishes her college career as an all-timer with the glove at third base.
Who arrives: Arizona State coach Clint Myers loves depth, and after two national championships in four years, who is going to argue with him? Seven freshmen and three transfers pad out a published roster of 25 players. Among the freshmen, Elizabeth Caporuscio, Amber Freeman and Bethany Kemp (sister of former University of Arizona softball player Victoria Kemp) bring the most decorated prep résumés. Freeman was the primary catcher for Team USA in the ISF Junior World Championship in December, giving her plenty of extra work with Escobedo, also a member of the team (Freeman also drove in five runs in four medal-round games in the tournament).
Preseason question: Can the Sun Devils replace their seniors?
It's going to be a colossal shock if Arizona State doesn't return to the Women's College World Series. It's going to be at least a mild surprise if the Sun Devils aren't still playing when Sunday turns to Monday in Oklahoma City and the championship series is set. There is too much talent on hand to believe otherwise. But to focus solely on the returnees is to diminish what a group of seniors, most of whom were around for two championships, did.
The four seniors already mentioned from last season's team were the biggest on-field producers, but they were part of a class that also included Lacy Goodman, Dani Rae Lougheed, Michelle Nulliner and Sarah Rice. For Myers, who won nearly 900 games coaching baseball and softball at Central Arizona College before coming to Arizona State and coached high school baseball as long ago as the Carter administration, those seniors topped any list.
"I can tell you one thing this team has had that no other team has had, men or women: eight great leaders with these seniors," Myers said after winning the championship last season. "[The team] played the best softball of the year in the College World Series. They did it with a young pitcher who had lots of friends and lots of help in the circle, with great defense we had timely hitting. And if you looked, the seniors stepped up. It was their last hurrah."
Replacing their tangible contributions will be difficult, but Myers always finds talent. Replacing the leadership that brought everything together at the right time last season will be the bigger challenge.