College softball season preview: Reigning champ Oklahoma enters as favorite; SEC, Pac-12 powers in play
Get out your bats and break in your gloves – softball season almost here.
Before 34 teams hit the field on opening day Feb. 9, here’s a look at the upcoming season and which teams have the best shot at earning a trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series in June.
Who won last year?
Oklahoma grinded its way to the 2016 crown in a thrilling best-of-three showdown with Auburn that came down to a 2-1 duel in the final game.
One day after Oklahoma blew a commanding 7-0 lead in Game 2, which Auburn came back to win on a walk-off grand slam from Emily Carosone, Sooners ace Paige Parker retook the mound for the deciding Game 3 and tossed a four-hit gem for her second complete-game victory of the series.
Oklahoma scored both runs in the first inning of Game 3, helped out by a Carosone error, and that was all Parker needed to lead the Sooners to their third-ever national championship and second in four seasons.
Sooners stay on top entering 2017
Repeat hopes are alive in Bedlam, as Oklahoma was named the unanimous No. 1 team in the preseason USA Today/NFCA Coaches national poll released on Jan. 31.
The Sooners return plenty of talent to its 2017 squad, including six of its seven All-Big 12 team members from last season.
Oklahoma’s dangerous offense ranked second in the nation in batting average last season at .351 and is headlined by the return of Shay Knighten (.397 batting average, 13 home runs, 62 RBIs), Kelsey Arnold (.382 batting average, 15 stolen bases) and Sydney Romero (.346 batting average, 10 home runs, 39 RBIs) in the infield.
But perhaps the most important carry-over from last year’s title run is Parker, who enters her junior season as the ace of Oklahoma’s pitching staff.
DYK? Oklahoma's Paige Parker tied an NCAA record with four perfect games in 2015. She also tosses gems in the classroom with a 4.0 GPA. pic.twitter.com/Ef0zEJ6bSr— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) January 30, 2017
The lefty finished 28-7 in 2016 with a 1.65 earned run average and 14 shutouts. Four of those shutouts were perfect games, tying the NCAA record for most in a single season.
With Parker set to take the mound for most of Oklahoma’s games this season, it’ll be hard for any opponent to keep pace with the Sooner offense.
Oklahoma’s title defense starts Feb. 9 with a rematch against 2016 runner-up Auburn in Puerto, Vallarta, Mexico as part of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
SEC powers loom
The question of who can dethrone the Sooners in 2017 may very well come down to the answer to another intriguing preseason storyline: Who will emerge as the cream of the crop in the SEC?
Nine of the past 10 WCWS matchups have included at least one SEC team – including each of the last six. During this decade span, there have been five different conference representatives.
There’s no reason to believe this trend will end this year, with nine SEC programs cracking the Top 25 poll to start the season.
No. 2 Auburn starts the heated conference race in lane one to start the year, after coming one run short of raising the trophy in 2016.
Like Oklahoma, the two-time defending SEC tournament champs aren’t barren of top talent after last year’s graduation cycle. Leading the pack is senior and preseason All-SEC selection Kasey Cooper, who crushed 21 home runs for 83 RBIs and an .880 slugging percentage in 2016 – three of six Auburn records she broke.
The Tigers will have a challenging trek through theirs schedule, playing three ranked opponents on its nonconference slate – including No. 1 Oklahoma to open the year – all before an SEC road that goes through fellow national title challengers like Alabama, Florida and LSU.
A wild west
Pac-12 powers UCLA, Washington and Oregon are all in the preseason title mix, as expected, after each winning at least 39 games a season ago. But add Utah, opening at No. 18 in the NFCA poll, to the top tier of teams fighting for supremacy out West.
The Utes have never won a national championship but have put together consecutive 36-win seasons that ended in the NCAA tournament. Last year, Utah advanced to the second weekend before dropping consecutive decisions to Florida State.
The Utes boast five preseason all-conference selections and the preseason Pac-12 player of the year in senior infielder Hannah Flippen. The California native had the 32nd-best average in the nation last year (.431) to go along with 21 extra base hits out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
Right now, the outlook is murky whether Utah can take the next step toward making a postseason run and becoming a national power. But its place in the tight Pac-12 will become clearer in March, when the Utes travel to face UCLA and host Oregon on back-to-back weekends.