Teams, players and trends to watch

The start of the 2011 season is just days away. Here's a look at the five biggest questions heading into the season:

1. Is UCLA the team to beat this season?

Yes, no and, well, maybe. UCLA is the defending national champion, and until such time as it should be eliminated from contention this season, it is both in possession of the title and in control of its own fate in retaining it. Considering the Bruins return six position players who started in the championship-clinching win against Arizona, as well as two pitchers who combined for 31 wins and 239 innings last season and an All-American outfielder who missed all but seven games last season (more on Katie Schroeder later), back-to-back titles are entirely attainable.

So to say the latest edition of the most successful program in college softball history is anything but the team to beat is to deny it the credit earned in last spring's march to a championship, right? Well, maybe.

If this UCLA team isn't distinctly different from last season, our eyes deceived us in what appeared to be one of the great individual postseason performances of all time. The Bruins won with a lineup potent from top to bottom, but they also won because Megan Langenfeld was the best player on the field in Oklahoma City. For the season, Langenfeld hit .527 with a 1.752 OPS, but that was small change compared to a .706 batting average, four home runs and nine RBIs in five World Series games, in addition to a 2.55 ERA and three wins in 24.2 innings in the circle.

If you take away a great player who raised her game to even greater levels in the postseason and still say a team seeded fifth in last season's tournament is better this season, it trivializes just how good she was, doesn't it?

Well, maybe. The truth is that what UCLA showed more than anything last season is that being the team to beat in February is a lot less meaningful than being the team nobody beat in June.

"It's a new year, it's a new team, it's a new challenge," coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "We have the same goals and the same philosophy and it's just about getting out there and learning as much as we can about ourselves, so that we can prepare to be at our best at the end."

For now, the Bruins toe the starting line alongside Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee as one of the teams to beat in a crowded championship race.

2. What's with all the offense?

The final game of the Women's College World Series featured 24 runs and took more than three hours to play, a pace that would make even the Red Sox and Yankees glance impatiently at their watches.

These are new times in college softball.

The pace of an evolutionary process that began years ago when the NCAA changed to a yellow ball that was easier for hitters to see and then moved the pitching rubber back from 40 to 43 feet has accelerated over the past few seasons. It has accelerated right along with the exit speed of the bats now available through the good graces of modern technology.

"I think as a sport, we're very exciting to watch and the parity across the country is outstanding," Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said. "I think that's what has helped us to grow nationally, but I think we certainly have some things we need to address. I don't think anybody wants to see a game that lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes. So I think it's time for us, as a sport, to really take a good look at that and see what we can do about it."

In 2002, no team from a major conference averaged more than 5.55 runs per game. In 2010, 18 teams from major conferences matched or exceeded 5.55 runs per game, including five teams that averaged better than seven runs per game: Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Alabama. In 2002, only seven teams from top conferences averaged more than five runs per games. In 2010, five runs per game didn't even put a team in the top 50 nationally.

How are those runs being scored? At a trot. Using 2002 as a comparison point again, only two teams averaged more than a home run per game, led by UCLA at 1.39 per game. Last season, 32 teams averaged more than a home run per game, including the 2.39 Hawaii averaged on its way to an NCAA record 158 home runs, breaking Arizona's record that lasted all of one season.

Better training, better scouting and a host of other factors almost assuredly influence the booming home run totals, but the topic that generates the most discussion is bat technology.

"I always think in any sport it should be about the coaching and the athletes; it should never be about the equipment," LSU coach Yvette Girouard said. "I think it's a problem when you see a slapper check-swing and the ball goes over the scoreboard. I don't think that's anybody's hitting coach."

An NCAA memo last fall acknowledged that of 24 postseason bats tested, only seven met the organization's standards for legal use (the illegal bats registered an exit speed -- the speed of a ball leaving the bat -- greater than the 98 mph threshold in laboratory testing). Most of the rule changes for this season involve the use of illegal bats, changes made in conjunction with a new NCAA list of approved bats and new in-season bat-testing procedures. Conferences are also acting; SEC coaches voted 11-0 to begin additional testing before each conference series.

Only time will tell if the right balance has been struck. Namely, the time it takes to play a game or trot around the bases.

"Any time you're putting runs on the board, it's an exciting game," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "And I think you still have your spectacular pitching performances. That's a huge part of the game. I think [the game] is in a good place. I think the thing we really have to get through is this technology component, where there is a balance between too live of a bat and a bat that's fair for everybody, pitchers and hitters."

3. What are three teams that could emerge as sleepers this season?

Sleeper to reach a super regional: Massachusetts
(Qualification: Not ranked in USA Softball preseason Top 25.) Holes need filling from the team that came up short without ever getting a look at seeded Arizona State in last season's Amherst regional, including the team's two most productive hitters in departed seniors Carly Normandin and Sarah Reeves. But there is potential as long as there is Sara Plourde. The pitching ace wasn't anywhere close to her physical best during the postseason, not that she made any excuses or even betrayed the body language of excuses in the circle. With Plourde (1.30 ERA, 556 strikeouts) healthy, the lineup should have time to find its rhythm on the road to the NCAA tournament.

