<
>

Cinderellas-in-waiting, pitchers on the rise and other preseason questions

With the road to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City about to kick off, here's a look at the five biggest questions heading into the softball season:

Which team could stop Arizona from winning a third consecutive title?

This much is clear: The road to Oklahoma City begins in Tucson. The University of Arizona has certainly earned that measure of respect after winning back-to-back titles despite changing aces between the championships with the transition from Alicia Hollowell to Taryne Mowatt. But it's no coincidence that having departed Tucson for Oklahoma, a traveler would have to pass within a Kaitlin Cochran home run of Tempe to get out of the state of Arizona.

With southpaw Katie Burkhart primed for her final run at a title after winning 77 games her first three seasons, Arizona State finally appears to have the right supporting cast to get Burkhart and Cochran onto the biggest stage of all in the championship series in Oklahoma City.

Not that the Sun Devils are strangers to the first few days of the Women's College World Series. They earned a place among the final eight in each of Clint Myers' first two seasons at the helm but won just once in five WCWS games. Cochran may be the best hitter, and arguably the best player, in college softball, and Burkhart may be one of its top aces, but runs proved hard to come by as teams pitched around the slugger and took their chances at scratching out enough offense to advance.

Enter a group of newcomers plentiful enough to fill a team's roster and probably good enough to carry it to the postseason. As many as a dozen fresh faces may open the season in Arizona State uniforms on a roster that didn't lose all that many players to begin with after last season.

A man of relatively few words -- if you aren't a runner who just ran through a stop sign or a batter who missed a bunt -- Myers didn't mince words comparing this year's talent to recent editions.

"This is a better team," Myers said. "This is the best team we've had in my two and a half years."

Three new names to know are junior college transfers Renee Welty and Jessie Ware and freshman Krista Donnenwirth. Finding everyone a place to play will be a challenge, but it's one Myers will relish if it means more consistent production and more pitches for Cochran to hit.

As for the defending champs in Tucson, Larry Ray will run things with Mike Candrea occupied with guiding the United States toward gold in softball's final (for now) Olympic appearance. The former coach at Florida and interim coach at Arizona when Candrea coached the Olympic team in 2004, Ray may find replacing a legend in center field, not to mention two stalwarts in the middle infield, more difficult than taking over for a legend in the dugout. Without Caitlin Lowe, Kristie Fox and Chelsie Mesa, the heart of the order for last year's champions, the Wildcats will need big debut seasons from freshmen like Lauren Schutzler, Brittany Lastrapes and Victoria Kemp.

Of course, it's Arizona, so you know the newcomers have the credentials to do just that.

Rest of the best

Texas A&M
No contender in the country gets more out of two players than the Aggies get out of Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson. Not only did Scarborough (26-10, 1.17 ERA) and Gibson (17-4, 1.54 ERA) combine to pitch all but 26.1 innings of Texas A&M's schedule last season, they also combined to hit 20 home runs and drive in 87 runs as the heart of the team's batting order. Elsewhere, the Aggies return many key parts from a team that reached the Women's College World Series, but must replace Sharonda McDonald's extraordinary leadoff production (.417 on-base percentage, 37-40 stolen bases). Freshman infielder Natalie Villareal could be the left-handed answer at the top of the order.

UCLA
Don't expect UCLA's hiatus from Oklahoma City to last long. In her second season after taking over for Sue Enquist, Kelly Inouye-Perez has an immensely talented freshman class and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the game. With sophomores Megan Langenfeld and Whitney Baker and freshman Donna Kerr available in the circle, the Bruins are able to hope for a return to form from senior Anjelica Selden without necessarily sinking or swimming based upon it. Replacing a lot of key bats, including Jodie Legaspi, Lisa Dodd and Tara Henry, won't be easy, but the Bruins get Ashley Herrera back from an ACL injury and add three freshmen hitters who played for the junior national team in GiOnna DiSalvatore, Katie Schroeder and Monica Harrison among a group of eight talented freshmen (Kerr also pitched for the junior national team).

Alabama
The SEC came within a game of capturing its first national championship last season courtesy of Monica Abbott and the Tennessee Lady Vols, but the emerging power conference's best bet this season may be the Crimson Tide. The nation's top-ranked offense last season in both slugging percentage and stolen bases, Alabama returns six players who hit at least .300 and slugged at least .500 in 2007. Coach Pat Murphy needs hard-throwing ace Chrissy Owens to regain her dominant touch after ceding innings to departed senior Blair Potter down the stretch last season, but he does have depth with sophomore Charlotte Morgan and freshman Kelsi Dunne. Perhaps looking to avoid a repeat of last season's seeding fiasco that, fairly or unfairly, led to a super regional road trip to Seattle, Alabama beefed up its nonconference schedule with games against DePaul and Northwestern.

