ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit and Graham Hays take a look at the five biggest questions as the college softball regular season kicks off.
1. Is Arizona the favorite to repeat?
Buckheit: When considering Arizona's likelihood to fork another softball title, you must consider two prongs: the math and the verbal. Arithmetic-savvy folks will tell you that in the last 10 years, Arizona and UCLA have each won three championships, while Michigan, Cal, Oklahoma and Fresno State have nabbed one apiece. The softball title has been successfully defended six times since 1982 -- four times by UCLA and twice by Arizona. So in a 10-year period, teams repeated about 25 percent of the time -- a significant statistic (no doubt flawed by an era when softball parity was negligible, at best) but still a figure that should probably be accounted for.
Unless you're left-brained.
In that case, you tend to be a little more analytical. You'll probably eat up, but not necessarily digest those numbers. You opt to reason methodically (with your gut) that Arizona won last year and therefore, right now, the crown is theirs to lose. It simply makes sense. Arizona's proven ability to ascend counts for something. A coach of paramount caliber surely doesn't hurt. An infield anchored by All-American senior shortstop Kristie Fox helps the cause, as does All-American insta-offense Caitlin Lowe and junior hometown backstop Callista Balko. It just makes sense to pick Arizona this year. There's no reason not to.
Unless you're left-brained and skeptical (like me).
If I had to pick one team to hoist the trophy in Oklahoma City, I'd say Arizona. But if I am given the choice between Arizona and the field, I take the field. Don't forget, the team that took the 2006 cake spent some long hard hours in the underbelly of Pac-10 rankings last season, and that was with Alicia Hollowell. The head games the Cats are capable of playing on themselves were enough to drive mastermind Mike Candrea to provocation. My instinct says the bull's-eye is just too much to bear on the backs of a team that has lost its incumbent ace and likes to think too much. The pressure of pole position coupled with the batter's box burden exchanged for Hollowell's 0.87 ERA seems like a task too tall. Even for Tuscon's finest.
Hays: College softball sometimes seems to be the distinctly undemocratic dominion of a handful of feudal programs hording titles, but only once in the last nine years (when Keira Goerl pitched UCLA to a second consecutive championship in 2004) has a team walked away from the Women's College World Series with back-to-back championships.
UCLA and Arizona, representing the top end of the Pac-10's overall dominance of the sport, won every national championship between 1988 and 1997, including three in a row for the Bruins and a pair of back-to-back titles for the Wildcats, but the subsequent decade has offered more upward mobility for softball's middle class. Six different schools won championships in the last nine years. Granted, the two not-so-aging superpowers were both among those six, but the days when teams that snuck through branches of the bracket devoid of Pac-10 teams counted a trip to Oklahoma as the equivalent of a championship are gone.
Every team that makes the final eight now believes, with good reason, it can win a championship. And that makes running the gauntlet once, let alone twice in a row, much more difficult.
All of which seems to spell doom and gloom for Arizona this year, especially considering no team has won back-to-back championships while also changing aces between championship seasons since Nancy Evans took over for Carrie Dolan to lead Arizona to a repeat in 1997. As many returning players as there are in Tucson, departed ace Alicia Hollowell is not among them.
So why does Arizona deserve its preseason No. 1 ranking and the status as championship favorites? Because Arizona coach Mike Candrea has made a career out of recruiting and tutoring the kind of talent capable of setting new standards rather than living up to old standards.
Even without Hollowell, Candrea has an embarrassment of riches in the circle. Junior Taryne Mowatt may have been the most overlooked player on the roster last season, posting a 21-5 record with a 1.28 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 163.2 innings. And just for fun, Candrea added California's Gatorade Player of the Year in freshman hurler Amanda Williams.
The offense returns almost intact, losing only Autumn Champion (albeit losing someone named Champion probably isn't a good omen) from last season's starters. Junior Adrienne Acton should be ready to replace Champion in a one-two tandem with Caitlin Lowe at the top of an order that serves up RBI opportunities at the same rate Subway serves up lettuce.
The bad news for the Wildcats is the team that might be the biggest hurdle on the way to back-to-back titles hardly needs any extra motivation.
Arizona State has been in the shadow of its Tucson neighbor since Candrea arrived on the scene more than 20 years ago. The Sun Devils have made 12 trips to the Women's College World Series and posted just one losing season since 1967, but they're still the Manchester City to Arizona's Manchester United.
