Top aces, surprise team among five burning questions for 2009 softball

Perhaps the ground remains blanketed by snow and ice where you live. Maybe the neighbors still haven't taken their holiday lights inside or put their holiday trees outside. It's even possible you have yet to concede defeat on your New Year's resolutions. But as spikes clatter and roller bags rumble on the concrete surrounding fields across California, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere, softball season is here again. And as games kick off Thursday, it's time to ponder five questions for the campaign ahead.

1. Which teams hold the aces in this season's deck?

From Michigan's Jennie Ritter to Arizona's Alicia Hollowell and Taryne Mowatt and Arizona State's Katie Burkhart, recent seasons suggest championship runs are best navigated with the assistance of an experienced ace in the circle.

And even in a pitching landscape lacking aces of record-keeping consequence, there are two who stand out.

Despite marking her collegiate debut in 2006, Washington's Danielle Lawrie isn't technically a senior. Then again, there aren't any seniors who have pitched in both the Olympics and the Women's College World Series. In addition to pitching to the likes of Crystal Bustos last summer as a member of Canada's Olympic team, Lawrie threw a no-hitter in her World Series debut in 2007.

Stacey Nelson's passport has a little less wear and tear, but the Florida senior has already guided the Gators to Oklahoma City, an exotic destination for the program. And while Nelson's strikeout numbers are merely excellent in contrast to the otherworldly totals of some of her predecessors on the national stage, she does have some statistical magic on her side. In 352.1 innings last season, Nelson surrendered just two home runs. And with infielders such as Megan Bush, Aja Paculba and Corrie Brooks, good things happen when you keep the ball on the ground.

2. Could the World Series be without a representative from Arizona?

It happened just once in the past 20 seasons, and it doesn't fall under the heading of "likely" this season. But the realization that a World Series without either Arizona or defending champion Arizona State (granted, the Sun Devils have only recently become regular guests in Oklahoma City) is within the realm of discussion speaks volumes about the uncertainty surrounding college softball's Manchester United and Chelsea, respectively.

Arizona State has to figure out a way to replace Katie Burkhart in the circle. Megan Elliott has been Burkhart's understudy for the past two seasons, but replacing a legend is rarely easy. Freshmen Hillary Bach and Megan Ellsworth come with solid prep profiles and put up impressive fall numbers, but it remains to be seen how all three fare making big leaps to new roles.

It's much the same story at Arizona, where Mike Candrea returns from his Olympic sojourn and welcomes back an offense that should score runs in bunches behind the bats of Jenae Leles, Stacie Chambers and Brittany Lastrapes. But with the departure of ace Taryne Mowatt and with Kenzie Fowler still a year away, it's both an enormous opportunity and a daunting challenge that await sophomore Lindsey Sisk and junior Sarah Akamine in the circle.

3. Which team could make a surprise trip to Oklahoma City?

There's being wrong and there's being early. As someone who is habitually the latter and frequently the former, picking Nebraska last year still doesn't feel like a mistake.

So maybe it was early.

The Cornhuskers did make significant offensive strides in 2008, improving their team slugging percentage from .305 to .350 and their on-base percentage from .318 to .343. The slugging was still, frankly, an anemic number, but at least they were getting enough runners on base to make some use of small ball.

The problem for a team that slipped from 37 wins in 2007 to 25 wins last season was that injuries and pitching inconsistency more than negated the offensive improvement. Catcher Amanda Duran, who had two fewer doubles in her 86 at-bats than anyone else had over the full season, played just 33 games before she suffered a season-ending injury. And coming off January knee surgery, pitcher Molly Hill couldn't duplicate her conference-leading 1.05 ERA from the previous season.

Now Duran and Hill are healthy, and there is a new addition to the battery in Lincoln following the arrival of Robin Mackin. And while it's one thing to start the season as a long shot, it's another to be a long shot that added one of the top 10 to top 15 pitchers in the game. After two seasons of standout pitching for Fresno State and a stint alongside Lawrie with Canada, it's difficult to place Mackin anywhere but in that class.


4. Which conference is on the hot seat?

Or in other words, will Virginia Tech's trip to the Women's College World Series prove to be a launching pad for bigger and better things from the ACC -- which had largely consisted of Florida State and everyone else until recently -- or will the conference tumble back into obscurity in the post-Angela Tincher world, as befell Conference USA after Courtney Blades at Southern Miss?

With new facilities at Georgia Tech (this season) and NC State (last season), and renovations at Virginia and Virginia Tech, the ACC feels like a league with positive momentum. But adding some positive results on those fields in May wouldn't hurt. The Hokies won hearts with last season's march to Oklahoma City, but Tincher was a unique talent. More telling from a conference-wide perspective was a seeded ACC team crashing out in regionals for the second year in a row, with North Carolina bowing out after losses in Chapel Hill to BYU and Campbell.

The ACC is largely a regional league; Boston College has nine players combined from California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, but no other conference school has more than four on its 2009 roster. As such, the league is going to face a lot of skepticism from more traditional softball territory until it proves itself on the field (and lousy economy aside, it's good to at least see Virginia heading to the UNLV Louisville Slugger Tournament, while Georgia Tech and Maryland go to the Cathedral City Classic among high-profile early tournaments on the other coast).

5. Who are three players who deserve a brighter spotlight?

Tara Oltman, Creighton

Arizona State 1, Creighton 0
Creighton 2, Arizona 1

Those two scores from last spring just about say it all for Oltman. Four days apart in Tempe and Tucson, respectively, she pitched all 16 innings of those two games and allowed just 10 hits to two of the best offensive lineups in the country. The Missouri Valley Conference plays some strong softball in its own right, but those kind of marquee turns in the circle make it easier to look at Oltman's dominating numbers (0.96 ERA, 300 strikeouts last season) and see one of the best pitchers in any conference in the country.

Lauren Grill, Mississippi

Mississippi scored 181 runs last season. Using the runs-created stat pioneered by Bill James, Grill was responsible for 57.1 of them, or 31.5 percent. To put that in some perspective, even Kaitlin Cochran was responsible for just 21.2 percent of Arizona State's runs. Grill shoulders an enormous offensive load for the Rebels, and does it while producing the same kind of range factor and error rate as defensive stalwarts like Alabama's Kellie Eubanks and Texas A&M's Macie Morrow.

Catherine Lee, Georgia State

What can Lee do for an encore? As a freshman, the Georgia native hit .411, with a .502 on-base percentage and .810 slugging percentage. The team's full-time catcher from the outset, she also led the Colonial Athletic Association by throwing out 13 runners attempting to steal. As Towson demonstrated in the conference tournament by walking her three times, she'll have to get used to being pitched around. As she demonstrated by hitting a home run in her only official at-bat that game, she'll probably be fine.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.