No. 2 Alabama
Last season's record: 60-8
Key returnees: Kayla Braud, Courtney Conley, Danae Hays, Kaila Hunt, Jackie Traina.
Key departures: Kendall Dawson, Jennifer Fenton, Amanda Locke, Jazlyn Lunceford, Cassie Reilly-Boccia.
Tournament finish: Won national championship.
1. New leader for a new team
Given the option, it's safe to assume Alabama coach Patrick Murphy and the softball-loving masses in Tuscaloosa would welcome back Jennifer Fenton, Amanda Locke, Cassie Reilly-Boccia and the rest of a senior class that led the Crimson Tide to their first national championship after years of postseason heartache. But losing a group like that to graduation may help the Crimson Tide guard against complacency -- all they have to do to know this isn't last season is look around. But it also means this team needs new voices from which to take its cues. That means added responsibility for the All-American at the top of the batting order (and one of the masterminds of Alabama's gnome videos).
"Kayla Braud is probably one of the best leaders we've ever had," Murphy said. "I think it really means a lot to a team when your best player is also your best leader. She has tremendous influence on the team, positive influence. She's kind of like the task master, and she doesn't let anybody get too big for their britches."
2. Jackie Traina's best yet to come
All Traina did in her second college season was start 43 of Alabama's 68 games in the circle and go 42-3 with a 1.87 ERA and 361 strikeouts, hit .319 with 10 home runs and keep her wits about her after falling behind by a game in the championship series against hometown favorite Oklahoma in the World Series. Oh, and pitch for Team USA in the summer. A perfect season for one of the game's new stars, right? Well, yes, in the moment, but it doesn't mean she's maxed out her potential. For all her success, Traina also walked 109 batters and gave up 27 home runs, two elements of pitching for which she isn't reliant on the defense behind her.
"She can get better is the first thing I thought of," Murphy said of those numbers. "She will get better. If she cuts out half of each, can you imagine what her strikeouts and her ERA is going to look like? Those are huge. Even if she cuts out 30 walks -- some people are going to get a hit, but she's going to either strike them out or they're going to be out, so that's a lot less people on base."
3. Opportunity knocks
Alabama returns just four of the batters Murphy wrote on the lineup card for the final game against Oklahoma. In Braud, Traina and shortstop Kaila Hunt, three All-American bats remain, while third baseman Courtney Conley adds more proven run production. But that still leaves question marks all over the field. After coaches and players spent the fall watching Alabama's football team reload and refocus, they may have a model to deal with those questions.
"We've got kids waiting in the wings ready to take those spots and show people what they can do," Murphy said. "It's like an Eddie Lacy and an A.J. McCarron that take over for Mark Ingram and Greg McElroy in football."
Outfielder Keima Davis and infielder Jackey Branham, both seniors, are two veterans to watch. Davis, in particular, has long been able to put on a power show in batting practice and run at will on the bases, but she was never able to displace Fenton or Lunceford for regular at-bats.
4. High praise for a freshman
Alabama has built up a long list of all-time greats in a relatively short amount of time as a program, but one name from the early years never seems to get dislodged from the top of the pecking order. A lot of people will tell you former Olympian and current National Pro Fastpitch outfielder Kelly Kretschman is the most talented player who ever played -- or ever will play -- for the Crimson Tide. So when Murphy pulls out her name to explain the potential of freshman outfielder Haylie McCleney, an in-state product who is likely to start from the outset, it merits attention.
"Haylie reminds me of Kelly Kretschman," Murphy said. "Every day at practice she makes a play, and the first kid I think of is Kelly."
5. Unlikely reinforcement
Will Alabama's repeat bid get a boost by way of a Southland Conference team that finished last season with a losing record? It might. In addition to a talented freshman class, Alabama added Molly Fichtner as a transfer from Texas-San Antonio. In two seasons at UT-San Antonio, Fichtner hit .358 with 55 walks and just 27 strikeouts, high value numbers from a catcher. Like Georgia's Tess Sito a season ago, she's a former mid-major star ready for a big challenge.
"She's just one of those kids that, she was probably a little small," Murphy said. "She's 5-2, she's a catcher, got overlooked. I definitely think she's going to compete and contend for a lot of playing time."