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Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 20 Syracuse
Last year: 45-13 overall, 15-5 Big East (eliminated in College Station regional)
Who returns: Start the list with a mentally tough Canadian with a penchant for beating Team USA in international play. No, senior pitcher Jenna Caira isn't Danielle Lawrie, the former University of Washington star whose name may come to mind upon hearing such a description, but Caira is the the clear cornerstone of a team with the potential to do the kind of things Syracuse isn't supposed to do in softball. Caira had a 35-11 record with a 1.51 ERA and 321 strikeouts last season, many of the strikeouts on perhaps the most devastating changeup in the college game. The Orange also return seven of the nine players who totaled at least 100 at-bats a season ago, including Lisaira Daniels (.351 BA, .925 OPS, 24 SB), Stephanie Watts (.306 BA, .986 OPS, 11 HR) and Lacey Kohl (.285 BA, 1.082 OPS, 12 HR).
Who departs: There aren't a lot of subtractions, but Hallie Gibbs is a significant one. Gibbs led the Orange in home runs, RBIs and OPS last season and graduated second all-time in home runs at the school.
Who arrives: Another Canadian (hey, it's only a couple of hours from Syracuse to the border) has become such a fixture at third base that coach Leigh Ross nearly forgot she was a freshman when talking about her new class. Carey Leigh-Thomas, a member of the Canadian junior national team, will handle duties at the hot corner. There aren't many other openings, but freshman Julie Wambold is an athletic utility player with high-level travel ball experience.
Preseason question: Are the Orange ready for this?
A year ago, Syracuse opened its season with games against Tennessee Tech, Morehead State and Georgia State. They wrap up the opening weekend this season with games against Arizona and California at the Kajikawa Classic.
After a week at home, the Orange then head west again for another game against Arizona, along with contests against UCLA and Northwestern, among others, in the Cathedral City Classic. The week after that it's down to Florida for games against Baylor, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon and VIrginia.
It's not the schedule of a program that made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2010. It's the schedule of a program that returned last season, got its first tournament win and decided it wasn't happy just being there.
"At the end of last year at regionals, we beat LSU and when we came back and played [Texas] A&M the next day, I thought we were a little flat," Ross said. "This year, I wanted to, preseason, face all those teams that I want to be seeing at the end of the year. Just to play them one or two times is not enough in the preseason to get you ready for the postseason -- I'm not trying to say we're going to make postseason, but I do want to be prepared in case.
"This is probably the strongest team that we've had at Syracuse, and I thought instead of facing [just] Arizona and two solid teams, let's go to the toughest tournaments we can find and let's get used to that, facing those kind of teams."
The biggest reason Ross thinks her team is ready is the seven-member senior class that has helped one of the sport's rising star coaches transform a nothing program into a Big East contender. They weren't all the biggest recruiting prizes on the board when they arrived, but they have outworked and outperformed many of their peers. Take the case of Kohl, who totaled just 11 extra base hits over her first two seasons before breaking loose with 19 last season.
"Lacey Kohl is the hardest working kid that I've probably ever coached," Ross said. "She's in the cages constantly, on her own, constantly fixing her swing. And what she learned last year was to be patient. As a big hitter, you're not going to get the hit every time, but we're going to need you to drive in runs at certain times. I think she learned to not take every at-bat as a failure if she didn't get something done, but to learn from it."
Tangibly, it's that kind of work ethic that gave the Orange an offense that averaged 5.4 runs per game last season in support of Caira and unsung No. 2 pitcher Stacy Kuwik. Intangibly, it's what convinced Ross this team was ready.
On the final day of play in the Cathedral City Classic, the biggest tournament of the regular season, Syracuse plays UCLA on the event's main showcase field immediately after UCLA plays Missouri and before an exhibition game between stars from National Pro Fastpitch. This is the company Ross thinks her team can keep this season.
If that means taking some lumps early, so be it. Nobody gets a hit every at-bat. But successful hitters, like successful programs, learn from every opportunity.