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ASU on top, but Cal looms large in 2012

1. Is defending champion Arizona State the team to beat this season?

Winner of two of the past four championships, Arizona State enters the 2012 season ranked No. 1 in both major polls. It isn't just the spoils of past success that put it there.

The Sun Devils return their ace, Dallas Escobedo, who arrived in Tempe last season with much fanfare after a stellar prep career. She proceeded to outperform even those expectations, going 37-3 with a 1.53 ERA. They also return shortstop Katelyn Boyd, one of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year and an almost unmatched offensive force (18 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a 1.334 OPS in 2011), as well as overlooked slugger Annie Lockwood, somehow left off the 50-player preseason watch list for this season's player of the year honor despite hitting 19 home runs and driving in 72 runs for the national champions.

Can you feel the "but" coming?

Continuity is Arizona State's greatest strength, but it's also the reason California is the team to beat this season. Arizona State returns those stars, along with a host of other contributors, but it lost catcher Kaylyn Castillo, third baseman Krista Donnenwirth, outfielder Lesley Rogers and first baseman Mandy Urfer -- four seniors coach Clint Myers called the best leaders he's ever had and who contributed 30 home runs, 145 runs and 220 hits to the championship cause last season. Myers won't have any difficulty collecting talent to take their places, but it's going to take some time to actually replace those players.

Most years, Arizona State's core would still be enough to make it the favorite. But most years don't see a team that made the World Series the previous season return essentially every player who started a game. And most teams that do come close to fitting that description don't also add a veteran player who might just be the best in the nation this season. Not only does Cal return its starting lineup, led by ace Jolene Henderson, third baseman Jace Williams, shortstop Britt Vonk and outfielder twins Jamia and Elia Reid, it also regains the services of Valerie Arioto, who missed last season with an injury yet is already a regular for Team USA.

After becoming the first Pac-12 program other than Arizona or UCLA to win a national championship, it's time for California to add a second.

2. Could this be the year of the pitcher's revenge?

College softball, left more winded than the hitters continually trotting around the bases, caught its collective breath in 2011.

The single-season team home run record went unbroken for the first time in three seasons. Only one team, Florida, hit enough home runs to make the all-time single-season top 10, one year after six teams forced their way onto that list. Arizona State beat Florida by a 7-2 score in a final game of the Women's College World Series that took 152 minutes to play, one season after UCLA bludgeoned Arizona by a 15-9 score in 3 hours, 16 minutes.

Of course, the outfield fences aren't safe just yet. Last season, 63 teams in Division I scored at least five runs per game, the most in any of the past five seasons by a sizable margin. Not coincidentally, 37 teams averaged at least a home run per game in 2011, also the highest figure in the past five seasons. What all the numbers suggest, even anecdotally, is that while counter measures such as better bat testing, as is done before every SEC series, is a start in reining in out-of-control home run totals, the sport is tilting toward offense, if not permanently then at least for the foreseeable future.

And yet, if only for a season, 2012 shapes up as an opportunity for pitchers to get even, not by dint of rule changes or bat testing but by sheer depth of talent. Of the nation's top 30 ERA leaders last season, 24 return this season. That list includes eight pitchers in BCS conferences, led by Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, Cal's Henderson, Baylor's Whitney Canion and Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts. Henderson led the nation in wins last season, going 40-10 en route to the World Series, while Thomas, Canion and Ricketts were three of the four pitchers who won gold with the U.S. national team in the Pan-Am Games last fall.

More returnees, including Tulsa's Aimee Creger, Hawaii's Kaia Parnaby, Memphis' Carly Hummel and Louisiana-Lafayette's Ashley Brignac, pitch for teams with top-25 aspirations. Even the Northeast is flush with pitching stars, with reigning strikeout champ Sara Plourde at Massachusetts joining Syracuse's Jenna Caira, Fordham's Jen Mineau and Hofstra's Olivia Galati in a quartet that ranked among leaders in ERA and strikeouts per seven innings.

And we haven't even gotten to the Pac-12, where the aforementioned Escobedo resides, or the SEC, where rising sophomore stars such as Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe and Alabama's Jackie Traina are just getting started.

Offense may rule the future of college softball, but one thing remains as true now as it ever was. Nothing beats a great pitcher.

3. Which three teams could emerge as sleepers?

Sleeper to win a regional: Syracuse (Qualification: not ranked in USA Softball/ESPN.com preseason top 25)

Fans in the Northeast won't get to see it in person until April, unless they buy a plane ticket, but there is going to be some high-quality pitching on display far from college softball's traditional stomping grounds. Partly thanks to the aforementioned aces, Fordham, Hofstra, Massachusetts and Syracuse all have potential in this category. But with so many hitters back from an offense that was pretty good in its own right behind ace Caira last season, Syracuse looks like the most complete team of the bunch -- if the Orange can use a brutal early schedule to their advantage and not lose their nerve.

Sleeper to reach World Series: Nebraska (Qualification: not ranked in USA Softball/ESPN.com preseason top 16)
Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten has a chance to end right back in the middle of Big 12 country in Oklahoma City. The Cornhuskers have all the components of a quality sleeper. Senior pitcher Ashley Hagemann emerged last season as a bona-fide ace for a team that won 41 games, as the Nebraska native averaged more than a strikeout per inning as a workhorse who made 39 starts and 48 appearances. Sophomore Taylor Edwards, along with twin sister Tatum Edwards, brought the power that's almost a must these days for contenders. And Mattie Fowler, Arizona ace Kenzie Fowler's little sister, leads an intriguing freshman class that could provide the final piece.

