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. 12 Michigan
Last season: 49-8, lost in Ann Arbor super regional
Who returns: Start the list with one player who ranked ninth in the nation in slugging percentage and a second who ranked ninth in strikeouts per seven innings and you can almost forget all the seniors now getting letters soliciting alumni donations. First baseman Dorian Shaw, who tied the program's single-season record with 21 home runs, and ace Jordan Taylor lead the returnees. Bree Evans (.358 batting average), Amanda Chidester (.878 OPS) and Steph Kirkpatrick are also returning starters, with Chidester likely to shift from second base to catcher.
There are also nine other returning players, who while perhaps not yet familiar to outsiders, at least know what coach Carol Hutchins is going to ask of them. First among them is sophomore Stephanie Speierman, a highly-touted pitching recruit who saw limited time behind Taylor and Nikki Nemitz last season but will get every opportunity to earn innings this time around.
Who departs: Five players who started in the super regional against Tennessee are gone: Nemitz, Maggie Viefhaus, Angela Findlay, Molly Bausher and Roya St. Clair. All were valuable, but Viefhaus (1.382 OPS) and Nemitz (1.033 OPS and 1.79 ERA) are particularly irreplaceable.
Who arrives: It's a freshman class with plenty of potential. Hutchins said as many as three or four could conceivably end up starting by the opener. Considering she named outfielder Nicole Sappingfield among the players of all classes she's looking to lead through production, expect the Californian to be on that lineup card. Taylor Hasselbach and Lindsey Doyle also seem to be newcomers impressing enough to compete for starting spots out of the gate.
Preseason question: Is Jordan Taylor ready to be the pulse of a team?
Whatever Michigan is in February is likely to be quite different than what it becomes by May. As Hutchins put it, more than most seasons, it's going to be a campaign in which the team evolves. That's perhaps reflected in a schedule that, with the possible exception of Massachusetts or one or two other sleepers, may not bring the Wolverines into contact with a ranked team until the Judi Garman Classic in the second half of March, just before Big Ten play begins.
But whatever Michigan is and can be will have a lot to do with Taylor.
When a player comes in as a freshman and goes 31-4 with a 0.76 ERA, as Taylor did in 2008, it's going to be a struggle to accurately chart progress. Like a high jumper who sets a world record in her first competition and then "merely" wins a bunch of gold medals through the rest of her career, the bar has been set, in this case figuratively, impossibly high.
"It's just been a matter of consistency," Hutchins said. "Jordan is extremely competitive -- her competitive spirit is what I consider top-tier. You get kids with all different levels of competitive spirit, but hers is right what you want. Jordan's going to show up for the big game, but the key is we need her to show up for every game and treat every game the same. And I think she's matured; certainly as a senior, she's definitely matured."
Why that would be particularly important is that Taylor doesn't have the luxury of being just a pitcher this season. No longer paired with Nemitz, she has to be an ace, with all the pressure -- and possibly extra innings -- that entails. And no longer able to let her elders lead, she and Shaw have to set the tone for a lot of people playing full-time roles for the first time.
So what will Michigan be? Time will tell, but along with Shaw, we know it's Taylor's team for better or worse. And when it comes to Michigan's ace, we're usually talking about the former.
"You want your kids to walk on the mound with the attitude that, 'I can beat you by throwing at you,' as opposed to throwing everything around you," Hutchins said of the mentality that has allowed Taylor to be both a dominant strikeout pitcher and a control artist. "I think my pitching coach Jen Brundage does a great job of improving our pitchers, but a lot of what we got with Jordan, we recruited. She's just a great talent and with great competitive spirit. That's a great combination."