ASU to rely on sophomore hitters

Arizona State pitcher Dallas Escobedo was 24-8 with 237 strikeouts last season. J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI

Arizona State

Last season's record: 53-11

Key returnees: Elizabeth Caporuscio, Dallas Escobedo, Amber Freeman, Alix Johnson, Haley Steele, Bailey Wigness

Key departures: Hillary Bach, Katelyn Boyd, Talor Haro, Annie Lockwood

Tournament finish: Lost in World Series (2-2)

1. Oklahoma City by way of Dallas

A lot of attention is on Alabama's Jackie Traina at the moment, as she is one of two junior pitchers with a chance to add a second -- and perhaps even a third -- national championship to their resumes. A title-winning ace as a freshman, Dallas Escobedo had her ups and downs as a sophomore -- or considering home runs plagued her as much as anything, maybe her ups and outs. That said, a 24-8 record and 237 strikeouts is a career year for a lot of pitchers, and aside from a rough day against Louisiana-Lafayette, she looked the part of an ace in the postseason. Mackenzie Popescue will start this season in the No. 2 role Hillary Bach perfected last season, but it's Escobedo's show.

"She was a new commodity, and people had not seen pitches like that," Arizona State coach Clint Myers said of Escobedo's freshman success. "There had not been a whole lot of great rise-ball pitchers. So going to the plate and knowing what you're going to see, you have to discipline yourself down [in the zone] and things like that. So she was a novelty. Again, she grew as a person and developed another pitch, and she's doing quite well. We're very pleased with her progress and her ability and her leadership."

2. Replacing Katelyn Boyd

Katelyn Boyd is still around as a graduate assistant manager, but a player who was twice one of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year leaves a big hole to fill at shortstop and in the batting order. A familiar name gets that opportunity. Cheyenne Coyle was one of three Florida players dismissed before the start of the NCAA tournament as a result of what coach Tim Walton said was an altercation within the team. Sisters Sami and Kasey Fagan transferred within the SEC to Missouri and Arkansas, respectively, and will sit out this season as a result. A native Californian, Coyle returned closer to home to Arizona State and is eligible to play this season.

"We talked about it, and she explained her side of the situation, and we understand," Myers said of what led to Coyle's departure from Florida. "And again, it's a new year, it's a new team. So we're not making anything out of it -- we're not really even commenting on it. I know that she's going to be a great Sun Devil."

On the field for the Gators, Coyle's batting average dipped from .318 as a freshman to .232 as a sophomore, but she still showed power and patience (10 home runs and a .399 on-base percentage) that fit Arizona State's hitting philosophy.

3. Sophomore power

Elizabeth Caporuscio, Amber Freeman and Haley Steele combined to hit 39 home runs as freshmen for the Sun Devils last season. It's not quite Oklahoma's middle of the order, but add that trio to All-America outfielder Alix Johnson, the team's top returning hitter with a .763 slugging percentage and 13 home runs, and Coyle, and a lineup that doesn't contain either Boyd or former All-America Katie Cochran might be the most powerful Myers has fielded in his time in Tempe. Even after losing Boyd and Annie Lockwood, Arizona State has more home runs among returning players (counting Coyle's Florida total) than any Pac-12 team.

4. The lonely senior

There are actually four seniors on Arizona State's enormous roster, but only two have been part of the program for four seasons, and only Sam Parlich is likely to have a leading role as a fourth-year player. Another potential power source who hit 13 home runs as one of only five players to start all 66 games en route to the 2011 championship, Parlich's power numbers dropped significantly last season. The upside? While she only hit three home runs, two came in the NCAA tournament super regional against Louisiana-Lafayette, perhaps setting the stage for her final season.

5. No place like home

Or rather, no place but home for Arizona State. If you've been to Tempe in February or have waited through rain delays and frigid days elsewhere in the season's opening month, it's easy to see why the Sun Devils spend as much time at home as possible. They won't play a game outside Farrington Stadium until March 14, when they travel to the Judi Garman Classic in California. And they won't play a true road game until opening Pac-12 play at UCLA the following week. Does it matter? Maybe a little in the short term. Arizona State is 7-4 during its first weekend on the road in conference play the past four seasons. But between the Pac-12 and Garman schedules, the Sun Devils will almost always receive a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament if they take care of business at home in the regular season. It's hard to lose on the road in the postseason if the only trip is to a neutral field in Oklahoma City.