That could all change this season, as second-year coach Clint Myers, a longtime veteran of the Arizona baseball and softball scene at Central Arizona College, has assembled a young team with the pitching and power to do far better than last year's misleading 1-2 record in Oklahoma City. As much talent as Arizona has, a strong case could be made that the Sun Devils have the state's best pitcher in Katie Burkhart and best hitter in Kaitlin Cochran.
Parity is on the rise across the college landscape, but the Arizona derbies this season (April 6-7 in Tucson and April 18 in Tempe) will be a reminder that the road to a title still runs through the cradle of softball.
2. Which sleeper (not residing in the Pac-10) has the best chance to make it to Oklahoma City?
Hays: Using as a guideline that a team has to come from outside the Pac-10 and rank outside my preseason top 10 to qualify in this category (eliminating prime WCWS candidates like Washington, Tennessee, Northwestern, LSU and Alabama), Massachusetts jumps out as a sleeper.
Not only do the Minutewomen have an ace in sophomore Brandice Balschmiter who is capable of competing against the best on the national stage, they have a coach in Elaine Sortino who knows how to make the most of that luxury. One of the most respected coaches in the nation, Sortino took UMass to the Women's College World Series in 1997 and 1998 with future Olympian Danielle Henderson in the circle (UMass also made the trip in 1992). So it's safe to assume last season's disappointment -- when Balschmiter tired and was hit hard with Massachusetts just a game away from the Women's College World Series -- will be treated as part of the learning process.
It's way too soon to start comparing Balschmiter to an all-time great like Henderson, but the supporting cast in Amherst should be able to give her plenty of room to grow. The lineup lost a big bat in catcher KJ Kelley (although Kelley will still be on the bench as a graduate assistant), but plenty of offense returns with sophomore Whitney Mollica, senior Amanda Morin and junior Lauren Proctor. And if 6-foot-2 freshman Bailey Sanders can provide the team with a reliable second arm in the circle, the team will add a dimension it lacked last season.
Buckheit: Would we call the Big 12 Conference preseason No. 1 a sleeper?
We would when the Texans hail from College Station and their luminary isn't named Cat.
Texas A&M finished fourth in the conference last year and barely squeaked into the nation's top 15 of 2007, but I can see the Aggies hacking their way to Don Porter Stadium. It's a prediction that oddsmakers may jeer, but I believe Jo Evans and Co. could see it through. They have just enough in the gas tank, they just have to figure out how to harness it all together. On paper, the projection isn't so startling since A&M returns eight position starters and three pitchers, including junior Megan Gibson, the RBI Foundation's Preseason Collegiate Softball Player of the Year. But get away from the ruled notebook of reason and last season's inconsistent on-field performance makes about as much sense to me as Unicode. The Aggies' 34-19 overall record in 2006 included such anomalies as a loss to unranked Texas Tech, followed (only four days later) by a win over the No. 1 Longhorns trumped by an inexcusable 14-6 loss to Iowa State offset by the 7-0 rout they handed out in the Ames nightcap.
All things considered, if the only thing you remember about the Aggies is a regional exodus at the hands of lowly Lehigh, then I suggest you keep an eye out for a bunch of girls with some unpredictable moxie in their pockets. (Look for early signs of national life in their lofty opening trifecta of Northwestern, Fresno State and UCLA, respectively. The conference is as open as ever with the Longhorns missing the Big 12's bread and butter, while Baylor, Nebraska and Oklahoma look to cause some trouble.)
3. Which of last season's WCWS participants will have the toughest time making it back to Oklahoma City?
Buckheit: Have you ever noticed how jarring it can be to get in your car after someone else has driven it? One little alteration in the seat or the mirrors and you feel it. It's different than what you're used to. And even the slightest tweak can be a total menace to your chi.
That's the feeling I get thinking about the 2007 Alabama Crimson Tide.
Sure Pat Murphy's crew is in a rhythm of success, gunning for an eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and third consecutive trip to OKC, but they lost Stephanie VanBrakle, the SEC Pitcher of the Year and a two-time first-team All-American. Talk about having to make an adjustment.
As if graduating your horse isn't crippling enough in this business, try replacing the meat of your batting order and see if you can keep up with the pack. I'm not saying that the burly bat of Brittany Rogers won't shine in its sophomore undertakings. I'm not even questioning junior hurler Chrissy Owens' ability to dominate from the circle. I'm just saying that even when a little change is made, the effects are felt all over. I'm just not sure the Tide have the flexibility to merge onto an exacting eight-team highway.
