Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 13 Texas
Last season: 43-15, lost in Austin regional
Who returns: Six of seven position players who stared at least 50 games and a pair of pitchers who totaled 322 innings in the circle last season lead the returnees. And for all that experience, it's still a team with just three seniors. Pitcher Blaire Luna (30-10, 1.39 ERA) and outfielder Taylor Hoagland (1.098 OPS) are coming off two of the best freshman seasons in the nation among pitchers and position players, respectively. Junior third baseman Nadia Taylor, senior catcher Amy Hooks and junior first baseman Lexy Bennett all slugged better than .575, part of a lineup that was a far cry from some of the low-scoring teams of old.
Who departs: The most notable loss is shortstop Loryn Johnson, who started 222 games at a variety of infield positions during her four seasons in Austin and held a share of the program single-season home run record until Courtney Craig broke it last season. Tallie Thrasher also takes a good run-producing résumé with her, and Erin Tresselt made 10 starts in the circle as a senior.
Who arrives: A three-time all-state selection in Texas as a prep star, Taylor Thom will likely step in for Johnson at shortstop. Lefty speedster Brejae Washington should find a home in center field and add to a running game that lacked anyone with as many as 20 stolen bases last season. And freshman pitcher Rachel Fox, the Texas Gatorade Player of the Year last year, is already earning eye-catching praise from coach Connie Clark, with significant innings likely to follow.
"She's about as good as anybody we've ever had mentally," Clark said.
Statistically speaking: In its first 13 seasons of softball, Texas had 16 instances of a full-time player slugging .500 or better for a season. It added six more to that total just last season, a group which doesn't even include Shelby Savoy, who slugged .720 with 11 home runs in limited at-bats.
Preseason question: Was the way last season ended part of the learning curve?
It's not a subjective statement to say Texas was the biggest disappointment in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Seeded seventh, Texas was the strongest seed to fail to advance from regionals and one of just two seeds to fall at home.
The back-to-back regional losses against BYU and East Carolina (after an opening win against Iona) were explicable, considering BYU's offense ranked among the most statistically productive in the nation and East Carolina had an ace in Toni Paisley who was capable of shutting down almost any team on a given day. But it wasn't just those results. After appearing poised for much of the season to make a run at the World Series for the first time since the Cat Osterman era, the Longhorns dropped a pair of games at home against Georgia to close the regular season and exited the Big 12 tournament on the wrong end of an 11-6 score against Missouri.
With the season on the line against East Carolina, Luna struck out 11 and allowed just three hits, emblematic of a Longhorns season that wouldn't have been remotely as successful without her. But her ups and downs late in the season seemed representative of an entire team hitting a wall mentally, and in Luna's case after 242.1 innings and 402 strikeouts, perhaps even physically.
"I think that could have been somewhat of a factor, and that even goes into part of the experience that she'll deal with this year in her preparation," Clark said. "She was a hard worker, but until you really get a grind of a year under your belt, I don't think you understand it until you get that."
True for the ace, true for the team. The parts didn't come together when they needed to for Texas. But with almost all of those parts back and wiser for the experience, Clark thinks last season's disappointment was part of the process.
"We're hoping that now, that critical piece, we've got that under our belt," Clark said of experience. "When we talk about the end of the line, we're talking about getting into and playing up in Oklahoma Series at the Women's College World Series this year. If that doesn't happen, it's going to be a complete disappointment."