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Shaemus Kreider | NCAA.com | February 6, 2018

Season preview: Teams to watch in 2018

It may seem to be the dead of winter, but the 2018 NCAA softball season is right around the corner. The USAToday/NFCA poll was released last week, and Thursday marks the official start of the 2018 season. 

The Oklahoma Sooners enter 2018 aiming to three-peat as national champions. Head coach Patty Gasso's team lost only one senior and return eight of nine starters. The preseason rankings reflect the high expectations for Oklahoma. Thirty-one of 32 first-place votes in the preseason poll belong to the Sooners. Can Oklahoma be stopped?

Baylor hopes to answer that question with a yes. They played second fiddle to Oklahoma in 2017, but there was no overlooking the Bears. Behind an all-around attack, Baylor finished seventh in the Women's College World Series. Ace Kelsee Selman graduated, leaving Gia Rodoni and Shelby "Goose" McGlaun the remaining pitchers from last year. Filling Selman's hole will be tough, but both Rodoni and McGlaun had under 2.50 ERAs last season. 

  Kelly Barnhill posted a 26-4 record and 0.54 ERA in 2017.
One team that will also have to fill a hole in their pitching staff is Florida, but they won't need to do much more to repeat as the SEC champions. Delanie Gourley is gone, but Kelly Barnhill is more than enough to propel the Gators forward this season. Barnhill was simply amazing last season, with a 26-4 record and a .54 ERA. Barnhill will be paired with Aleshia Ocasio, who was strong in limited pitching opportunities last season. Only two position players graduated, so expect to see more offensive fireworks from the team that blasted 53 home runs last season. 

Texas A&M had a storybook season last year, finishing only four games behind the Gators. This year, they return their entire starting nine in the field and the trio of Lexi Smith, Trinity Harrington and Samantha Snow in the circle. Expect to see the Aggies among the best teams headed into May. 

  Amber Fiser was undefeated in 18 starts, finishing with a 1.68 ERA in 2017.
Last year in the Big Ten, Minnesota unseated Michigan from the top of the conference with a tremendous 56-win season. This season, it is going to be a tight race in the Big Ten again. For Minnesota to win again, they will need their offense to produce. Pitcher Sara Groenewegen had a tremendous senior campaign with an ERA under 1.00 and 31 wins last year. Replacing the NFCA First-Team All-American will be tough, but Amber Fiser may be up for the challenge. As a freshman, Fiser was undefeated in 18 starts, finishing with a 1.68 ERA, one of the best by a freshman in the Big Ten. 

For Michigan, it's looking like a rebound year. Kelly Christner and her .400 batting average is gone along with pitcher Megan Betsa, but Michigan has the recruiting class to make up for these losses. The Wolverines have especially high expectations for Alexis "Lou" Allen. She was a part of the 2017 USA Softball Junior Women's National Training Team and hit over .600 in high school. She will play outfield and first base for the Wolverines.

Out west, the Pac-12 is wide open. Last year, the top four teams were within two games of each other in the conference standings, and this year is no different. It seems one of four teams will win the conference this year. 

  Oregon finished second in a stacked Pac-12 last season.
The Oregon Ducks finished second in the Pac-12 last year, and have a dynamic duo returning on the mound. Maggie Balint and Megan Kleist both produced more than 150 strikeouts last year and low ERAs. This year both return to a stacked Ducks team. 

Arizona was the pride of the Pac-12 last year. However, not all is sunny down in the desert. The Wildcats graduated eight seniors including shortstop Mo Mercado and pitcher Danielle O'Toole. Arizona will have to make up for the loss of a majority of their starters, so expectations are a bit more uncertain for the Wildcats in a competitive conference. They were picked to finish seventh nationally in the preseason poll, behind three Pac-12 teams.

In Seattle, the Washington Huskies are going to be a force to be reckoned with. Junior pitcher Taran Alvelo was dominant last season with a 2.07 ERA and striking out more than 200 batters. The Columbus, Ohio native will be joined by a strong recruiting class, leading to a USA Today/NFCA preseason poll ranking of fifth. 

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UCLA returns all but three players from last year's national fifth-place finishing team. The Bruins will once again look to win games with tremendous power and solid pitching. The top three pitchers are back, plus seven of nine in the starting lineup. One key player for the Bruins will be Brianna Tautalafua, who hit 16 home runs last year to pair with a .335 batting average. 

  Florida State looks like the team to beat in the ACC.
Florida State reigns supreme in the ACC. The Seminoles' key player Jessie Warren returns for her senior season. Last year Warren had a .413 batting average and ranked third-best in the NCAA in home runs with a total of 23. If Warren hits like she did in her junior year, and Meghan King can keep up a 1.50 ERA, expect to see Florida State in Oklahoma City.