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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: the depth of the Southeastern Conference figures to be strong once again. Even teams that finish near the bottom of the standings could be legit contenders in other conferences. Most programs have not only reloaded this year, they have returned talented seniors with an extra year of eligibility and an appreciation for having the sport taken away so suddenly last season.
The SEC begins the season intending to play a normal 56-game schedule, but ready to make any changes as necessitated by Covid-19. The conference schedule includes 24 games with eight opponents per school. The three-game series’ will be played in a Friday/Saturday/Sunday format. One weekly conference series will be played Saturday/Sunday/Monday, with the Monday night game featured on the SEC Network. Any postponed games could be made up May 3-5 as a midweek doubleheader. The SEC tournament is slated for May 12-15 at University of Alabama’s Rhoads Stadium.
6. Mississippi State
10. South Carolina
11. Texas A&M
13. Ole Miss
Player: Charla Echols, Florida
Pitcher: Shelby Wickersham, LSU
Newcomer: Maddi Banks, Ole Miss
Projected regional teams: Florida, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky, South Carolina
Teams to watch
The Tigers were 21-3 last season, and returned everyone from a pitching staff that had a nation-leading ERA of 0.95 in 148.0 innings pitched last season. Senior right-hander Maribeth Gorsuch, junior right-hander Shelbi Sunseri and sophomore right-handers Ali Kilponen and Shelby Wickershman all had an ERA ranked top 35 in the country and helped limit opponents to a .156 batting average. The offense is also deep and multi-dimensional. Shortstop Taylor Pleasants batted .383 with four home runs and 21 RBIs in her college debut last season. Sophomore first baseman Georgia Clark batted .429 and speedy senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews hit .408 with 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts.
The 2020 season qualified as somewhat of a “rebuilding” year for the Gators, and they still went 23-4 and started 3-0 in the SEC before it was canceled. They will need to replace shortstop Sophia Reynoso, but have many of the pieces in place for title contention. Third baseman Charla Echols thrived in her first season at Florida after transferring from Michigan State, batting .417 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs while flashing her strong defense in 2020. Another transfer joins the Gators this season, with Skylar Wallace arriving from conference rival Alabama. Redshirt senior Kendyl Lindaman, senior Hannah Adams and junior outfielder Cheyenne Lindsey all hit at least .375 last season. In the circle, senior right-hander Natalie Lugo, junior right-hander Elizabeth Hightower and sophomore left-hander Rylee Trlicek combined to throw 158.2 of the 178 IP in 2020. Head coach Tim Walton’s biggest concerns were how Covid impacted the team’s ability to build leadership and get in maximum physical condition.
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The Tide got off to a rougher start than anticipated in 2020. They finished 14-8, with all the losses coming against ranked programs. But the talent and depth remains strong enough to make a run to the WCWS. Sophomore Montana Fouts anchors a loaded pitching staff that includes freshman Lexi Kilfoyl and seniors Sarah Cornell and Krystal Goodman. Fouts has returned refreshed and has added some new pitches to her arsenal. Seniors Claire Jenkins and Elissa Brown have returned from injury, and will be integral parts of the lineup. Brown and Alexis Mack have the speed to terrorize opposing teams. Junior outfielder KB Sides is coming off a breakout season, and Bailey Hemphill is a threat to go deep at every at-bat. The Tide will need to replace Skylar Wallace, who transferred to Florida. The Tide never duck opponents, and this season is no different. They are scheduled to begin the season in Texas playing the Longhorns and Arizona.
Keep an eye on
The success of the Lady Vols hinges on the health of Ashley Rogers. The junior right hander missed every game last season with an injury, forcing true freshman Callie Turner to carry the load. Turner took some lumps while gaining valuable experience. Rogers is back as the ace of the staff, and the time off from Covid was a silver lining because it gave her more time to heal and learn to listen to her body more. Both Rogers and Turner have been learning from new UT pitching coach and former Lady Vol Megan Smith. Junior catcher Ally Shipman provides a solid presence behind the plate to guide the staff, and a big bat at the plate to deliver offense. The Lady Vols will need to solidify their middle infield this season, and Arizona transfer Ivy Davis will help. Redshirt senior Chelsea Seggern, who tied for the team lead in batting average (.403), is recovering from minor offseason knee surgery. Senior Amanda Ayala was on pace for a career year before the 2020 season was cut short.
The Wildcats are the program that lost the most seniors, although it wasn’t unexpected. Most of them had jobs lined up in advance of the 2020 season ending and couldn’t turn down the chance to enter the working world. But head coach Rachel Lawson and her staff did a tremendous job with player development, and Kentucky should quickly find replacements among the younger players. The pitching staff is expected to be the strength of the team, led by Grace Baalman, Meghan Schorman and Autumn Humes. Mallory Peyton, Kayla Kowalik and Rylea Smith are the top returners on offense.
The Rebels have high hopes in their first season under head coach Jamie Trachsel, who was hired away from Minnesota in late April. The program struggled after Mike Smith was fired, and Trachsel has spent the last few months getting to know her players and implementing her system and terminology. She doesn’t think Ole Miss is far off from regaining its NCAA success. The Rebels got a big addition with Virginia Tech transfer Maddi Banks, who batted .340 with 19 runs scored for the Hokies in 2020. Juniors Anna Borgen and Ava Tillman return as anchors of the Ole Miss staff. Senior catcher Autumn Gillespie batted .349 with 13 RBIs last season and has provided valuable leadership throughout the coaching changeover.