Hays: Oregon State, a program that has soared to new heights under coach Kirk Walker, has a lot of things working in its favor this season.
Pitcher and part-time slugger Brianne McGowan, who gained invaluable postseason experience in last season's run to the Women's College World Series, gives the Beavers one of the nation's best aces. And in junior outfielder Cambria Miranda, the lineup has a cornerstone capable of doing damage against the best the Pac-10 or the rest of the nation has to offer.
What the Beavers don't have any control over is geography, and that could make a return trip to Oklahoma City difficult.
There are no neutral sites in the regionals and super regionals in softball, but host sites are awarded as much on cost efficiency as on-field performance. That worked to Oregon State's favor last season. Despite a 10-10 conference record, the Beavers didn't have to leave Corvallis until they went to Oklahoma City. But the preponderance of top-tier teams in the Pac-10, and the West Coast in general, means there are no guarantees that perk will be duplicated. With regional rivals Washington, Cal, Stanford and Fresno State all looking strong this season, Oregon State may well face getting shipped out East for a regional, squaring off against a Pac-10 foe in the super regionals (as happened last year against Cal), or both.
So while the Beavers may well be even better than they were a year ago, the road to the Women's College World Series may also be steeper.
4. What does back-to-back appearances in the WCWS final mean for the Big Ten?
Hays: Having graduation gowns designed by North Face no longer means a school can't scale the summit of college softball.
Northwestern won't play a home game this season until March 30, following 32 consecutive games on the road or at a neutral site. Michigan, the visiting team in Northwestern's home opener, won't play in front of its home crowd in Ann Arbor until April 3. Such is life for college softball's traveling road shows, constrained on one side of the calendar by the close of the academic year and the lingering flurries and frozen turf of winter on the other side.
But after Michigan's national championship in 2005 and Northwestern's trip to the final series against Arizona last season, the Big Ten suddenly looks like the top contender to become the first conference other than the Pac-10 to win multiple championships in the last 20 years.
No matter your rooting interest, that's good news for the sport.
Cold-weather teams enjoying success on a national level isn't a completely new phenomenon. Michigan made multiple trips to the Women's College World Series before winning it all in 2005. Danielle Henderson pitched Massachusetts to Oklahoma City one year. And programs like Hofstra have long fielded competitive teams. The change comes as these programs are now able to consistently restock their roster with kids who grew up playing top-level high school and club softball in places like New York, Missouri, Michigan or Ohio.
Add in recruits like Northwestern's California duo of Eileen Canney and Garland Cooper or Ohio State's Arizona-California connection with Megan Schwab and Kim Reeder (helping earn the Buckeyes sleeper status in 2006), and cold-weather programs are closing the talent gap in a hurry.
It can't be a coincidence that the sport's television ratings have taken off at a time when more people find themselves with local teams worth getting excited about.
Buckheit: Northwestern's second-place showing at the 2006 WCWS was almost as impressive as the gang of giants the Cats sent home from OKC: Alabama, Tennessee and UCLA! Who would have believed it?
Anyone who has been raised on the new skool of college softball As Seen On TV and made famous by pioneers Samantha Findlay and Jessica Merchant, that's who.
While I expect to see big things from others around the heartland in the next few years (i.e. Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame), I can't help but hope this non-palm tree narrative stirs up some aggressors from the Big East, ACC and CAA, too. Heck, who am I kidding, I won't rest until a team from the MAAC sleds into Oklahoma City by way of Buffalo, Niagara or Albany, N.Y.
Coup d'état rhymes with Siena.
Never say never.
5a. Who is the best position player in the country?
Buckheit: My first year on a college campus included a misroute to the boiler room while searching for a trig class. ASU freshman Kaitlin Cochran out-thumped Pac-10 powerstrips Andrea Duran (UCLA), Kristie Fox (Arizona), Haley Woods (Cal) and Maddy Coon (Stanford) to top the conference with a gaudy .818 slugging percentage and take home the prestigious Pac-10 batting title with a .437 average on the year. Forget the infamous "freshman 15," what about the freshman 47 -- as in the 47 runs she scored last season? Show off.
For her Ruthian efforts, Cochran was named to the Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-American First Team, the Softball University Team, the All Pac-10 First Team and received the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year award. Cochran presently holds ASU's single season home run record with 17 dingers and the RBI record with 61 across the dish. She led the conference in hits, home runs and total bases and her power-packed OBP (.556) was higher than the likes of speedsters Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion.
