With a little more than three weeks remaining until the first balls and strikes are called, it’s time to get serious about the 2022 season. We’ve toured the country in fall reports and highlighted the freshmen ready to impact the season. The D1Softball Top 25, conference-by-conference previews, preseason accolades and much more are on deck. But before we get into the nitty gritty, D1Softball’s Graham Hays, Tara Henry, Rhiannon Potkey and Brady Vernon share some of the players, teams and storylines they have their eye on this season.
1. What headline is on your mind as the season begins?
Jocelyn Alo chases the home run record. It’s not a matter of if Alo will break Lauren Chamberlain’s seven-year-old career record but when the reigning Player of the Year will take the top spot in the record books. With 88 home runs, Alo is seven shy of Chamberlain’s record — with Stacey Nuveman, Jessie Harper and Katiyana Mauga to pass along the way. But there is some suspense when it comes to timing. If Alo can break Chamberlain’s record within 15 games (and she hit 12 home runs in her first 15 appearances a season ago) she will own the record while playing fewer games than her predecessor. And Chamberlain got her 95 in fewer games (220) than anyone else with at least 75 home runs. There will be a tendency for some to shrug at the record and chalk it up to extra eligibility or overall offensive inflation in the sport. But Alo will earn her record without an asterisk. She’s hit more home runs at a faster rate than almost anyone who ever played. And we won’t need to say almost anyone for long. - GH
Who will be the strongest conference this year? The SEC always has the depth top to bottom but how many teams do we feel confident in reaching the Women’s College World Series? The Pac-12 lost a lot of talent from last season. The ACC seems like it’s knocking on the door of elite status. The Big 12 could have three of the best teams in the nation, but will any other team scare anyone? – BV
Speaking of the strongest conference, how will the Big Ten fare after a year of conference-only play? Michigan, Northwestern, and Minnesota all received bids to the tournament just a season ago. The selection committee did not award the conference with a single national seed. With a single WCWS title back in 2005, does the B1G have what it takes to get back to Oklahoma City? – TH
The continued rise of the ACC. Duke and Clemson starting programs and making immediate waves has hugely bolstered the conference depth and made the ACC a much more legit threat in the national picture. Florida State remains the model program, but the Seminoles didn’t win the regular-season or tournament titles last season and still advanced to the final of the WCWS. The race in the ACC should be just as enticing this season, and the conference will return to a more normal format as opposed to the Covid-required four-game series of last season. – RP
MORE PREVIEWS: 2022 college softball preview and predictions with D1Softball's Tara Henry
2. Which team is best positioned to be this season’s James Madison?
Liberty. Dot Richardson’s team played well against James Madison when the two teams faced in regionals last year. Liberty will be led by a veteran pitching staff in Emily Kirby and Karlie Keeney. There’s a lot of potential in the lineup as well. – BV
South Dakota State: The Summit League champions are coming off a 43-8 season in which they reached the NCAA tournament and ranked ninth in the nation in slugging percentage and 14th in ERA. That would be the peak of an era for most mid-majors, but the Jackrabbits are only getting started. This team returns all nine batters who compiled at least 20 total bases a season ago and adds freshmen strength. They also return third-year sophomore Grace Glanzer and second-year sophomore Tori Kniesche, co-aces who went 40-7 in 303 innings in 2021. – GH
BYU: If the Cougars can stay healthy, they have all the components to make a run. Fifth-year senior ace Autumn Moffat-Korth returns and outfielder Violet Zavodnik is coming off a strong freshman season. The Cougars will have even more motivation to prove they are worthy of the impending move to the Big 12. – RP
3. Which fifth-year (or beyond) senior are you happiest to see play another season?
Miranda Elish, Oklahoma State. Before the 2020 season was called off, we just got a glimpse of how good Miranda Elish could be as a two-way player. Will she get back to that level? Who knows, it’s just nice to have a top-end player back in the sport. – BV
Paige Rauch, Villanova. She’s the two-time reigning Big East Player of the Year (and probably would have won the award in 2020, the way she started that shortened season). She also won Pitcher of the Year a season ago, the first Big East player to sweep both awards. It feels like there might still be a 20-win, 20-homer season in there somewhere, and that would be a heck of an exclamation mark on a career I’m glad we have an extra year to appreciate. – GH
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Gabbie Plain, Washington. Can she lead UW back to the WCWS? The Aussie hurler returns to Seattle for another season. She won 32 games for the Huskies in 2021 and picked up Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year honors. As a USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 3 Finalist we are lucky to watch the master a spin for yet another season. – TH
Alexis Holloway, Notre Dame. Every name already mentioned is great and there are 20 more I could list for different reasons, but I am going with Holloway because her return means she gets to play one season with her little sister, Anna, a freshman infielder for the Irish. It’s always special to share a field with a sibling, especially at the college level. – RP
4. Which freshman are you most excited to see take the field?
Washington’s Kinsey Fiedler and Rylee Holtorf. We will all miss watching Sis Bates wizardry in Seattle, but the future seems bright for the Huskies. These two could be Washington’s middle infield duo for the next four years. – BV
Annabelle Widra, Michigan. Pitcher? Middle infield? Middle of the order? All of the above? Time will tell exactly where Widra fits for the Wolverines, but the recruit from the heart of SEC country just gives off the vibe of someone who is going to make her presence felt throughout her time in Ann Arbor. And if she earns her way into immediate innings alongside Alex Storako and Meghan Beaubien, look out. - GH
Jordyn Bahl, Oklahoma. If Patty Gasso says “She is quite different from any freshman I’ve ever seen,” that warrants us all to pay attention. With the loss of G Juarez and Shannon Saile, will the rookie arm be able to step in alongside Nicole May to make another title run? Bahl has the chops and the Sooner (home) run support. – TH
WATCH: Oklahoma's 2021 WCWS title, as seen from field level
Reagan Walsh, Florida. Head coach Tim Walton said he hasn’t had a player that’s been such a perfect for his system in a long time. That is pretty noteworthy. Walsh will be the starting shortstop for the Gators. She’ll be surrounded by talent so the pressure won’t be immense, but it will be fun to watch how she develops. – RP
5. Which program is under the most pressure this season?
Texas. Not only did the Longhorns watch their rival Oklahoma win another national championship, Texas failed to reach the Women’s College World Series after being eliminated by Oklahoma State last season. Now, the Sooners are prepared to run it back, and Texas will have to face its former friend in Miranda Elish with the Cowgirls. It’s probably not fair to Mike White to say Texas needs to make it to Oklahoma City this season as the Longhorns likely would’ve made it in 2020, but there should be big expectations in Austin. – BV
Texas A&M. If it isn’t one of the big programs in Texas under the most pressure, it might be the other. Jo Evans is a softball institution and an indelible part of the story of the sport (she even played in the longest game in NCAA history, for goodness sake). But the college softball world she helped build has become one in which expectations reign supreme — especially in the SEC. The Aggies haven’t missed an NCAA tournament since 2001, but they are also 1-4 in their past two regional appearances and are 15-36 in the SEC since the start of 2019. More of that would get people grumbling, even if they’re grumbling about a legend. – GH
North Carolina. There is no reason to panic in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels finished in 10th place last season and the ACC depth has greatly increased from the past. It will be much harder to be at the top of the standings and earn NCAA berths. UNC missed the NCAA tournament last season for the second time in the last three seasons it was contested. Brittany Pickett graduated and UNC will need to fill the void she leaves in the circle this season. – RP