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. 19 Stanford
Last year: 37-19, lost in Stanford regional
Who returns: Stanford's core runs right up the middle of the diamond. Teagan Gerhart returns in the circle for her sophomore season, while second baseman Ashley Hansen, shortstop Jenna Rich and centerfielder Sarah Hassman account for an abundance of great defense and 149 of the 243 hits that return from last season. Primarily an outfielder her first two seasons, including 56 starts last season, junior Maya Burns takes over at catcher, while infielders Jenna Becerra and Melisa Koutz combined for 105 starts last season, primarily in the infield and designated player.
Who departs: Plenty of other teams are moving on without great players. Not many -- none, in fact -- are moving on without the cleanup hitter on the United States national team. Stanford will miss All-American outfielder Alissa Haber for obvious reasons, but catcher Rosey Neill (.868 OPS) and third baseman Shannon Koplitz (.910 OPS) will also be tough to replace.
Who arrives: Look for freshmen Corey Hanewich and Caitlyn Pura and redshirt freshman Tegan Schmidt to compete for outfield time on either side of Hassman in center. Michelle Prong, a New York native following in former Empire State standout Maddy Coon's westward footsteps, earned praise from coach John Rittman for her performance thus far and could hold down third base.
Statistically speaking: When a group of college kids works "perambulate" into its dugout chants for teammates with three-ball counts, it proves that all of those SAT prep courses paid off and that plate discipline has a home in Palo Alto. No Stanford player struck out as many as 30 times last season.
Preseason question: How is Teagan Gerhart?
Stanford fell on hard times last season when Gerhart was sidelined, initially by a stress reaction in her arm and then for good with torn cartilage in her wrist. The team's plight without her is no slight to pitchers who stepped in against loaded Pac-10 lineups or a loaded Hawaii lineup in the postseason, but it is a measure of just how little time Toby's little sister needed to establish her own identity as a program-defining ace.
In a season replete with pitching sensations, Gerhart's 1.65 ERA in 190.1 innings trailed only LSU's Rachele Fico, Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts, Texas' Blaire Luna, Illinois' Pepper Gay, and Arizona's Kenzie Fowler among freshmen in BCS conferences.
"She was as prepared as anybody," Rittman said. "But you still have to go through it once and kind of navigate your way through that freshman year before you can truly mature and get comfortable in what it takes to be successful at this level. I think she did that last year. She has all the pitches. She throws with velocity, she can change speeds and she fields the position well. Those were all areas that this time last year we were kind of uncertain about."
The injury led Rittman and the Stanford medical and training staff to undertake a serious study of how Gerhart and top young pitchers like her are used, and perhaps overused, in high school and travel ball. That's a topic worthy of its own spotlight on another day, but the result for the Cardinal this season is an ace apparently on track to reclaim her place -- although an ace whose training, practice and workload demands sound like they'll be under careful scrutiny.
"You do the best you can," Rittman said. "Any time you have an injury like that, you want to make sure, first, that you're heathy before you start coming back. I think we did a great job with that. And then second, you make sure you build up to where you're ready to put the stress back on your body that you do during a season. By the time we start playing in February, we will have done that. There's still some of that work in progress, and there's always, certainly, a chance for a setback. But right now, everything is smooth sailing and she's working hard and throwing the type of workouts she's going to need to throw to make it through a long season."