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. 5 UCLA
Last season: 50-11, won national championship
Who returns: There won't be a shortage of championship jewelry to store during games, including that belonging to outfielder Andrea Harrison, who capped a brilliant season (1.076 OPS) with four home runs in the World Series. Older sister Monica Harrison returns after solidifying her defensive reputation as one of the nation's best middle infielders last season, while keystone partner GiOnna DiSalvatore (1.090 OPS) also continued to excel. Dani Yudin, Samantha Camuso and B.B. Bates all played big parts in UCLA's juggernaut offense. And a returnee of a different sort might be one of the season's key figures, as All-American outfielder Katie Schroeder returns to the field after missing all but seven games last season.
Who departs: Good enough to emerge as a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year even before the World Series, Megan Langenfeld was something else entirely in the World Series, an unstoppable forced at the plate (12-of-17 with four home runs) and a grinder superglueing her fingers to fight through blisters in the circle. Julie Burney (18 home runs) and Langenfeld's battery mate, Kaila Shull, each also leaves a decent-sized pair of cleats for someone to fill.
Who arrives: This is UCLA, so it's not exactly surprising that even a relatively small freshman class is loaded with talent across the diamond. Kellie Fox, youngster sister of former Arizona standout Kristie Fox, should find an immediate home in the middle of the infield, possibly allowing DiSalvatore, last season's second baseman, to polish her credentials as one of the college game's most versatile players with another position shift. Alyssa Tiumalu looks like a cornerstone waiting to happen at catcher and Talee Snow will provide depth around the infield. California Gatorade Player of the Year Jessica Hall offers no end of talent in the circle and at the plate (which sounds a bit like someone who just finished her UCLA career).
Preseason question: How difficult will it be to replace 114.1 innings in the circle?
UCLA played 61 games on its way to the national championship. Langenfeld pitched in fewer than half of them and started just eight times, including just four times in the regular season. So while the question of how the Bruins evolve without the pitcher in whose hands they wanted the ball with the season on the line (blisters, not strategy, kept her from starting the finale) is one of the preseason's great unknowns, there is paradoxically a lot known about the unknown.
In other words, two returning pitchers who went 31-8 in 239 innings last season would be an area of strength for most teams. For UCLA, Donna Kerr and Aleah Macon, along with newcomer Hall and sophomore returnee Destiny Rodino, represent a championship-sized question mark.
"We've had some very big names come through the program," coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "We had the Jelly Seldens and the Keira Goerls and Lisa Fernandezes that have come through and almost carried the program during their years. Of late, the game has changed, and I strongly believe you have to have more than one pitcher. For us, we do. I look forward to having them get out there and compete and see who is going to earn the ball, but they all know they're going to get an opportunity."
The Bruins might not have an easily discernible ace until at least the postseason. Macon, who got the ball in the World Series when Langenfeld's blisters kept her out of the circle, compiled strong strikeout and strikeout-to-walk rates throughout her first season on the field for the Bruins. But Kerr remains one of the most intriguing talents in the Pac-10, a standout for Team USA while winning the 2007 Junior World Championship who has flashed moments of brilliance through three quality college seasons that nonetheless leave a sense of potential yet unrealized. If that changes, it's entirely possible UCLA could enter the postseason as the prohibitive favorite, something that wasn't the case as the No. 5 seed a season ago.
"The biggest part for Donna is we've got to keep her healthy," Inouye-Perez said. "She's going to be pitching a lot of games this year, and unfortunately, she hasn't been completely healthy through a season. So that's going to be one of our goals. We've been working real hard to build strength and build her endurance to be able to keep her healthy because she has phenomenal pitches. But I think what you'll see in 2011 is she's developed her game. She has more than just a great rise ball; she has all parts of her game."