College softball season returns on Thursday, Feb. 8. All the top teams are set to face their first tests.
Florida State will begin its quest to defend its title, while 2018’s home run leader Jocelyn Alo and Oklahoma are looking for a strong start in Arizona. Florida, UCLA, Michigan, Washington, Arizona and Baylor are also in action.
Here’s five games to watch this weekend:
Friday, Feb. 8 - Oklahoma vs. Syracuse (in Arizona), 3:30 p.m. CT
The Sooners made the College World Series last season behind the strong pitching of Paige Parker and Paige Lowary, and the bat of Alo. The home run queen is back for her sophomore season, but Oklahoma’s top two pitchers graduated. Mariah Lopez figures to be the ace on the staff now. As a sophomore, she had a 1.56 ERA over 76.1 innings pitched. Syracuse brings back Alexa Romero who, as a sophomore last season, was 16th in the country and first in the ACC with 264 strikeouts.
Friday, Feb. 8 - UCLA at Hawaii, 9 p.m. PT
Ranked as the preseason No. 2 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, the Bruins made the College World Series last season and are looking to get back there in 2019. Last season, they had the second best team batting average with a .335 mark. Among the returnees for the Bruins is freshman outfielder Aaliyah Jordan, who hit for an average of .429 in 65 games last season.
Saturday, Feb. 9 - Michigan at Florida, 10 :30 a.m. ET
The Gators and the Wolverines are both ranked in preseason polls, giving each other an early test. Michigan limped through the end of 2018, falling in the Big Ten tournament and exiting in the regional round of the College World Series after a pair of losses to Notre Dame. Florida made the World Series, but couldn’t get out of its bracket. Returning for the Wolverines is ace pitcher Meghan Beaubien, who was eighth in ERA in the country as a freshman with a mark of 1.16. One of the pitchers ahead of her was Florida’s Kelly Barnhill, who had a 1.08 ERA as a junior last season. After this game, Florida has a quick turnaround and faces No. 7 Arizona at 12:45 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 9 - UNCG at Florida State, 12:30 p.m.
UNCG won the Southern Conference last season and should put up a decent fight against Florida State, the reigning champs and preseason No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll. Returning for the Seminoles is Meghan King, who had a 1.17 earned run average in 148 innings pitched last season. Sydney Sherrill, who led the nation in doubles with 29 in 2018, also returns for the Seminoles. As a freshman last year she tallied 81 total hits, good enough for ninth in the country.
Sunday, Feb. 10 - Washington vs. Baylor (in Mexico), 4 p.m. PT
This game matches up the preseason No. 3 and No. 18 teams, according to the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll. Washington were the national runner-ups last season, while Baylor fell in regionals. Washington had the second best defense in the country last year, allowing 1.18 runs per-game, while Baylor had the eighth best team batting average with a mark of .322.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.