Which team could sneak up on Oklahoma City?

The University of Nebraska brought back one legend in an attempt to recapture the glory of bygone years on the gridiron when the school tabbed Tom Osborne to take over as athletic director. Luckily for softball fans in Lincoln, that program's championship aspirations have more to do with the present than the past in large part because coach Rhonda Revelle never left.

A player on the Nebraska team that went to the first Women's College World Series in 1982 -- one of seven all-time appearances for the Cornhuskers -- Revelle has run the show from the bench for the last 15 seasons. She took her team to Oklahoma City as recently as 2002 and while they aren't likely to open the season with the same fanfare as Big 12 rivals like Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Baylor, the Cornhuskers may have what it takes to outlast almost anyone.

Of course, for the Cornhuskers to be a big hit, they need to get some big hits.

Revelle's team slugged an anemic .305 last season and still managed to go 37-20. Another year removed from shoulder surgery, junior Crystal Carwile could help turn that around if she recaptures the hitting form that produced 12 home runs and a .541 slugging percentage as a freshman. But the biggest piece of the puzzle could be junior college transfer Amanda Duran. Like Ashley Monceaux, who helped steer Baylor to the World Series last season after starring at Pima Community College, Duran arrived in the Big 12 after posting monster numbers at junior college power Pima. In her first year at Pima, Duran hit .531 with 21 home runs and 109 RBI, the latter within 13 of Crystal Bustos' all-time JC record.

Nebraska must replace longtime workhorse Ashley DeBuhr in the circle, but that may not turn out to be as daunting a task at it seems despite DeBuhr departing with 70 career wins and two of the three top single-season strikeout totals in school history. Junior Molly Hill more than merits All-American consideration after she went 35-11 her first two seasons and posted a 1.05 ERA last season. And sophomore Alex Hupp, who could also help at the plate, could be on the verge of a breakout season after dominating during Nebraska's fall schedule.

Among other candidates
Georgia Tech: Baylor demonstrated last season that it's still possible to get to the World Series with big bats and a pair of pitchers who are as effective as they are dominant, at least from a strikeout perspective. That may be the recipe Sharon Perkins uses in her second season with the up-and-coming Yellow Jackets. Senior Whitney Humphrey and junior Tiffany Johnson are no slouches in the circle, but the fireworks in Atlanta come from a lineup that hit 96 home runs and slugged .536 last season. The loss of Caitlin Lever to graduation and junior second baseman Jennifer Yee to the Canadian national team (Lever also made the Canadian roster, coincidentally coached by Nebraska associate coach Lori Sippel) hurts, but plenty of talent remains. Junior first baseman Whitney Haller put up 39 home runs and a .382 batting average in her first two seasons.

Who are five pitchers with something to prove?

Taryne Mowatt, Arizona
For starters, Mowatt is the only active pitcher in the country who can call on championship experience when the going gets tough (sophomore teammate Sarah Akamine has the championship but didn't pitch in last season's Women's College World Series and is in the running for the second base job in Tucson this season). A devastating changeup combined with plenty of power packed in a 5-foot-6 frame gives Mowatt an ability to keep even the best hitters off balance. She also made strides last season in maintaining the kind of tunnel vision in the circle that elite pitchers need. Now it's up to her to maintain that discipline despite all the attention stemming from her stellar postseason performance, pitching coach Nancy Evans' surprising departure in December and coach Mike Candrea's sabbatical to coach the United States Olympic team. A third consecutive title, including a second largely due to the strength of her arm, would at least merit a place in the debate about all-time aces.

Angela Tincher, Virginia Tech

Tincher has been in the shadow of her strikeout-happy peers for a few years, but she is the closest thing to a fit for the Cat Osterman-Monica Abbott model. Entering her senior season at Virginia Tech, she's helped build the Hokies into a legitimate national contender. Coach Scot Thomas built a solid program immediately after starting from scratch in 1996 (including a 54-16 mark in 1999), but Tincher's arrival in 2005 ushered in new levels of success, including a program-best 132 wins the last three seasons. She's a power pitcher with a great rise and a great drop, but adding a curve and a change helped her go from elite as a freshman (21-9, 1.06 ERA, 349 K) to historically great last season (38-7, 0.56 ERA, 617 K). If she completely harnesses the change in her final season, she might follow Osterman and Abbott on the road to Oklahoma City.

Megan Rhodes, Tennessee
It will shock absolutely nobody to hear Abbott led the nation in strikeouts per seven innings last season. What might cause a few double-takes, at least outside of SEC country, is the fact that Rhodes ranked fourth on that list, behind only Abbott, Arizona State's Katie Burkhart and Kent State's Kylie Reynolds. Granted, Rhodes barely cracked the innings threshold for the final tally, working just 111.2 innings during her sophomore season. And many of those innings came against the weaker portion of Tennessee's nonconference schedule (her strikeout rate fell from 13.5 out of conference to 8.7 in SEC play, although the latter would still have ranked in the top 30 nationally). But pick at Rhodes' numbers any way you want and you're still left with a senior who has experience and has seen what the Women's College Series is about. Of course, as Texas' Meagan Denny learned last season, sometimes simply being successful isn't enough when you follow a legend.

