The 2023 college softball season is in full swing, with two months until the NCAA tournament and the road to the Women's College World Series begin.
Oklahoma started its 2021 championship season with 33 straight wins before suffering its first loss. Last year, the Sooners started 38-0 before suffering their first loss. There was no long-term undefeated run this year, as Baylor handed the two-time defending champs their first loss 4-3 on Feb. 19, nine games into the season.
The Sooners haven't lost since, highlighted by a 14-0 run-rule victory over UCLA at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic on Feb. 26 in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Also high in the rankings are Oklahoma State, which took two of three games this past weekend vs. Florida State in a matchup of top-10 teams; Clemson, led by two-way star Valerie Cagle, who is in the top 10 in batting average and ERA; and Tennessee, which has outscored opponents 183-12 this season.
We asked our college softball experts what they've learned during the first month of the season, who has impressed, who needs to step up and what they're excited to see the rest of the way.
Which team has impressed you the most so far and why?
Jenny Dalton-Hill: I have been impressed by the consistency of UCLA. Everyone was looking at the matchup against Oklahoma when they struggled to score and produce, and I think some people let that influence their opinion of UCLA. But knowing Kelly Innouye-Perez and her coaching staff, this team will win the Pac-12 and is a team bound for Oklahoma City that will let the lessons learned in Palm Springs direct their preparation.
Michele Smith: Stanford. The Cardinal are very talented and are building off a great 2022 season with some amazing freshmen stepping up to help them. Nijaree Canady, who hasn't given up a run in 48 innings to start her college career, is turning heads in the circle.
Amanda Scarborough: Tennessee. They have quietly flown under the radar, but specifically, their pitching staff and Kiki Milloy have impressed me the most. They have a team ERA well under 1.00, which is just unheard of, and Milloy is one of the best players in the country who doesn't get the attention she deserves!
Madison Shipman: I am going to go with the obvious answer here and say the Oklahoma Sooners. They're a team that has faced a tough schedule to start the season and have shown that they can beat the top competition. They have the depth and are hitting their stride heading into conference play.
Jen Schroeder: Tennessee is a team that has impressed me this year. Kiki Milloy is one of the best all-around players in the country, and their pitching staff has been lights out. I'm excited to watch them compete in conference play.
The Lady Vols hold the Rebels to a total of four hits over two games combined while sweeping the SEC doubleheader by the scores of 1-0 and 8-2.
Which team is this season's biggest surprise so far and why?
Dalton-Hill: Baylor was not on my radar to start the season, but this group has shown up in a big way. The Bears grabbed headlines when they knocked off Oklahoma in February and won 18 of their first 20 games to start the season (before back-to-back losses last weekend). Between them, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, there is so much talent in the Big 12 this season.
Smith: Tennessee is my biggest surprise team. The Lady Vols are always good, but they just have a different feel about them this year. They are doing a great job in every aspect of the game -- they're pitching well, playing great defense and hitting the ball with a lot of power, as well as average. Their biggest test lies ahead with SEC play starting.
Scarborough: Kentucky is a team that's turning heads and is playing consistently well, especially with the performances their ace pitcher Stephanie Schoonover has put together. Every time you look, she's having a double-digit strikeout performance against quality competition. She has emerged this season as one of the top pitchers in the country and gives Kentucky a dominant, shut-down force in the circle, which has been a missing piece for them the past few seasons.
Shipman: LSU has surprised me in a good way this year. They are a team that has flown under the radar, and I like their combination of speed and power at the plate. Upperclassmen like Danieca Coffey, Ciara Briggs and Taylor Pleasants have had a great start to the season with their bats. The Tigers also have a nice mix of youth and veterans in the circle.
Schroeder: So many great mentions above, but I'm going to think a little more out of the box and say Cal State Fullerton. They've had some really big wins: Florida, Tennessee, Oregon and Ole Miss, to name a few, but they also have some really confusing losses. I'm excited to see if they can make a postseason run.
Who is your Player of the Year pick as of now and why?
Dalton-Hill: I always cheer for a position player to win this. Pitchers are the quarterback, and a lot rides on their shoulders, but show me a middle infielder that can rake or a catcher that hits bombs. That fires me up. That said, a dominant pitcher who can light it up in the batter's box is someone I can get behind. That player for me is Valerie Cagle. I think Clemson has played a pretty light pre-ACC schedule, but Cagle is hitting .525 with eight home runs and two stolen bases. Plus, she has thrown 67.1 innings with a 0.62 ERA and 82 strikeouts to just nine walks. She's the real deal, and if Clemson can make it far in the postseason, she will be a major reason why.
Smith: Going along with my biggest surprise team in Tennessee, I'd have to say Kiki Malloy. Not only is she hitting over .500, but she also has power as one of the top home run hitters in the country. There isn't just one standout Player of the Year pick this year, and I think it'll be a battle decided by whoever leads their teams to the Women's College World Series.
Scarborough: The numbers Cagle has put up this season are really special. Up to this point, Clemson has only lost one game, and they have a deep, talented and experienced team. However, when you look at the pitching and hitting stats that Cagle has put together, no one on her team, in the ACC or in the country, is doing what she is doing. She is healthy, thriving and determined and the best two-way player right now. When you hit and pitch the way she has, it has Player of the Year written all over it.
