The biggest stage in softball awaits at the Women's College World Series. And while supporting characters will be asked to provide a well-timed line or carry a scene every now and then, ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City isn't so much a place that makes stars as a place that gives them room to wow the biggest audiences in the sport. From Florida's Lauren Haeger a year ago to Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts, UCLA's Megan Langenfeld, Washington's Danielle Lawrie and Arizona's Taryne Mowatt, the past decade alone gave us performances of a lifetime from well-known names.
So which five stars might leave us begging for a curtain call this year?
Kasey Cooper, 3B, Auburn
She is espnW's national player of the year, so we think highly of the junior with an analytical mind and a punishing swing -- who also happens to be able to play the hot corner with panache. Like another of Auburn coach Clint Myers' former proteges, Arizona State All-American and Team USA alum Kaitlin Cochran, Cooper was special from the moment she first stepped to the plate as a collegian. Yet Cooper took another step toward stardom in her third season by further refining her power, taking the one or two hittable pitches she might see during an at-bat and driving them.
2016 key stats: .425 BA, .880 SLG, .589 OBP, 19 HR, 76 RBIs
Alex Hugo, 2B, Georgia
Don't be fooled by a modest batting average, at least by World Series slugger standards. She may not have as gaudy a statistical line as seasons past, but a hitter second only to Sierra Romero in career home runs among World Series participants remains a valuable run-producer. Her on-base and slugging percentages reveal a player who can change a game at the plate. But what makes her stand out most of all is the manner in which she makes you notice her for so many other reasons. A one-woman defensive highlight tape at second base, she is an ebullient streak of on-field personality even by the standards of a program rarely known for its emotional reserve.
2016 key stats: .305 BA, .591 SLG, .465 OBP, 9 HR, 47 RBIs
Haylie McCleney, CF, Alabama
Softball is a game of managing failure for most hitters, defeats in individual at-bats statistically more common than victories. And it remains a game of failure when it is McCleney at the plate. It's just that it's pitchers who must manage disappointment more often than not. McCleney reaches base 60 percent of the time, best among the World Series field. And even if she only starts her journey at first base, no guarantee for someone with a healthy slugging percentage, she rarely stays there long. Her instincts, both in terms of stolen bases and general baserunning, are elite. All of that and she's both the best defensive center fielder in the college game and Alabama's emotional core.
2016 key stats: .441 BA, .717 SLG, .600 OBP, 72 R, 22 SB
Paige Parker, P, Oklahoma
Every World Series needs an ace, even in this day and age of offensive supremacy. Oklahoma's Parker isn't the only candidate for the role, but no one headed to Hall of Fame Stadium pitched better during the second half of the season than the sophomore. Hindered early in the season by a knee injury, the timing of which is also partly the reason a player who doubled as an effective slugger a season ago has rarely batted this season, she was literally unbeatable in the Big 12. She made 13 appearances and went 13-0. She carried that into the postseason, bending a little late in the super regional against home run-happy Louisiana-Lafayette but never breaking.
2016 key stats: 33-3, 1.55 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 244 K, 216 1/3 IP
Sierra Romero, 2B, Michigan
She was espnW's player of the year as a junior, and she has been even better as a senior. The numbers are always eye-popping for Romero, who swings with an unbridled ruthlessness yet has struck out a grand total of 19 times in 124 games since the beginning of last season. But the numbers are only part of the story. Romero's growth as a leader during the past four seasons is equally impressive. A team that suffered both the disappointment of a second-place finish a season ago and the weight of expectations to match that success sailed through the season, imperfections never emerging as problems. And it's Romero who captains the ship.
2016 key stats: .465 BA, .916 SLG, .585 OBP, 19 HR, 78 RBIs