Lauren Delaney, Northwestern
The Wildcats lost 97 wins and 1,142 strikeouts when Eileen Canney graduated, but the return of another of Sharon J. Drysdale Field's pitching legends could help shape her successor. Already blessed with one of the country's pitching coaches in Tori Nyberg, Northwestern added Courtnay Foster as a volunteer assistant. Foster, who finished her career in 2006 with 80 wins and 1,014 strikeouts, helped bring out the best in Canney while the two were teammates and may be able to do the same as a coach with Delaney. As a freshman, Delaney went 19-2 with a 1.73 ERA and 190 strikeouts, which, for what it's worth, was slightly better than even Canney managed in her first season (19-5, 2.28 ERA, 194 stikeouts). Delaney, already nicknamed "Boom Boom" for her affinity for throwing hard, even added a few miles per hour to her already impressive power in the offseason, only reinforcing the notion that she's an ace-in-waiting.

Anjelica Selden, UCLA
On the way to a win against Oregon State in Pac-10 play last season, UCLA's Anjelica Selden broke the school's all-time strikeout record. As a junior. … At UCLA. … That UCLA. So it's decidedly puzzling to realize there is no more uncertain commodity in college softball this February than the pitcher who led the Bruins to the brink of a national championship as a freshman and needed just three seasons to set a major pitching record for arguably (if you live in Tucson) the most accomplished program in the sport's history. But that's the case for Selden, who went 17-11 with a 2.82 ERA last season and now must fight for innings as part of the deepest pitching rotation in the country. It's worth noting that opponents had a .281 batting average on balls in play against Selden last season, an unusually robust mark and something over which pitchers have only modest control (or little control at all, depending on what research you believe).

Who are some new faces poised to make instant impacts?

Jordan Taylor, P, Michigan
A new stadium isn't the only big addition to the softball landscape at Michigan this season. The Gatorade Player of the Year in California as a senior in high school, the 6-foot-1 Taylor comes to Ann Arbor with an impeccable résumé. But even after a prep career that included a 77-8 record and 0.27 ERA in the nation's softball heartland, Taylor should be able to settle in at her own pace. Returning hurler Nikki Nemitz emerged as a workhorse for the Wolverines sooner than anyone might have reasonably expected as a freshman last season, posting a 22-4 record and getting the starting nod twice in one day during a super regional trip to Baylor.

Brittany Lastrapes, OF and Lauren Schutzler, OF, Arizona
If you can beat 'em, join 'em. Actually, Lastrapes and Schutzler signed on with Mike Candrea's juggernaut even before they watched their All-American older sisters Dominique Lastrapes (Washington) and Lindsay Schutzler (Tennessee) take their best shots at unseating Arizona in last year's Women's College World Series, only to fall short. Part of a decorated class in Tucson that also includes pitcher Lindsey Sisk among others, Lastrapes and Schutzler should help fill the outfield void left by Caitlin Lowe's permanent move to Mike Candrea's other team and sophomore K'Lee Arredondo's return to familiar turf in the infield. Playing alongside Stanford's Alissa Haber, Tennessee's Tiffany Huff and others for the United States in the ISF Junior Women's World Championships last year, Lastrapes took home tournament MVP honors.

Ashley Brignac, P, Louisiana-Lafayette
Despite sharing roster space with UCLA recruit Donna Kerr, Arizona recruit Lindsey Sisk, UCLA's Megan Langenfeld and Arizona State's Megan Elliott, Brignac started each of the United States' three elimination-round games en route to a title at the Junior World Championships. Given that it's easy to envision any of those five someday celebrating in the circle after the final out of the Women's College World Series, that's quite a vote of confidence for the Louisiana native. Runner-up to basketball star Maya Moore as the Gatorade High School Female Athlete of the Year, Brignac struck out 421 hitters and allowed just 14 hits in 159.2 innings as a high school senior.

Valerie Arioto, P/Util., Cal
Cal's fall from grace seemed dramatic last season – at least by the standards set by accomplishments like the 2002 national championship, back-to-back championship game appearances in 2003 and 2004 and a string of 50-win seasons. But after a turbulent year in which several players left the program either during or after the season, and a young team flirted with missing the NCAA Tournament altogether, Diane Ninemire may have a club capable of silencing critics. Arioto, a decorated pitcher and hitter in high school, appears to be a key part of that recipe for a team that didn't have much luck in the circle last season.