Shipman: Kiki Milloy is one of the most dynamic players in the game. She has been nearly unstoppable at the plate this season, has consistent power to all fields and has incredible range in the outfield. She is also a game-changer on the base paths. Milloy is one of those players that turns heads every time she steps on the field.
Schroeder: What Kiki Milloy has done at the plate this season is incredible, yet I somehow feel like she never gets the credit she deserves. She's hitting over .500, has been incredibly clutch and has been leading her team on both offense and defense. However, having followed this award for quite some time, it would not surprise me to see a hitting pitcher like Valerie Cagle win.
Which team needs to step up as conference play nears and why?
Dalton-Hill: I interpret this question less about which teams need to start winning to give themselves a shot at the playoffs and more about which coaches need to step up and win to save their jobs. We are in an age when coaches are retained based on wins and losses, and there are some amazing coaches who have records that don't scream longevity.
Smith: I think Northwestern needs to step up a little bit more. The Wildcats are a talented team with Women's College World Series experience from last year, but they have seemed to stub their toe a bit at 9-7 before conference play begins. I think they have what it takes to turn it around and have a good run in the Big Ten.
Scarborough: In a year with so much parity and so many early pre-conference losses all over the country, this is tough to answer. With Arkansas having such big years the past couple of years, the expectations are so high for the Hogs with such a young, talented team since so much of their offense graduated from last year. After losing to Central Arkansas and losing the series to Texas A&M all in one week, the next upcoming conference series could be a big turning point for the defending SEC Champs.
Shipman: My mind goes to UCLA when I think about a team that needs to step up in conference play. There's no doubt that the goal for UCLA is to win a national championship this season. They have established themselves as one of the top teams in the country, but with some recent run-rule losses, I think they could use conference play to get back to their early season form to make a run at the championship.
Schroeder: For me, it's Alabama. They've had early losses to unranked teams and have shown weaknesses on defense. If they want to host a Super Regional this postseason, they need to pick up their play in conference.
Which player do you think will break out over the next two months and why?
Dalton-Hill: Tiare Jennings has been a force on Oklahoma's team for two years but was overshadowed by the incredible talent of Jocelyn Alo. I'm a huge Jennings fan. I love the way she plays the game, but she has had a slow start to her power numbers this season. She is hitting well above .400, but in previous seasons her home run numbers were close to matching Alo's. She hit 29 her freshman year and 27 a season ago; she has just three so far this season. Jennings is a great player that will find her stride, and when she does, look out.
Smith: Going along with the question above, I think Danielle Williams is going to get back in the groove and lead Northwestern. Her ERA is a little elevated right now. If she can get her spin back and hit her locations, she'll be the Williams we saw last year that led her team to the Women's College World Series.
Scarborough: Texas freshman Leighann Goode. She's already off to a strong start in her first month of playing Division I softball, but I really feel you start to make bigger noise when you begin conference play and have big games against rival schools. She is an amazing athlete, hits for power to all parts of the field, runs bases well and is the leadoff hitter/second baseman for Texas, which is big shoes to fill considering she is taking the place of four-time All-American Janae Jefferson, who graduated last year.
Shipman: Hannah Gammill is coming off a remarkable 2022 All-American season. After graduating several seniors from last year's team, Gammill is the player opponents circle when they play Arkansas. We saw last year the consistency and power she brought up at the plate, and I think she's a player that has the ability to turn this season around over the next two months.
Schroeder: I have two: 1) Savannah Pola from UCLA was a top-25 Freshman of the Year finalist a season ago -- she's hitting .410 but has been overshadowed by Maya Brady and Megan Grant -- as the Bruins get into tough Pac-12 matchups, I look at her to be the difference-maker. 2) Kinzie Hansen of Oklahoma. Days before the season, she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery and didn't compete until the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic -- as she gets more comfortable in the box, I only see her success skyrocketing.
What is the biggest storyline to watch over the rest of the season?
Dalton-Hill: I could go with the obvious one: Can Oklahoma three-peat? But another thing I am watching is the use of the slapper and the short game. There are those that say the short game is dead, but I firmly believe in its potential. So many teams live by the long ball, but the table setters are such a valuable piece of the game. When a hitter comes up with ducks on the pond, the pendulum can swing quickly in a different direction with one big hit. Solo shots aren't as pivotal, so the speed and skills of slappers are key for me.
Smith: This outstanding class of freshmen is making massive impacts on their teams and conferences. It's incredible to see their confidence, their experience and the level of play in how they contribute to their team's successes and lead them.
Scarborough: How coaches use their ace pitcher for the rest of the season. We are seeing many ace pitchers pitch a LOT of innings early on in the season, and it's something to watch how coaches manage them, their endurance, fatigue and how many bigger opportunities they do (or don't) give the rest of their pitching staff. It seems it has been a trend so far to rely heavily on your ace to start multiple games within a week and be the go-to in relief and closing-type situations.
Shipman: In a season where teams are trending towards having an entire bullpen of different arms to throw at opponents, will it still be that one dominant strikeout pitcher that can carry their team to Oklahoma City? Or will they continue to throw multiple pitchers throughout the postseason?
Schroeder: For me, it's that you cannot win with just one ace and you need a staff. Can the likes of Alabama and Montana Fouts prove me wrong?