The 2017 softball season got underway Wednesday as several colleges, including Texas, begin practice.
Expectations are high for the Longhorns, who were picked by Big 12 coaches to finish second in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll.
But expectations are high every season. Texas, however, hasn’t advanced past regionals in each of the past three seasons and has finished third in the Big 12 each year.
So why should fans expect something different?
One word: Experience. The Longhorns have it, and a lot of it.
There are seven seniors and three juniors, all of whom have played significant roles the last two seasons. Texas could be primed and ready for a return to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla. in June, but there’s a long season ahead.
Let’s play in some dirt.
In the circle: Texas coach Connie Clark heads into her 21st season with arguably her best pitching staff since Blaire Luna starred for the Longhorns three years ago. The expected return of pitching ace Erica Wright means the Longhorns will be at full strength on the mound. Getting the right-hander, a redshirt sophomore who missed all last season with a rib injury, is great news for Texas. The Longhorns should have their best depth at pitcher in recent memory; left-hander Tiarra Davis — the 2014 Big 12 freshman of the year who won 23 games last season — gives Texas a one-two punch.
And the bullpen is loaded. Juniors Paige von Sprecken, who also can serve as a third option as a starter, and Kristen Clark provide solid backup.
At the plate: If you like home runs, Texas’ lineup is loaded with power. It starts with senior infielder Celina Felix and sophomore outfielder Reagan Hathaway, who combined for 13 of Texas’ 43 home runs last season. First baseman Kelli Hanzel, catcher Randel Leahy, outfielder Taylor McAllister and designated player Mickenzi Krpec are also home run threats too.
The schedule: The road to Oklahoma City is likely going to offer up its share of bumps. Texas’ schedule would be considered the equivalent of facing the gauntlet of the SEC West in football, only over 50 games. It features national powerhouses Notre Dame (Feb. 23), Tennessee (Feb. 25) and Arizona State (Feb. 25) at the Mary Nutter Classic in California, a three-game series at Arizona (March 3-5) and at 2016 CWS team UCLA (March 12), a home-and-home series with 2016 regional finalist Texas State (March 1 at home and April 5 in San Marcos), a home double-header against Houston (April 2), and conference series with defending national champion Oklahoma (April 7-9 at McCombs Field), Kansas (April 28-30 in Lawrence) and Baylor (May 5 in Waco, May 6-7 in Austin).
Extra bases: In case you missed it, former Longhorn Megan Willis was named the assistant general manager for the USSSA Florida Pride of the National Pro Fastpitch league in December. It’s an historic moment for the sport, NPF and Willis, who was Cat Osterman’s long-time catcher at Texas and professionally. She became the first former NPF player to take on an assistant general manager’s role for USSSA.
Know your Longhorns: Each week, we’ll take a look at a player on the Longhorns’ roster. This week it’s junior catcher Randel Leahy (@DJRandelRan). I asked her once how she got that “DJ” nickname and she told me her friends gave it to her because she always wanted to control the music in the car. Leahy has an All-American pedigree, but has yet to reach that potential here. She was a MaxPreps Underclass All-American in 2012 as a sophomore at Corona (Calif.) Santiago High School, where she hit .392 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs. As a freshman at Texas in 2015, she started 42 games and made the All-Big 12 freshman team. Injuries derailed her sophomore season, as she had only 13 starts, but should return to her starter’s role this season as well as playing some at third base.
Trivia: Texas has had 11 NFCA All-Americans, but only two players have earned that honor more than twice. One of them is pretty obvious — Osterman, who’s a four-time All-American. But can you name the other one? (Hint: She’s a Central Texas native) Check back next week for the answer.
As always, swing for the fences.
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