Preseason softball: Five burning questions
When Florida and Alabama opened last season atop the polls, the question of the moment was whether the SEC had caught the Pac-10 as the sport's pre-eminent power base.
By the time Washington finished celebrating its first national championship on the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, it was clear the softball arms race -- ironically in one of the kindest seasons to batters in recent memory -- was nowhere near such a neat and tidy resolution.
The SEC and others are moving ahead full steam, but they're chasing a moving target.
Washington opens this season poised to defend its title and ranked No. 1. The first Pac-10 team other than Arizona or UCLA to win a national championship when it did so in 2002, Cal appears back in position to challenge for a spot in the World Series and possibly even a second title. Stanford keeps adding talent and can make a strong case as the best team not to reach the World Series in the past five years. A season after making do without Katie Burkhart well enough to reach Oklahoma City, Arizona State must repeat the process without Katie Cochran. But the Sun Devils have more than enough talent to avoid falling off the pace set by their 2008 title team.
And those are just the contenders that didn't win 19 of the first 24 NCAA championships, loot divvied up between UCLA (10 titles and one vacated title) and Arizona (eight titles).
University of Washington Athletic Department If Washington makes it back to the WCWS, Danielle Lawrie will be a threat.
Is the rest of the country catching up to Arizona and UCLA? With as much talent as there is this season in Tucson and Westwood, it's undoubtedly so. It's just that to a greater degree than ever before, despite the Pac-10's long history of large World Series contingents, the rest of the country includes places like Tempe, Ariz.; Berkeley and Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle.
2. Is Washington the team to beat?
Even if you don't subscribe to the theory that the champions deserve that label until it's taken from them, the Huskies qualify strictly on the merits of the here and now.
That isn't to say coach Heather Tarr's team is unquestionably better than last season's version. It lost a huge tangible piece in All-American second baseman Ashley Charters and perhaps an equally noteworthy intangible piece in catcher Alicia Blake, Danielle Lawrie's catcher for three seasons. But the pieces the Huskies return -- and there are a lot -- should be better. Sophomores Kimi Pohlman and Niki Williams have a year of success to build on, while junior third baseman Morgan Stuart has a year of work at the hot corner to build on after shifting from shortstop. And senior Jennifer Salling, whose midseason arrival necessitated Stuart's shift, won't have to jump in midstream.
And there is, of course, Lawrie. After pitching through a stress fracture in her pitching arm for much of last season, she's healthy and without peer in the college ranks now that former Florida ace Stacey Nelson has moved on. Last year, Lawrie pitched through two road trips in regionals and super regionals, plus a long elimination day against Georgia in the World Series; in so doing, she proved she can overwhelm opponents when she's at her best and blink past when she's not.
3. Which player could alter the college softball landscape?
Matt Dunaway/LSU Athletics LSU's Rachele Fico has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
How's that for a buildup? But when you threw perfect games by the dozens in high school in Connecticut, helped a Florida travel ball team upset the softball establishment in knocking off the California powers to win the prestigious ASA Gold title, pitched against Team USA after your junior year in high school and earned space on "SportsCenter" and in The New York Times, lofty expectations get packed for school right along with the notebooks and clothes.
LSU freshman Rachele Fico is just one of several highly touted freshman pitchers dotting big-time rosters around the country, but she has the potential to set herself apart from the crowd.
All the accomplishments and experiences predating her arrival in Baton Rouge help, as does her place in a program with perhaps the richest softball tradition in the SEC but that, like the rest of the conference, is still looking for its first national championship. It also doesn't hurt that Fico has both the ability to blow pitches past batters and a sense of spin and control beyond her 18 years.
She even sounds like a seasoned vet in passing credit to her defense -- a defense that isn't likely to get a lot of work on days when she's on top of her game.
"I'm extremely comfortable with my team; I know I have a great defense behind me," Fico said a few days before her debut. "So I'm not scared to throw pitches and I know if they do get put into play my teammates are going to make the plays behind me."
The sport is also evolving to give freshman pitchers a greater shot at success. While Connecticut high schoolers still throw from 40 feet, Fico's experience in travel ball and pitching for the elite Stratford Brakettes amateur team (alongside players like former LSU catcher Killian Roessner) means pitching from a consistent 43 feet in college is actually something of a relief, rather than a challenge to overcome.
"My biggest adjustment to 43 feet with pitching was probably my changeup," Fico said. "When I switched to 43 feet, I had to work on getting the ball to get there a little bit more. But it's really nice to have those extra three feet because it gives us so much time to make the ball spin and get a little bit more break on it."
4. Which team could make a surprise trip to Oklahoma City?
There is almost always at least one team that sneaks up on fans and pundits. Two seasons ago, Louisiana-Lafayette went from No. 20 in the preseason Top 25 to the World Series. Last season Missouri and Georgia rose from Nos. 23 and 19, respectively, to Oklahoma City.
Now it's about time No. 19 Florida State ends its World Series hiatus.
The Seminoles will need more consistent run production this season, no small task considering they lost their best hitter, Kaleigh Rafter. A team that slugged an anemic .366 in 2009 has some work to do, but senior outfielder Carly Wynn (.530 slugging, .409 on-base percentage) is a good place to begin building a lineup. The Seminoles should once again get a boost from the transfer market -- like they did with Rafter -- with the arrivals of Jen Lapicki from Tennessee and Tory Haddad from Ohio State, patient hitters with the ability to add to the team's extra-base hit totals.
The good news is Florida State doesn't need to set scoring records as long as Sarah Hamilton and Terese Gober are splitting innings in the circle. The two combined to go 44-16 with 519 strikeouts and just 87 walks in 421 1/3 innings, reminiscent in some ways of Northwestern's duo of Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster in that program's breakout 2006 campaign.
5. Who are three players who deserve a brighter spotlight?
Carly Normandin, OF, Massachusetts The Minutewomen might have been one of the best teams in the country last season. They just had the misfortune to play 22 innings against Danielle Lawrie on the final day of regionals. Ace Brandice Balschmiter is gone, which will make a repeat performance difficult, but Normandin was one of the toughest omissions from this season's ESPN.com All-America team. Her bat is streaky, but the end product (.727 slugging, .457 on-base percentage) is indisputably great. And what never wavers is her defense. It's tough to make declarative defensive statements without more widely available video and statistics, but I know this: I've never seen a better outfielder.
Kylie Reynolds, P, Kent State All she's done for the past three years is strike out batter and win games. A season ago, she finished sixth nationally in strikeouts per seven innings -- and it was the first season in which she didn't win MAC Pitcher of the Year honors (Ball State's Elizabeth Milian ended her run). In 236 innings, Reynolds struck out 345 batters and limited opponents to a .190 batting average. And Reynolds isn't just a MAC phenomenon. Last season alone, she struck out 11 in a loss at Arizona State, didn't allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings in a loss against Iowa and shut out a good Texas State team for an upset win.
Melissa Roth, C, Louisville The Big East may not be the Pac-10 or SEC -- it may not even be the Big Ten or ACC -- but if you hit .444 with an .870 slugging percentage and .566 on-base percentage, you can get it done in any uniform. That includes the Team USA uniform Roth wore in the Pan American Games. Her only problem is she's caught, pun intended, at what's surprisingly one of the deepest positions when it comes to elite hitters, joining the likes of Sam Marder, Chelsea Bramlett and Stacie Chambers in fighting for recognition behind the plate.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.