Hitting the diamond
The road to Oklahoma City begins Friday for these top-10 teams
No. 1 Tennessee
After finishing as the 2013 national runner-up, now No. 1-ranked Tennessee is just days away from starting its 2014 quest for a seventh Women's College World Series trip and another chance to shine the brightest on softball's grandest stage. The Lady Vols open the 2014 season on Friday against Northern Colorado at the Eagle Round Robin in Statesboro, Ga.
For the first time in program history, Tennessee will start the season at No. 1 in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 Poll. UT enjoyed one of its finest seasons in program history in 2013, finishing as the national runner-up, making its sixth Women's College World Series appearance in nine years and posting its eighth 50-win season with a final record of 52-12. Several Lady Vols garnered prestigious conference and national honors during the team's record-breaking run to Oklahoma City.
In 2014, Tennessee returns 11 talented veterans from its championship series squad, including All-American seniors Ellen Renfroe and Madison Shipman. Both Renfroe and Shipman were named to the watch list for the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award and the Preseason All-SEC Team.
No. 2 Oklahoma
The defending national champions, OU garnered five of the 20 first-place votes in the preseason top-25 poll and earned 456 points to sit just three points behind No. 1 Tennessee, which was given six first-place votes.
Oklahoma’s season opening opponent, Kentucky, was ranked 14th in the poll.
Oklahoma returns seven starters from last season’s national championship team that finished 57-4 overall and 15-2 in the Big 12 to earn its second consecutive conference title. Among those returning are USA Softball National Player of the Year finalist Lauren Chamberlain, Second-Team All-American Shelby Pendley and Second-Team All-Region honoree Destinee Martinez.
No. 3 Florida
The Gators will open the 2014 season Friday with a game at No. 25 South Florida before playing at the USF Tournament Feb. 7-9. Florida will play five games during the three days of the tournament, including a game Saturday against No. 4 Michigan.
Florida has won 798 games in program history, and could notch its 800th win all-time as early as Friday. Five Gators will officially begin their UF careers this weekend -- junior transfer Francesca Martinez and freshmen Delanie Gourley, Chelsea Herndon, Justine McLean and Lindsey Spatola. Florida’s senior duo of Hannah Rogers and Stephanie Tofft will open their final collegiate seasons.
Florida led the nation in wins last year with 58, advancing to the Women’s College World Series for the fifth time in six years. The Gators won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, and Walton earned SEC Coach of the Year honors.
No. 4 Michigan
The defending Big Ten champion Michigan will enter the season ranked No. 4 in the nation.
Head coach Carol Hutchins enters her 30th season guiding the Maize and Blue. She has won three consecutive Big Ten coach of the year awards and 14 overall. U-M returns 16 letterwinners and adds four freshmen to this year's squad.
Sophomore All-America shortstop Sierra Romero headlines the returners along with a pair of NFCA All-Great Lakes Region performers in junior pitcher Sara Driesenga and senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard. That trio of Wolverines, along with juniors Lauren Sweet and Haylie Wagner and sophomore Sierra Lawrence, was listed on the 2013 All-Big Ten team.
U-M opens the season with a pair of games against ranked opponents on Saturday. The season opener features No. 4 Florida, with No. 25 South Florida capping off the doubleheader.
In all, Michigan has games scheduled against nine ranked opponents.
No. 5 Washington
With 14 letter-winners returning from last season’s Washington softball team that earned the program’s 11th appearance in the Women’s College World Series, the 2014 squad is preparing to make a statement of its own.
The No. 3 Huskies return nearly every starter from last year’s team and add five capable newcomers, plus a returning redshirt freshman.
Washington opens the 2014 campaign on Friday at the UNLV/SportCo Kick-Off Classic in Las Vegas vs. No. 18 Baylor. The Huskies will play five games in three days, facing Baylor, San Diego, Arkansas, UNLV, and UC Davis.
The team is anchored by the veteran leadership of its seven seniors: Marki Creger-Zier, Hooch Fagaly, Victoria Hayward, Kaitlin Inglesby, Whitney Jones, Bryana Walker, and Mercedes Wetmore. The Huskies also return juniors Kylee Lahners, Kimberlee Souza, Kasey Stanchek, and Kelli Suguro, as well as sophomores Dani Braun, Courtney Gano, and Jennie McNeill and redshirt freshman Makenzie Pletcher. Looking to make their first contributions to the Huskies this season are junior college transfer Hailey Bator, and freshmen Ali Aguilar, Kimberlee Myers, Bridget Raftery, and Rylleigh Zbaraschuk.
Collectively, the Huskies are primed to build on last season’s 3rd place finish at the College World Series.
No. 6 Alabama
The 2014 schedule will see the Crimson Tide play against 16 teams that qualified for the 2013 NCAA tournament. Nine of those 16 teams are out-of-conference while the remaining seven are SEC opponents.
In 2013, Alabama boasted four All-Americans, three All-SEC honorees and earned a 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. But, in the end, an early exit from the SEC tournament and defeat at the hands of Tennessee in the Knoxville Super Regional prevented a proper title defense.
