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Does defense have to win championships? Hot-hitting Texas softball is about to find out

Texas is one of the nation's top hitting teams, ranking No. 2 in the country in batting average and No. 8 in scoring, but has struggled defensively. The Longhorns rank 217th nationally in fielding percentage.

If there's such a thing as a championship checklist, Texas heads into the NCAA softball tournament with several items already scratched off.

Among 285 Division I teams, Texas ranks No. 2 in batting average (.351) and No. 8 in scoring (6.8 runs per game). Sophomore pitcher Shea O'Leary, who led the country in ERA two years ago, is an all-conference honoree.

The Longhorns also aren't lacking in postseason experience. Colleen Sullivan started for UCLA's title team in 2019. That same season, Texas got as far as the super regionals, and UT starters Lauren Burke, Mary Iakopo and Shannon Rhodes also previously reached the Women's College World Series with Oregon.

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That really just leaves one question: Can Texas win with its defense?

Defense has been a sore thumb for the Longhorns, who are preparing to host Oregon, Texas State and Saint Francis in an NCAA regional beginning Friday. UT's .953 fielding percentage ranks 217th nationally.

"Our defense, we still have some issues there," Texas coach Mike White said. "Hopefully we can string hits together and take care of that."

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Of the 64 teams that qualified for the postseason, only two have a worse fielding percentage. Only four tournament teams — Mississippi State, Georgia, Alabama State and Kennesaw State -— have committed more errors. 

Texas is 39-11, and in nine of those 11 losses the Longhorns committed at least two errors. They have made it through without an error in the field only twice in their last 17 games.

Texas dropped its Big 12 Tournament opener last week 3-2 against No. 9 Oklahoma State in extra innings. The game was decided when an errant throw by Iakopo, who was playing catcher, allowed Oklahoma State to score the winning run

Texas shortstop McKenzie Parker throws to first base during a game against Oklahoma State on May 1. The Longhorns begin their NCAA postseason run this weekend by hosting the Austin Regional.

That error led to a hard-luck loss for O'Leary, who pitched an 8 2/3-inning gem. Eleven unearned runs have been scored this year against O'Leary, but she expressed faith in her defense this week.

"If I make a mistake, I know they have my back," O'Leary said. "If they make a mistake, I'm going to have theirs."

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After White was hired three years ago, he told his new players that "I’m about offense." He wanted Texas to grab early leads. That meant placing the best bats in his starting lineup, not the best gloves.

White's message was clear. As former UT infielder Malory Schattle put it, who plays “basically depends on who’s really hitting well that day.”

Years later, White was asked if that offense-first philosophy has changed. He said the defense does need to take some pressure off the offense. Helping that goal is a rule that allows a player to reenter the game after being pinch-hit for.

"I think we've evolved to this combination of best of both. You've got to have some offense, and you've got to have some, obviously, defense," White said. "If say, (third baseman Camille) Corona's not hitting the ball today, I can always bring someone in to pinch-hit for her and then put Corona back in."

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The old adage says that defense wins championships. Recently, that has certainly been the case in college softball.

Seven of the last nine national champions had a top-10 fielding percentage. UCLA ranked 20th in 2019. Alabama was the true outlier, as its defense finished 102nd in 2012.

Of the 72 teams that have qualified for the past nine Women's College World Series, 36% had a top-10 fielding percentage. Of those 72 teams, 39 had a top-25 defense, 53 recorded top-50 numbers and 65 boasted top-100 fielding percentages. Only LSU, which had the 157th-best fielding percentage in 2016, and an Oregon team coached by White, which was 195th in 2012, ranked outside the top 150.