Le-Net Franklin, Util., Florida
The Gators have a deep freshman class that includes highly touted pitcher Stephanie Brombacher to complement Stacey Nelson, but junior college transfer Franklin, along with fellow new arrival Danyell Hines, may be just as important to turning last season's success into the program's first Women's College World Series appearance. In Nelson, the Gators have one of the nation's dominant aces, but they also have an offense that hit just .257 and lost key contributors in Melissa Zick (.309, 12 HR, 40 RBI, 22 SB) and Lauren Roussell (.251, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 15 SB). A two-time JC All-American at Temple College in Texas, Franklin hit .494 and stole 48 bases last season.

Which five mid-majors could be more bran muffins than cupcakes early in the season?

Loyola Marymount
Key game: Feb. 20 vs. UCLA
It's safe to say the Bruins won't overlook this midweek trip across town after Loyola Marymount went to Westwood last season and eliminated the Bruins from the NCAA Tournament. Even so, the Lions may be good enough to duplicate the feat without the element of surprise.

Coach Gary Ferrin's team lost a lot of offense with the graduations of Margo Pineda and Kylie Conroy, but Christine Foley (.416, 37 RBI) returns to anchor the batting order and Tiffany Pagano and Melissa Dykema return to the circle after 200-strikeout seasons. Pagano, in particular, has the potential to shine on the national stage as a senior if she cuts her walk rate. In the elimination game against the Bruins last season, Pagano showed what she can do when she's in control, striking out six and allowing just four hits and two walks in a complete-game win.

Long Island
Key game: Feb. 23 vs. Arizona
Long Island has farther to go to reach this game in Palm Springs, but that doesn't mean the Blackbirds will necessarily be any farther from home. Coach Roy Kortmann built Long Island into a regional power by using his New York City campus as a selling point for kids from the California crescent of softball who wanted a different kind of college experience. Nine players on this year's rosters are California natives (along with two from Washington and one each from Arizona and Oregon). And while we're talking numbers, 13 of 15 players return from a team that was very competitive in the Amherst regional of last year's NCAA Tournament.

Florida native Jenny Giles (20-10, 1.84 ERA) gives the Blackbirds a workhorse in the circle, while sophomore Blaire Porter and freshman Lauren Kemp provide nice pitching depth behind an offense that posted a .283 batting average and .371 on-base percentage last season.

James Madison
Key game: Feb. 29 vs. UCLA
If you've got an extra day on the calendar to work with, why not use it to see if you're ready to make a leap? James Madison faces UCLA in San Diego on February's bonus day.

James Madison ranked 11th nationally in team ERA last season and 24th in team slugging percentage. The only other schools to rank among the top 25 in both categories were Northwestern and Alabama, neither of whom are likely to sneak up on anyone anymore.

And just as importantly when talking about last season's numbers, most of the players responsible for those numbers return. In the circle, juniors Jenny Clohan and Meredith Felts don't blow opponents away with strikeouts, but they also don't beat themselves with walks or home runs – opponents hit just eight home runs against them in 262 combined innings. At the plate, co-Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Jenn Chavez returns to anchor an offense that hit .311 with a .370 on-base percentage.

Creighton
Key game: March 4 at Arizona State
Creighton dabbled in its own bout of March madness by scheduling a game against the Sun Devils while they wait in the desert to face Arizona three times in three days the following weekend. But as long as the Bluejays have Tara Oltman in the circle, they may have one way to drive even Pac-10 powerhouses a little crazy.

Oltman was sensational as a freshman, going 26-8 with a 1.23 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 227 innings. Despite being handed a decidedly unfair chore as the fourth seed in a deep Lincoln regional that included Washington, Georgia and Nebraska, Creighton posted a postseason win (against Nebraska) and held its own against power conferences. Most of a potent offense returns, including senior catcher T.J. Eadus (.291 average, 16 HR, 42 RBI) and sophomore outfielder Michelle Graner (.295 average and .421 OBP in 33 games before breaking her arm).

Kent State
Key game: March 19 vs. Alabama
If a team wants to score an upset against Alabama's loaded lineup, it helps to have a pitcher who can take the bats out of the Crimson Tide's hands. When they meet Alabama in Chattanooga, Kent State may have that in sophomore Kylie Reynolds, who struck out 254 in just 151.1 innings last season. Of course, it's tough to win a game 0-0, and the Flashes also have bats to back up their ace. The team's top four hitters from last season return as seniors, including Jamie Fitzpatrick (13 HR, 42 RBI, 1.145 OPS).

Kent State got a taste of going toe-to-toe with top-tier competition last season, dropping three games against Hawaii by scores of 4-2, 2-0 and 1-0 and a losing a 1-0 decision against Georgia. (Reynolds started two of those games, as well as a 1-0 loss against Oregon.)

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.