The Tide’s 2014 season will open at the Troy Subway Invitational on Friday against Kennesaw State, North Florida, Northwestern State, Middle Tennessee State and the host Troy Trojans. The following weekend the Tide will head to traditional Pac-12 power Arizona for the Hillenbrand Invitational, facing Grand Canyon, Tennessee State, the homestanding Wildcats, Georgia Tech and New Mexico from Feb. 14-16.
No. 7 Arizona State
The Sun Devils will open the 2014 season ranked No. 7 in the nation in both the NFCA Coaches and the ESPN/USA Softball polls, the same position the team finished in last year at the Women's College World Series. The team will take part in six games in four days in the Kajikawa Classic this weekend, opening the year against the 2013 MVC regular season champion, Creighton on Thursday at Farrington Stadium. The game will be immediately followed by a matchup against New Mexico and its head coach/former Sun Devil All-American Erica Beach.
Perhaps ASU's biggest test of the weekend will come Friday as the team takes on the 2013 ACC tournament champions and NCAA tournament participant NC State, who received votes in both the NFCA and ESPN polls in the preseason.
Arizona State returns players who combined for 80 of the team’s 95 home runs from last season. Craig Nicholson will enter his 1st weekend at the helm of the Sun Devil program after spending seven seasons at Ball State. ASU has been ranked in the coaches' poil for 124 consecutive weeks and has been in the top 10 for 115 of those.
The Sun Devils dropped two games in the 2013 WCWS en route to a 50-12 season overall. The appearance in the WCWS was ASU’s seventh in the last eight seasons, two more than any other team in the nation in that time. The Sun Devils finished the year 16-8 in conference play and tied for second in the Pac-12 with Washington. The team opened the season with a porgram best 21-0 record to start the season and finished the year with an incredible 40-3 record at home. Catcher Amber Freeman was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year while Freeman, Dallas Escobedo and Cheyenne Coyle were all named NFCA All-Americans.
No. 8 Oregon
Coming off just their second 50-win season and first conference title, the Ducks aren’t running away from expectations for the 2014 season, which begins next week in Hawaii.
The Ducks came up a game short of qualifying last season, losing a Super Regional to Nebraska in Eugene. They intend to finish the job this time out.
“We’ve used that to fuel our fire,” senior Alexa Peterson, who hit .424 last season and had 24 extra-base hits, most among the team’s returning players, said. “It makes us want to get to Oklahoma City that much more.”
Oregon lost four seniors from the historic 2013 squad, including all-time program ace Jessica Moore and the power bats of Samantha Pappas and Kaylan Howard. But with left-handed sophomore Cheridan Hawkins set to assume Moore’s role in the circle, and a deep offense that wants to work counts and run the bases better in 2014, the Ducks feel they have the pieces in place to set their sights on the Women’s College World Series.
Oregon’s path to the Women’s College World Series begins next week at a tournament in Tempe, Ariz. The Ducks figure to be tested early by the likes of Cal Poly and North Carolina State at the Kajikawa Classic, the first of four tournaments in four February weekends for Oregon to open the season.
No. 9 Nebraska
The Nebraska softball team opens its 2014 season on Friday.
First pitch of the new season is set for Friday against the UTEP Miners at the NMSU Softball Complex in Las Cruces, N.M.
The 2014 Huskers feature two returning All-Americans, seven returning starters, four returning all-conference performers and a talented five-player freshman class. Nebraska finished 45-16 in 2013, when the Huskers finished with a No. 9 ranking after advancing to the program's seventh Women's College World Series.
No. 10 Texas
Texas begins its 18th varsity softball season this week with a single game at LSU and a weekend tournament at the Louisiana Classic. UT has never lost a season-opening game, going 17-0. UT has posted 11 shutouts and outscored opponents 108-9 during the initial contests.
Seven freshmen, Tiarra Davis, Kelli Hanzel, Mickenzi Krpec, Taylor McAllister, Lauren Slatten, Devon Tunning and Stephanie Wong, will make their Texas debuts this season.
The Longhorns finished No. 3 in both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball final polls with a record of 51-10, marking the second-most wins in school history. The program made its fifth trip to the Women's College World Series and eventually reached its third trip to the WCWS semifinals.
Texas will face 12 opponents who are ranked or receiving votes in the preseason top 25: No. 2 Oklahoma (April 17-19 in Norman, Okla.), No. 4 Michigan (March 8 in Fullerton, Calif), No. 5 Washington (Feb. 21 in Palm Springs, Calif. and March 8 in Fullerton, Calif.), No. 7 Arizona State (March 7 in Fullerton, Calif.), No. 14 Kentucky (Feb. 14 in Austin, Texas), No. 15 Louisiana Lafayette (Feb. 7-8 in Lafayette, La.), No. 16 Baylor (March 22-23 in Waco and May 11 in Austin), No. 19 LSU (Feb. 6 in Baton Rouge, La.), No. 24 California (Feb. 23 in Palm Springs, Calif.), Houston (March 6 in Fullerton, Calif. and March 19 in Austin), North Carolina (Feb. 7 in Lafayette, La.) and Iowa (March 15-17 in Austin).