In short, she's a machine.
Of course people are going to compare her to the complete counterpart across the desert, Caitlin Lowe. And they should -- two outfielders who face nearly the exact same competition and conditions on both sides of the ball in a given week -- it's practically the perfect petri dish. And maybe the only way to guard against flash in the pan, rookie rationalization of young Kaitlin is to stand her up beside the revered vet Caitlin Lowe. Some are still surprised that Cochran's numbers are bigger and better nearly across the board.
She lives on base, she hits for power, she's clutch and her fielding percentage was perfect.
There's hardly room for debate.
Hays: Remember the scene in Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail," when the knights are warned of the dangerous creature lurking at the mouth of a cave, only to unwisely swagger to their own demise after seeing that the beast is merely a seemingly cuddly white rabbit?
Arizona senior Caitlin Lowe may not remember the scene -- she wasn't born until 10 years after the classic was filmed -- but opposing pitchers risk their ERAs if they take the unassuming Arizona star lightly. At 5-foot-5, she doesn't look like a slugger. Unfailingly polite in person, she doesn't talk like a swaggering superstar. But when she steps into the batter's box -- or more accurately, pauses for a moment before sprinting to meet the ball's arrival and head to first base -- she's the most dangerous hitter in college softball.
She is less a slap hitter than a hitter who has perfected the art of slapping. To that end, she slugged .543 for the Wildcats last season, third on the team behind Kristie Fox and Chelsie Mesa. And she had 14 extra-base hits, including two home runs, and drove in 27 runs for the national champions (despite missing nine games with a wrist injury).
But it's when she sends the ball skittering toward one of the unlucky souls in the field that things get interesting.
It's an old basketball axiom that a defense should never let the ball hit the floor on a rebound opportunity, be it from indecisiveness, fatigue or laziness. Similarly, if an infielder lets a ball off Lowe's bat bounce before getting to it, they might as well throw it back to the pitcher, because Lowe will already be at first base.
How good is Lowe at getting on base? She hit .425 last season -- and that ranked as her lowest single-season battling average (she still led the Pac-10 in both batting average and stolen bases).
5a. Who is the best pitcher in the country?
Hays: Being the next Cat Osterman is both a blessing and a curse.
Tennessee's Monica Abbott indeed inherits the mantle of the college game's best pitcher now that Osterman has graduated and moved on to full-time duty with Team USA. Like the former Texas star, Abbott hopes her senior season concludes with a third appearance in the Women's College World Series, having lifted a program from softball's middle class to national prominence. Along the way, she'll chase Osterman's still-fresh record for career strikeouts, needing 550 to set a new standard (she averaged 572 during her first three seasons).
But for all the statistical and story line similarities between Osterman and Abbott (who certainly have their differences, from mound presence to pitching style), it's another pair of strikeout artists that Abbott would probably rather emulate this season.
Power pitchers are finding Oklahoma City more and more hospitable these days. Osterman couldn't add a national championship to her Olympic gold medal, but Jennie Ritter and Alicia Hollowell did their parts to make strikeouts more than gaudy accessories.
Until Ritter led Michigan to the title in 2005 and Hollowell followed suit with Arizona last season, Jocelyn Forest and Shawn Andaya were the only pitchers ranked among the all-time top 20 in strikeouts who also won a national championship (Forest with Cal in 2002 and Andaya with Texas A&M in 1987).
Is Abbott next in line?
Buckheit: They've finally found something Graham and I can agree on. Monica Abbott, Tennessee's 6-foot-3 senior hurler, rises above. I can't dispute her supremacy. But to make matters interesting, I've got to poke a few holes in the SEC's darling Lady Vols. While I wholeheartedly believe Abbott is the most capable and qualified hurler in all the land, I'm left brooding over the six runs she gave up to Arizona in UT's season-ending loss at the WCWS.
There's a lot to consider when analyzing the Vols and what they must do to make the critical jump, but to me, one of the most interesting rand-o-matic statistics of 2006 refers to the squad surrounding Abbott's arm. The same squad o' orange that tallied an impressive .836 winning percentage eeked out just nine wins in the 19 games in which the opponent plated the first run last season. In a sea of other minutia, this to me is the most definitive reason, behind the fact that Monica's golden arm was on ice, watching from the stands come championship time.
The Weeklys need to figure out how to make their kids the comeback kind if a softball title is going to find its way to Knoxville.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.