Sleeper to reach the World Series: Fordham
(Qualification: Not ranked in USA Softball preseason top 16.) It's a good season to be bullish on the Atlantic 10, not a phrase often in play in college softball. The Rams made the tournament for the first time in program history last season and held up well in a tough regional that included Oklahoma and Maryland. And like Massachusetts, in a landscape lacking established workhorse aces, Fordham has one of the best in junior Jen Mineau. The upstate New York native tied Plourde for the national lead in strikeouts per seven innings and finished second to her conference rival in total strikeouts, including plenty of tests against national-caliber competition. But what could keep the Rams playing beyond the first weekend of the postseason is a lineup that shouldn't demand 1-0 and 2-1 wins of the ace in the circle. Seven starting position players return, led by proven run producers Jamie LaBovick, Beckah Wiggins and Jocelyn Dearborn.

Sleeper to win the championship: Missouri
(Qualification: Not ranked in USA Softball preseason top eight.) Calling No. 9 Missouri a title sleeper is a bit of a straw man, but the Big 12 team does technically begin the season outside the eight teams voters believe are best equipped to reach the World Series, let alone win it. The Tigers return almost everyone from a team that reached the World Series for the second season in a row, despite playing the second half of the schedule without pitching ace Chelsea Thomas. Now Thomas is back and better than ever, according to coach Ehren Earleywine, and her absence allowed Kristin Nottelmann the innings to emerge as either one of the best No. 2 pitchers in the nation or No. 1B alongside Thomas. Throw in a dynamic top-of-the-order player in outfielder Rhea Taylor, budding All-American shortstop Jenna Marston and power throughout the lineup, and Missouri may be ready to stick around Oklahoma City through the weekend.

4. Who are five players who could alter the course of the season?

Only one of the players below appeared on the USA Softball preseason watch list for player of the year, but through the combination of talent and circumstance, each could prove pivotal in how the season unfolds.

Kat Dotson, OF, Tennessee: As a freshman, Doton posted a .495 on-base percentage, .509 slugging percentage and 29 stolen bases -- and only got better in SEC play. The Lady Vols don't have the pure power of most other championship contenders, but with the overlooked Dotson as a bridge between Raven Chavanne at the top of the order and Kelly Grieve and Jessica Spigner, they have as complete a top of the order as any team out there.

Dallas Escobedo, P, Arizona State: Last season's superstar freshman largely lived up the hype, headlined by the likes of Kenzie Fowler, Keilani Ricketts and Rachele Fico. Escobedo will be one of the freshmen front and center this season. The Sun Devils have a proven gamer in Hillary Bach, so there's no need to overwork Escobedo, but the local prep star could turn a Sun Devils team with a loaded lineup into a championship contender if she's as good as advertised.

Amanda Locke, 1B/DP/P, Alabama: The junior will likely focus primarily on hitting this season, after pitching a total of 87.2 innings during her first two seasons, and that's bad news for her former brethren. Few players anywhere have more pure power than Locke, who hit 17 home runs in just 139 at-bats last season. At the plate, Locke has the potential to create the same kind of intimidation factor as former All-American Charlotte Morgan did the past four seasons.

Jenn Salling, SS, Washington: Things won't look the same in Seattle without Danielle Lawrie casting contemptuous glances from the circle at overmatched hitters, but don't be too quick to label this a rebuilding effort. The Huskies still have one Canadian Olympic veteran in Salling, and coach Heather Tarr singled out her All-American as someone who returned this season with a newfound focus. If she can galvanize a young team as well as she hits and fields, look out.

Katie Schroeder, OF, UCLA: How do you replace Langenfeld's presence? How about the return of an All-American outfielder who put up a better OPS than her teammate in 2009? A leg injury limited Schroeder to seven games last season, but she hit .402 with a .684 slugging percentage and .516 on-base percentage the season before, establishing herself as perhaps the premier power-speed threat in the entire nation.

5. Who will be the USA Softball Player of the Year?

Without a returning finalist from last year's trio of Langenfeld, Lawrie and Jen Yee, the sport's top individual honor is in search of a favorite.

The pure pitcher: Arizona's Kenzie Fowler (38-9, 1.53 ERA, 371 strikeouts as a freshman) has the advantage of being able to post potentially eye-catching numbers for a team near the top of the rankings, but the arrival of Shelby Babcock may allow the Wildcats to keep their ace fresh for the postseason and make it difficult for Fowler to improve on last season's numbers. Mineau and Plourde are in the mix, but it's tough to win from the fringes of the Top 25. The strongest candidate may be Michigan's Jordan Taylor (26-4, 1.44 ERA, 316 strikeouts), likely to take on an even more substantial load for a Michigan team with the potential to hold down prime real estate in the rankings.

The pure hitter: Arizona's Stacie Chambers and Brittany Lastrapes are familiar faces in this race, while Salling and Arizona State's Katelyn Boyd give the Pac-10 two shortstops worthy of consideration. In the SEC, Chavanne and Alabama's Kayla Braud could again flirt with .500 batting averages and steal bases by the bushel, while Georgia's Alisa Goler and Florida's Brittany Schutte are complete hitters. But when it comes to pure offense, Texas A&M catcher Meagan May arrived like Albert Pujols and could follow a similar awards trajectory to the baseball slugger. May slugged .945 last season and a 35-homer campaign doesn't seem out of the question before she's done in College Station.

The hybrid: Keilani Ricketts did most of her damage in the circle last season, but Oklahoma's sophomore ace has enough power potential at the plate to earn some bonus points. But nobody is closer to the Lawrie-Langenfeld mold from last season than California senior Valerie Arioto. One of the planet's most patient hitters, Arioto walked 81 times and posted a .590 on-base percentage for the Bears, but she still found time to hit 19 home runs and drive in 60 runs. That's award material on its own, but she also went 21-9 with a 1.43 ERA and 264 strikeouts in the circle for a team that returns almost everyone from last season's super regional participant.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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