Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 8 California
Who returns: One of the nation's most productive hitters at the plate returns, as does a pitcher who ranked 18th in the nation in ERA and 31st in strikeouts per seven innings. And we haven't gotten beyond Valerie Arioto yet. Whether or not she's the best hitter or the best pitcher, Arioto is ready to fill the role of the nation's most complete player, a role shared rather memorably last season by Megan Langenfeld and Danielle Lawrie.
And Cal returns much more than just Arioto. Former high school teammates Jolene Henderson (1.78 ERA, 192 strikeouts in 192.2 innings) and Lindsey Ziegenhirt (.562 slugging percentage) lived up to the billing in their first season as college teammates and a college battery. A freshman standout at Washington in 2008, Jace Williams (.439 on-base percentage) didn't miss a beat in her first season of eligibility at Cal. Jamia Reid (.380 BA, 48 stolen bases) and Frani Echavarria provide proven run production from the outfield, while Elia Reid, Jamia's twin sister, has 39 stolen bases in two seasons.
Who departs: The middle infield needs to be replaced after the departures of second baseman Shannon Thomas and shortstop Taylor Kelly. Vernae Sevilla was also a frequent member of the lineup who will need to be replaced.
Who arrives: From a distance, Ashley Decker seems a good bet to make an immediate impact. The prep All-American arrives with a résumé indicating an ability to bring speed, patience and some power to the top of the order. And Washington's Jenn Salling may not be the only former Olympian patrolling shortstop in the Pac-10 this season. Britt Vonk, a veteran of the Dutch Olympic team in 2008, arrives in Berkeley.
Statistically speaking: California is one of just two programs in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC that returns two pitchers who threw more than 150 innings and finished with ERAs of less than 2.00 (Maryland is the other, with Kerry Hickey and Kendra Knight).
Preseason question: How important was last season's super regional trip?
From a gut perspective, California's reaching a super regional was a big deal when it comes to looking ahead to the season at hand. The Bears, after all, were riding two pitchers in new roles, one a true freshman and the other a junior whose workload increased dramatically over effective lesser roles in the circle her first two seasons. They had a freshman behind the plate, a player in her first year of eligibility at third base, and youth around the diamond.
Going on the road to win a tough regional that also included Kentucky and host Ohio State, and then playing through the Georgia heat and humidity in a super regional just feels like part of a larger narrative, a step this core group needed to take on the path to something more.
And that narrative is a big reason why the Bears are here at No. 8, theoretically a vote of confidence for the program's first College World Series appearance since 2005. (That and a healthy dose of the statistical reality that no returning player in the nation was nearly as valuable to her team last season as Arioto, who drew more walks in her plate appearances -- 81 -- than she allowed in more than 200 innings in the circle -- 66 -- and nearly totaled more extra base hits than she allowed.)
But it's at least worth pointing out, if only as devil's advocate, that such a narrative doesn't have a lot of evidence behind it when it comes to the super-regional era.
Since the NCAA tournament shifted to include super regionals in 2005, 40 teams have played out a season after losing in a super regional the previous spring. Of that group, only eight teams took the next step and advanced to the World Series in the subsequent season. As narratives go, a 20 percent success rate isn't the kind of thing on which you want to bet the farm.