Cornhuskers prepare for power play
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. 17 Nebraska
Last year: 41-14 overall, 9-9 Big 12 (eliminated in Palo Alto Regional)
Who returns: One California household sends 55 percent of Nebraska's home runs back to Lincoln, as sophomore twins Taylor and Tatum Edwards return. Six of the eight players who totaled at least 100 at-bats return, including leaders in home runs (Taylor Edwards), doubles (Gabby Banda) and runs, stolen bases and hits (Nikki Haget). Senior pitcher Ashley Hagemann returns after a breakout junior campaign (31-13, 1.75 ERA, 3.44 ERA). Hagemann was somewhat lost amidst all the aces in the Big 12, but she would have trailed only former Indiana ace Morgan Melloh in wins and strikeouts among Big Ten pitchers, matching former Michigan ace Jordan Taylor in wins.
Who departs: In Nebraska's case, it's more a matter of "what" departs, as the program makes the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers were a fixture of Big 12 softball, winning three regular-season titles and playing 64 NCAA tournament games during the conference's existence. When the league's 10th anniversary team was named in 2006, only Oklahoma placed more players on it than Nebraska's three. As for departures of the human variety, infielders Julie Brechtel (.323 BA, .833 OPS) and Heidi Folland (.275 BA, .763 OPS) started all 55 games last season.
Who arrives: You might recognize the last name, but Mattie Fowler brings with her an impressive resume entirely of her own creation. The younger sister of University of Arizona ace Kenzie Fowler, Mattie was Arizona's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson, no small honor in the softball-crazy state.
A natural shortstop, Fowler is likely to open the season at third base for the Cornhuskers -- when she isn't in the circle in support of Hagemann. She wasn't expected to be a pitcher at the college level but took on the challenge when an elbow injury knocked Haley Workman out of action. She impressed coach Rhonda Revelle and pitching coach Lori Sippel enough to pencil her in for some innings in the regular season. So far, she's got the impressing part down.
"I had one of our seniors come to me in the fall and say, 'Mattie Fowler has rewritten the book on the expectations and standards of freshmen,'" Revelle recalled. "This young lady is so mature, she has so much poise. She has so much to offer in a leadership role already."
On the opposite end of the experience spectrum -- but not the impact spectrum -- is freshman outfielder Jordan Bettiol. A prep All-American out of Texas, Bettiol was also a track phenomenon who didn't pick up the bat-and-ball sport until she was a sophomore in high school. Perhaps it's only fitting that she was born in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Nebraska also adds former Arkansas second baseman Courtney Breault, although the junior transfer is still recovering from shoulder surgery she underwent at the end of the summer.
Preseason question: Will Nebraska be a home run in its Big Ten debut?
Power remains front and center in the college game, even if the pace finally subsided to something within shouting distance of sanity last season, and Nebraska is getting in on the fun. The Cornhuskers slugged .467 with 58 home runs in 2011, a program record for the former and four shy of matching the program record for the latter (set in 1998). That marked a dramatic transformation for a program that slugged under .400 in five of the preceding seven seasons and never topped .402 in that span.
All of those teams still won far more games than they lost and made the NCAA tournament almost every season, because after more than two decades and 1,200 wins together, Revelle and Sippel know their way around pitching, defense and the short game. But the head coach is also a realist when it comes to being able to contend at a national level these days without the power game as an asset.
"I would say for the most part, no, you can't [contend without power]," Revelle said. "If there is an exception, somebody has to be extremely exceptional in another part of the game, offensively, or they have to have that Olympic-caliber pitcher. And I think it would probably have to be a combination of both if you were devoid of the power game."
Thanks in large part to the Edwards sisters, that's now purely a hypothetical for Revelle's team. Already in the running for All-America honors, Taylor Edwards hit 18 home runs as a freshman and did it while walking more often than she struck out and hitting .356 overall. Even the moon shots she routinely launched in batting practice may have helped, at least if you believe Revelle's suggestion that power may be at least a little contagious.
"It's kind of like the theory of when the four-minute mile mark was broken," Revelle said. "And then within, I don't know, two months, several people broke it. It's kind of like that within our team, too. The fence doesn't seem as far as it used to around here."
Neither does Oklahoma City.