Sleeper to win it all: Stanford (Qualification: not ranked in USA Softball/ESPN/com preseason top eight)

Considering even top-ranked teams from other conferences have a hard time breaking the Pac-12's hold on the national championship, it doesn't make sense to stray beyond its borders for a sleeper. It makes even less sense considering No. 10 Stanford, No. 11 Oregon, No. 13 UCLA and No. 14 Washington provide plenty of options. Stanford has the best player, Ashley Hansen, but that was good enough for only a No. 15 seed and a super regional exit last season against Alabama (albeit in a 1-0 winner-take-all game). Another year of growth for ace Teagan Gerhart, plus the addition of freshman pitcher Nyree White, should give the Cardinal enough in the circle. And freshmen Hanna Winter and Leah White, added to a lineup otherwise heavy on experience, could push the Cardinal over the top at the plate.

4. Who are five players who could alter the course of the season?

Lexy Bennett, 1B, Texas: Yes, Texas more or less imploded again in the postseason, exiting the NCAA tournament in a regional it hosted in Austin for the second year in a row, but Bennett is a big reason not to give up on the Longhorns just yet. She played in that regional, but neither she nor the Longhorns were the same after she suffered an arm injury late in the regular season; she could only watch from the bench as her team stumbled down the stretch against the best of Big 12 pitching. Healthy, she's as good a hitter as there is, and a player Texas can rally around.

Kenzie Fowler, P, Arizona: Fowler made a strong first impression in the 2010 Women's College World Series where, pitching on mostly guts and muscle memory after a long freshman season, she had the Wildcats in the championship series. Last season wasn't as glorious, thanks in part to a freak concussion when she was hit in the head by a ball while sitting in the dugout, but she still went 26-8 with a 1.76 ERA. A high school phenom in Arizona, akin to what Damon Bailey was in basketball in Indiana, Fowler will always face a challenge living up to her own legend. But with some new faces and fresh energy around her in Tucson, the third time may be the charm.

Lauren Haeger, P, Florida: Gators coach Tim Walton is too savvy to let a eyebrow-raising comparison simply slip out, so when he compares Haeger's approach to that of former Florida All-American Stacey Nelson, pay attention. Haeger went the distance to beat Japan in the gold-medal game of the ISF Junior World Championship in December, no small thing against a team that had thumped other American pitchers 9-0 a day earlier. With sophomore Hannah Rogers around, Haeger doesn't need to do it all, but the combo is Oklahoma City material.

Meagan May, C, Texas A&M: The Aggies didn't make it to Oklahoma City last season, but they gave eventual champion Arizona State as good a run as any team in the postseason in losing the Tempe Super Regional. May stands out among a wealth of returning talent, but the secret to a World Series trip may be her ability to start fresh. An All-American as a freshman in 2010, she suffered through a nightmarish sophomore year, beginning with a serious car accident and continuing through a broken finger during the season. She still slugged .758 with 14 home runs, but life on the sofball field is going to be a lot less fun for opponents as life gets back to normal for May.

Tess Sito, P/UT, Georgia: Few in college softball lost more than Georgia, which said goodbye to seniors Alisa Goler, Brianna Hesson, Taylor Schlopy, Laura Trout and Megan Wiggins and saw pitcher Alison Owen transfer to Mississippi State. Enter Sito, a transfer from Cleveland State who outplayed the Horizon League for two seasons, hitting .386 with 23 home runs and striking out 337 batters in 324 innings. If she can play at anything close to that level in either aspect, hitting or pitching, Georgia might avoid total rebuilding mode.

5. Who will be the USA Softball Player of the Year?

The position player frontrunner: Ashley Hansen, Stanford

She's the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year, so this status is sort of a given. No college player is more accomplished than Hansen, who in addition to that award last season already owns a gold medal from her time with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship, playing alongside the likes of Natasha Watley and Cat Osterman. She hits for average and power, runs the bases like a veteran and positions herself so well on defense that she rarely needs to make the spectacular play.

Next on the list: Arizona State SS Katelyn Boyd, Florida OF Michelle Moultrie.

The pure pitcher candidate: Chelsea Thomas, Missouri

As you may have gathered, this category isn't hurting for candidates, but Thomas has the talent to rise to the top. For one thing, she has already been there as one of three finalists for the award last season, the only pitcher joining Hansen and Boyd. No other returning pitcher ranked in the top 10 nationally in wins, ERA and strikeouts per seven innings last season. Missouri should hang around the top 10 all season, which only helps her cause.

Next on the list: Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo, Massachusetts's Sara Plourde.

The hybrid candidate: Valerie Arioto, California
Arioto missed last season with an injury, but don't dust off any history books for evidence of why she's here. As a member of the full national team that won gold in the Pan-Am Games just last fall, Arioto went 5-for-13 with 10 walks in eight starts. That sounds a lot like the player who had a .590 on-base percentage as a junior at California in 2010, walking 81 times in 63 games (and slugging .819 with 19 home runs when she did swing). On top of all that, she also went 21-9 with a 1.43 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 205.2 innings as a pitcher that season.

Next on the list: Baylor P/DP Whitney Canion, Oklahoma P/DP Keilani Ricketts.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @grahamhays.