Texas's head coach Connie Clark embraces players after beating Florida State during game two of their NCAA Super Regional in Austin, Texas on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Clark is in the final year of her contract this season. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

BEVO BEAT Softball

Diamond Dust: Our five questions for Texas softball in 2018 — revisited

The Longhorns open their season on Feb. 9 but face uncertainties at pitcher and in the infield.

Posted January 19th, 2018

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Texas softball began practicing on Jan. 10; the Longhorns are eager to forget last year’s 33-26 season, the sixth-worst in the program’s 21-year history.

Texas will have a much different look than in previous seasons, especially in the infield:

  • The Longhorns graduated seven seniors; infielder Jade Gortarez transferred to Arizona State in the offseason.
  • The roster departures equate to 80 percent of Texas’ starting infield from last season. Also gone are ace pitcher and utility player Tiarra Davis and  outfielder Stephanie Wong, who was a slap bunt specialist with a .388 on-base percentage and was second on the team with 36 runs.
  • While 2018 looks like a rebuilding year, there could be a few surprises. Keep an eye on freshman pitcher Chloe Romero. The California right-hander was ranked No. 20 on FloSoftball’s Hot 100 list for the class of 2017. She threw seven no-hitters, including two perfect games, in her final high school season. And joining her on Texas’ already-deep pitching staff is Ariana Adams, a right-hander from Magnolia West.
  • Texas added transfers Ciera Schick (Arizona State) and Ki’Aundra Hayter (Butler Community College) to help the rebuilding efforts for the infield along with freshman Janae Jefferson.

RELATED: Five early predictions for the 2018 season.

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At the end of last May, we asked five questions facing Texas softball in offseason and in 2018. Revisting those:

1. Will head coach Connie Clark return? 

Then: It was uncertain whether Clark would return for her 22nd season after Texas fell in the 2017 regionals. She’s the only coach Texas softball has ever known, having been with the Longhorns since their first year as a club team in 1996. She has 807 career victories and boasts a .698 winning percentage at UT, including five World Series appearances. However, Texas hasn’t finished better than third in the Big 12 or made it out of regionals the last four years.

Now: Clark has returned, but 2018 may be her final season. She’s in the final year of her contract and with a new athletic director in charge, changes could be coming if Texas doesn’t turn things around this season.

2. Will Texas shake off its disappointing 2017?

Then: There was so much promise for the 2017 season, but very little results and a struggle to find an identity. A strong start with four straight wins at the Mary Nutter Classic in late February — including victories over Notre Dame, No. 20 Missouri and No. 15 Tennessee — was negated with six straight losses and going 7-9 March, including a three-game series sweep by Oklahoma State to open Big 12 play. The Longhorns started 0-6 in conference for the first time since 2004.

Now: This remains to be seen, but stay tuned. We should know more by March 1.

Erica Wright winds up for a pitch at Red & Charline McCombs Field on Friday April 7, 2017. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

3. Will Erica Wright return to her freshman form?

Then: After missing the 2016 season with a rib injury, Wright returned as one of the Longhorns’ top pitchers. She slowly improved and went 8-7 with a 1.69 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 116 innings. She had seven complete games and six shutouts. Her ERA was an improvement from her freshman year in 2015, but she also pitched fewer innings and had fewer appearances. With Davis no longer in the rotation, Wright, who’ll be a junior, will likely be Texas’ go-to pitcher.

Now: This is a wait-and-see. Wright has a huge upside and when she’s on, she’s really good.

Texas freshman Taylor Ellsworth gets a hit in a recent game. The Georgetown native is currently the team’s leading hitter with a …. CREDIT: Texas athletics

4. Will the sophomore curse continue?

Then: Besides Wright in 2016, Davis suffered an injury her sophomore year that forced her to the dugout for most of the 2015 season, one year after earning Big 12 freshman of the year honors. Outfielder/catcher Reagan Hathaway, a sophomore last season, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in 2017 after a stellar freshman season that saw her lead all UT freshmen with a .309 average, five home runs, seven doubles and 30 RBIs. Will the sophomore curse continue?

Now: History isn’t on the Longhorns’ side, but so far, so good. Someone should probably put sophomore catcher Taylor Ellsworth, who led the team with a .394 batting average during her freshman season, in a bubble.

5. Who’s the next freshman phenom?  

Then: Texas has four incoming freshmen. Keep an eye on Romero. The pitcher could take some of the pressure off Wright and Paige von Sprecken to carry the load on this pitching staff. In one of her perfect games this spring, Romero also hit for the cycle. She could make an immediate impact on what potentially may be a pretty solid lineup.

Now: Another wait-and-see, but Romero looks promising and has a huge upside in the fact that she’s a solid hitter, too.

That’s all the dust for now. Check back next week as we preview Texas’ season and take a look at other area college softball programs to keep an eye on.

Until then, swing for the fences.

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