No. 8 Washington
Last season's record: 39-19
Key returnees: Jerrin Fa'asua, Hooch Fagaly, Courtney Gano, Victoria Hayward, Kaitlin Inglesby, Kylee Lahners, Kimberlee Souza, Shawna Wright.
Key departures: Kimi Pohlman, Nikia Williams.
Tournament finish: Lost in Berkeley (Calif.) super regional (0-2).
1. Urgency of now
When seniors Kimi Pohlman and Nikia Williams departed after last season, they took with them the last active connection to Washington's national championship team. But if you look at the returnees, and eight of them started at least once against Cal in NCAA tournament play, there are a lot of players motivated by back-to-back exits in the super regionals. Washington coach Heather Tarr compared this team's preseason demeanor to that of the 2007 team, which ended a three-year World Series drought, set the stage for the title that eventually followed and fully introduced fans to stars-in-waiting like Danielle Lawrie and Ashley Charters.
2. Kaitlin Inglesby's spotlight
Speaking of names that merit wider circulation … for somebody who wasn't at her physical best last season, Inglesby was still better than a whole lot of people. The only player in the Pac-12 who was both her team's ace and its best hitter, she posted a 1.141 OPS with 63 RBIs at the plate and went 19-11 with a 2.31 ERA in the circle. That came despite a knee injury that affected her pitching plant leg, which may have played a part in her walk rate climbing and her effectiveness declining in conference play. On top of that, Inglesby's training leading up to her second season was curtailed by the facial injuries she suffered after being hit by a line drive before her freshman season. Tarr said the junior is as healthy as she's been during her time in Seattle. Good news for the Huskies; bad news for the competition.
3. Veteran sophomores
Starting three freshmen in the infield is a tough way to get to a super regional, but it's a good way to get growing pains out of the way. Courtney Gano, Kylee Lahners and Kimberlee Souza all started at least 51 games as freshmen, combining for 295 assists in the field while holding down third base, shortstop and second base (Gano and Souza started games at both positions on the left side). Lahners led the team with 11 home runs and slugged .526, but even she hit the wall offensively in conference play. It is not a given, but if those were just growing pains for players who arrived with strong credentials, the payoff could begin as soon as this season.
"I think we're just looking more for all three of them, offensively, to come into their own and figure out how to apply their swings to this game and being able to face a very good pitcher and make adjustments," Tarr said. "Everybody can hit the mistake at this level, but can you have an approach? I think those are the things that they've really had to learn and hone in on."
This is tempered, perhaps slightly or perhaps significantly, by the broken hand Gano sustained this preseason. Tarr said pending the outcome of surgery, Gano could miss anywhere from four weeks, which would cost her only the first few tournaments, to four months, effectively wiping out her season. That could make it even more likely there is another freshman starter in the infield in the form of Jennie McNeill.
4. Stop me if you've heard this one before ...
Coming off a summer spent pitching for Canada against Team USA and others, a talented British Columbian makes her way to Washington. Hey, it worked out well with Lawrie. Freshman Jocelyn Cater will hear a lot of those comparisons, but there are some differences. For one thing, Cater is a lefty. More important, with Inglesby and other returning pitchers around, she isn't going to be ask asked to start 35 games and throw more than 250 innings as a freshman, as Lawrie did in a season that ended in a super regional against Cat Osterman. Cater will make a name of her own -- she struck out 15 in 10.1 innings for Canada in last summer's world championships -- but she has time.
"We don't want to put the cart before the horse with her, as far as any of that goes in using her too much for her own development," Tarr said. "But it could go one of two ways. One way, I think, she could kind of come into her own near the middle to the end of the season and challenge Kaitlin for that No. 1 spot. But then there's another way, where she's not ready for it yet, and she doesn't have enough stuff, so to speak, as far as mentally and physically yet."
5. Scheduled to sink or swim
There is no easy route through the Pac-12, but the early part of Washington's conference schedule looks like something out of the highest "Frogger" levels. Coming off the Judi Garman Classic a week earlier, including games against Michigan and Texas, Washington opens with three games at Arizona followed in quick succession by a three-game series against Oregon and a midweek trip to UCLA. That's nine games in 12 days, going from Tucson to Seattle to Los Angeles, or 12 games in 16 days if you add the subsequent series against Oregon State. If the Huskies can start conference play better than they finished it last season, we'll know a lot about this team.