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'Who's willing to fill those big shoes?' Texas' post-Elish era starts with arms aplenty

Texas pitcher Miranda Elish was Softball America's national player of the year last season when she went 11-3, beat No. 1 UCLA on the road and pitched a perfect game against New Mexico. But she has opted to not play her final season this spring, citing concerns over the pandemic.

Texas softball coach Mike White still has a decision to make.

The Longhorns, ranked sixth in the NFCA's preseason Top 25 poll, opens its season Thursday at home against No. 3 Arizona. Texas boasts veterans at many key positions and freshman Alyssa Washington at shortstop.

Now, who'll throw the first pitch of the season? During Tuesday's press conference, White couldn't say for certain.

If he wants to go with a right-hander, third-year sophomore Shea O'Leary will be the pick. Molly Jacobsen, a graduate transfer from Ole Miss, will get the call if White prefers a southpaw.

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As recently as a month ago, Miranda Elish was the clear-cut choice to start opening day. She's one of the best players to ever don a Texas uniform. But she won't pitch this spring; Elish, citing concerns over the pandemic, has opted out of the season.

"Now we've got to move on," White said. "I'm excited about the pitching staff we have in place."

Texas coach Mike White talks to his players during a 2019 Austin Regional game against Houston. The Longhorns were 24-3, including wins over No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Washington, when the 2020 season was called. Texas is ranked No. 6 in the country this season.

Last year, Softball America hailed Elish as the national player of the year in the shortened season. She compiled an 11-3 record with 96 strikeouts and a 1.25 ERA when the season was called. She had beaten No. 1 UCLA on the road and threw a perfect game against New Mexico in what turned out to be her final appearance.

Since Elish was a senior in 2020, the ending to her book at Texas should have been the pop-up out to Shannon Rhodes that capped her perfect game. But Elish publicly campaigned for the NCAA to give its athletes back the year of eligibility they had lost. She later tweeted that she'd return to Texas for "ONE MORE YEAR WITH MY GIRLS!!"

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But somewhere between that tweet and Texas' first practice, Elish's enthusiasm waned. She announced that she was opting out on Jan. 15. White said she had spent the fall recovering from a foot injury and had become hesitant about playing this spring.

White wished Elish, whom he also coached at Oregon, the best but said the Longhorns eventually needed to know if "you're in or you're out." Elish decided she was out.

"I was a little shocked and hurt, but I always want to support her," senior outfielder Kaitlyn Washington recently told the American-Statesman.

Texas catcher Mary Iakopo, center, shares a light moment with teammates before a 2019 game. The veteran catcher will be dealing with a new starting pitcher this season with Miranda Elish's decision to opt out. "It truly makes it a team effort for our bullpen," Iakopo said. "Who's willing to fill those big shoes?"

The loss of Elish leaves Texas without an ace. The Longhorns, however, still have an arsenal of available arms.

As a freshman in 2019, O'Leary led the country with her 0.65 ERA and threw a perfect game against Baylor. She went through a bit of a sophomore slump but still was 6-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 2020.

Jacobsen was the 2018 NJCAA Division II pitcher of the year while at Des Moines Area Community College. She spent the last two years at Ole Miss, where she earned all-conference honors in 2019. While at Ole Miss, Jacobsen threw three times against Texas. She allowed six runs over those 12.2 innings against UT's high-octane offense.

Texas also has a promising prospect in Ryleigh White, a right-handed freshman who was a top-20 signee in 2020. Courtney Day was 5-0 for the Longhorns last season. Junior Ariana Adams has pitched in 24 career games.

"I think it just makes it so that not one person gets the load that she got last year," catcher Mary Iakopo said. "It truly makes it a team effort for our bullpen. Who's willing to fill those big shoes? I'm really happy with how well our pitchers have done with the adversity they've faced this year."

Texas needed just one pitcher in 16 of its 27 games last season. White hinted that fans will see fewer complete games this spring.

White, however, has been known to rely on the hot hand. At the 2019 Austin Regional, Elish threw 429 pitches and never left the circle as UT won four times in a two-day span. White says he will continue to "coach with my gut" when it comes to determining workloads.

"Who's to say that Ryleigh White doesn't end up (being the workhorse)? Or Shea O'Leary doesn't end up that way? I'm not going to fight it," White said. "They're going to take the ball until they show me that we need to make a change."

Texas pitchers will face a season-opening trial by fire. In addition to the opener against Arizona, Texas will twice play No. 8 Alabama at McCombs Field this weekend. Contests against Colorado State and Sam Houston State are also on the schedule. 

Texas itself is coming off a season in which it went 24-3. In addition to the win over UCLA, Texas beat No. 2 Washington and upended ranked Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee teams. This year, UT returns eight of the 10 players who logged at least 40 at-bats for an offense that led the nation with a .376 batting average. 

"It was pretty magical last year," Iakopo said. "I think the potential that team had, everyone saw it and everyone believed in it. That's something that we hold onto looking forward to this season."