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Adam Hermann | NCAA.com | February 5, 2018

12 players to watch as softball season gets rolling

  Elantra Cox was a superstar in 2017. What'll she do for an encore in her final year as a Rebel?

At long last, softball season begins Thursday, Feb. 8, with a 30-game slate featuring five Top-15 teams in action before a 196-game Saturday really kicks things off in style. 

With so much action, here’s a bit of a helper on our end: 12 players you should pay attention to this season.

MORE: Teams to watch in 2018Preseason rankings

Outfielders

Aleah Craighton, Arizona

Craighton is making her Tucson debut this year after three seasons with Louisiana, which culminated in her breakout 2017 season. The 5-foot-7 Prairieville, La. native was named an NFCA First Team All-American, the Sun Belt Conference Female Student Athlete of the Year for a season in which she hit .345 with 18 home runs. In three years with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Craighton racked up 154 RBI and finished with a .794 slugging percentage. Now she brings all of those numbers and accolades to the Pac-12, where she’ll try to lead the Wildcats to their second straight conference championship after a nine-year drought.

Justyce McClain, McNeese

In her second year at McNeese, McClain did everything well, but her specialty was her reliability: she set a program record for consecutive games with a hit at 20, and added another 13-game streak for good measure. She led the team with an eye-popping .435 average at the plate, stole 27 bases (including four in one game), and finished with a superb .958 OPS. The next goal for McClain & Co. (besides a 31-game hit streak, of course) is to move past NCAA regionals this year, where they were felled by Louisiana and LSU in 2017. 

Elantra Cox, Ole Miss

Speaking of a player who raked last year, Cox led the nation in hits with 93, breaking the Ole Miss single-season record for hits and runs (51) while batting .429 and stealing 25 bases. The Henderson, Tenn., left fielder recorded 29 multi-hit games, proving time and time again she could be counted on to reach base when the Rebels needed production from their leadoff hitter. Whether the senior fielder and Ole Miss can get back to the Super Regionals, where they lost to UCLA last year, or even beyond remains to be seen, but Cox’s presence has to make Rebels feel good about their chances.

Infielders

DJ Sanders, Oregon

Another Louisiana transfer, Sanders was a First Team All-American with the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2017 at shortstop. Her junior year was a breakout for the Mississippi native: she led the NCAA in home runs (29), RBI (82), and slugging percentage (1.013). The most impressive number of all, however? Sanders was walked 46 times last season while striking out just 27 times, or nearly half as frequently. A picture of efficiency and power in one package, Sanders will try to lead the Ducks back deep into the postseason for the second straight year.

Linda Rush, Drexel

In what became a larger-than-life freshman campaign, Linda Rush rewrote the Drexel history books — almost literally. Rush set the single-season records for batting average (.414), doubles (16), home runs (14), RBI (50), total bases (113), and slugging percentage (.850) while landing on the NFCA’s All-Northeast Second Team all in her first year in University City. The Dragons still slogged through the CAA to a 5-16 conference record, but a year after going winless in CAA action, Rush’s arrival was a welcome one. Now in her second year with the program, she sets her sights on moving Drexel up the conference ladder.

Meghan Gregg, Tennessee

Gregg took what was an excellent sophomore season in 2016 and turned everything up a level last year. She finished second in the nation in RBI, sixth in OBP, eighth in total bases — oh, and finished Top 3 in the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year voting. It was an astounding season for the Georgia native, who finished 2017 with the best slugging percentage (.695) in Tennessee history. Her postseason production was off-the-charts, too: she batted .421 with four HRs in six NCAA tournament games. The next step: play in more of those games, and keep hitting.

Pitchers

Kelly Barnhill, Florida

When a pitcher wins a National Player of the Year award, you probably want to pay attention. Kelly Barnhill is that good. The Marietta, Ga. native led the country with a nearly-spotless 0.81 ERA, and also led the nation in opponent batting average (.128) and strikeouts per seven innings (12.19). She tossed her second career no-hitter, won 14 games against Top 25 teams, and tossed nine shutouts against the Top 25 to boot. She finished the season just a smidge shy of 200 innings pitched with a 26-4 record, just five home runs allowed, and three saves in tight spots. Oh -- and it was just her second year with the Gators. So get ready for round three.

Nicole Newman, Drake

After a roaring first two years with the Bulldogs, Newman started her junior season even stronger, leading the nation with 94 strikeouts and racking up a 1.27 ERA through 10 decisions before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. The righty showed insane potential in her freshman year, winning 13 of her 20 starts and posting a 1.94 ERA in her first go against college talent. In her encore year, Newman set a Drake record with 286 strikeouts in 220.0 innings pitched. Now, the question is: what kind of fire will Newman come out with after missing the majority of last season? It seems safe to say she'll be ready to make up for lost time.

College softball rankings: Two-time defending champion Oklahoma opens No. 1

Shannon Saile, FIU

If we're talking about youth in softball pitching, we should probably touch on Shannon Saile before we're done. Saile became Florida International's inaugural First-Team All-Conference USA Pitcher as a freshman last season when she led Conference USA in each of the following stats: a 1.51 ERA, .151 opponent batting average, 3.49 hits allowed per game, four saves, and strikeouts per seven innings (8.1). She also posted eight shutouts and 240 strikeouts. It was not a normal freshman campaign, but then it quickly became clear Saile was not a normal freshman. How does she follow all that up? Well, that's why she's one to watch.

Catchers

Jenavee Peres, San Diego State

Peres' career with the Aztecs has been one of the more remarkable displays of hitting in program history. Her .454 batting average last season ranked fourth in the country, and first in in SDSU's annals. She also knocked in 60 RBI, finished with an astounding 1.332 OPS, and generally just hit the cover off the ball. Now Peres' quest turns to dominating the Aztecs' record book: she's already first in batting average (.409), on-base percentage (.466), slugging percentage (.743), and OPS percentage (1.209). She's chasing sacrifice flies (T-2nd) RBIs (3rd), home runs (4th), extra-base hits (5th), and runs (6th), among others. Not bad.

Kendyl Lindaman, Minnesota

Talk about making a good first impression. Lindaman started in all 61 games as a freshman, and along the way broke Minnesota program records for home runs (20), slugging percentage (.899), RBI (tied-76), walks (63), and on base percentage (.598). The 5-foot-10 Iowa native was dueling with some of the best players in the country in her first season playing vs. collegiate talent, leading the Gophers to their first first regular-season Big Ten championship since 1991. Now Lindaman looks to add to her résumé (somehow) and push the Gophers past the Super Regionals.

Dejah Mulipola, Arizona

And we'll cap off this list with one more freshman sensation from a year ago, who has a chance to show the nation she's for real in her sophomore encore. Mulipola hit 12 home runs and 12 doubles, piling up a nice 1.069 OPS in her first year of college ball and battling through injuries to catch 60 of the Wildcats' 61 games. Now we get to see what a fully healthy Mulipola looks like, with a year of college ball under her belt.