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These aren't Cat Osterman's Longhorns. And for the first time since perhaps the best pitcher in the world walked out of the circle for the last time as a collegian, that's no reason for the faithful in Austin, Texas, to start making plans for places other than Oklahoma City the first weekend in June.
Burnt orange may prove to be back in vogue at the Women's College World Series.
With one game left to play Thursday at Baylor, No. 12 Texas already owns at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title. It's the first title since 2006, Osterman's final season and the last time the program reached the World Series. Now a two-game series at home against No. 10 Georgia (Sunday on ESPN, 1 ET and Monday on ESPNU, 7 ET) and the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City may be all that stand in the way of a chance to host a regional and possibly a super regional in Austin, where the Longhorns are 19-2 this season.
And if the search for Osterman's successor stretched on too long for fans impatient with seasons that ended in regionals instead of the other tournament in Oklahoma City, Connie Clark ultimately didn't need to trek to the four corners of the globe for her answer. The Texas coach didn't even have to leave Austin's city limits.
|Texas pitcher Blaire Luna has exceeded all expectations during her freshman campaign.|
Freshman Blaire Luna needs two wins to own more of them than any Texas pitcher but Osterman in a single season. She is sixth nationally with 11.6 strikeouts per seven innings, and is one of just five pitchers with at least 340 total strikeouts. With 23 more, she'll own the non-Osterman lead at Texas in that category as well.
Luna may not have drawn as much attention nationally during the recruiting process as some of her high-profile peers, but no freshman pitcher has made more of an instant impact this season.
"We felt like, in the scouting process, she had very good movement, was as good up as she is down, which I think sometimes is really hard to come by -- typically a pitcher is a little bit better in one direction," Clark said. "And you're never really sure what their maturity is going to be like and how they're going to handle the emotions of playing under pressure. But we still felt like she was under the radar and probably had a really good shot at being someone special.
"She's been above and beyond our expectations, in regards to the mental game, specifically."
Luna isn't Osterman. For one thing, she's right-handed. She's also six inches shorter than the 6-foot-2 Team USA ace. And she doesn't have quite the same control as her predecessor, who never walked more than 62 batters in a season -- Luna has 81 so far. (Although Luna's walk rate has dropped since a seven-walk start against Michigan -- a game she still won -- she's walking 2.46 batters per seven innings in Big 12 play, compared to 2.90 batters per seven innings against nonconference competition.)
Yet after she no-hit North Carolina in an eight-inning game in her first college start, she was going to hear the comparisons. It comes with the territory.
"Typically, and especially prior to this year, when people think about Texas softball, they think about pitching," Clark said. "I think that's a double-edged sword. I think it's great because I think typically the top pitchers in the country, we tend to be on the short list of being able to talk to those kids and get them fired up about wanting to be that next big thing. But on the flip side of that is, when they do come in there are definitely some expectations that have already been laid by the groundwork of the Cat Ostermans and the Christa [Williamses] and the Meagan Dennys."
But Luna isn't just dealing with the challenge created by what came before her, she's a product of it. She may not have been a regular at Longhorns games growing up, too busy pitching herself, but her Rosetta Stone was an instructional video in which Osterman demonstrated how to throw all the pitches that Luna was armed with when she arrived at Texas.
It doesn't hurt that Texas doesn't need Luna to be anything more than herself. The Longhorns may know what an ace looks like, but the offense in Austin this season is like nothing people there have ever seen before. In Osterman's first three seasons, Texas hit a total of 64 home runs. Clark's team has hit 78 so far this season. In the 2005 season in which they reached the World Series, the Longhorns scored three or fewer runs in 45 of 62 games. Even in 2006, when the team set what were then program records for runs and home runs, it scored three or fewer runs in 38 of 63 games.
That's happened just 14 times through 50 games this season.
Clark gives much of the credit to hitting coach Corrie Hill, who arrived in 2006, as well as a change of philosophy in the way the Longhorns recruit position players, worrying less about plugging in players at specific positions than finding hitters with the talent to learn to field.
"Let's find some athletes that are versatile," Clark said of the staff's mindset. "And if they're swing the bat well enough, we're going to figure out how to teach them and make sure they're comfortable at more than one position so that we can have more chess moves to make."
Blessed with support like that provided by Tallie Thrasher, Nadia Taylor, Taylor Hoagland, Lexy Bennett and even her catcher, Amy Hooks -- all key bats in a lineup slugging .561 with an .401 on-base percentage -- Luna has been able to grow into her role with some margin for error.
Not that she's looking for the easy way out.
"I love it," Luna said of the run production. "I think it definitely makes me have more confidence when I'm out there. [But] I think I like the close games, the 1-0, just because they're more intense, and I think I grow as a pitcher those games just staying focused, and I think I learn a lot more from those games."
Perhaps nothing suggests a new era for the Longhorns quite like an ace pining for a few more chances to put the team on her shoulders. And an ace capable of doing just that.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.