Texas Softball Head Coach Connie Clark at Red & Charline McCombs Field Friday April 7, 2017. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

BEVO BEAT Softball

Diamond Dust: Texas softball falls off the preseason radar (but maybe that’s a good thing)

Posted February 8th, 2018

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Texas softball is off most preseason radars.

The Longhorns, who went 33-26 last season, got a mere single point in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association/USA Today preseason poll. One point. That shouldn’t be that surprising considering UT hasn’t finished better than third in the Big 12 or made it out of regionals since 2013.

Big 12 coaches picked the Longhorns, who finished fourth in the Big 12 last year, to finish third place in 2018. Defending national champion Oklahoma and Baylor were picked first and second, respectively. Oddly, last year’s third-place team — Oklahoma State — was picked behind the Longhorns.

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Back to that preseason poll: Oklahoma took the top spot with 31 of 32 first-place votes. Baylor was ranked No. 10 and the Cowgirls came in at No. 24 to round out the Big 12 contingent.

National expectations are lower than normal for Connie Clark’s Longhorns, but it might be welcomed by Texas’ long-time coach. There’s just enough mystery surrounding the team that it may just actually be the best thing for a program that’s hoping to shake off the sixth-worst season in history.

Clark, who enters her 22nd year at UT, is rebuilding the majority of her infield with the exception of pitcher and catcher, which appears to be the deepest position on the roster.

Shortstop Devon Tunning, first baseman Kelli Hanzel and third baseman Celina Felix graduated while second baseman Jade Gortarez transferred to Arizona State. Look for a young lineup, especially in the infield.

Another question facing the Longhorns is whether or not utility player Reagan Hathaway can return to form after a season-ending ACL injury last April. Hathaway is fully recovered, but as with any serious injury it’s uncertain if she will return fully to the player she was before the injury. She had a .309 average as a freshman with seven doubles, five home runs and 30 RBIs.

Let’s play in some dirt.

Senior Randel Leahy adds depth to the catcher position, but will likely see a lot of action at third base, a position she played as a freshman, while Texas rebuilds its infield. PHOTO COURTESY OF TEXAS ATHLETICS

The starting lineup

What will the lineup look like as Texas opens the season this weekend with the Texas Classic?

The infield: As mentioned earlier, catcher is the deepest position on the roster. Sophomore Taylor Ellsworth is on the USA Softball collegiate player of the year watch list and Randel Leahy provides great backup. Hathaway is also listed as a catcher. Leahy, a senior, could start at third, which she played as a freshman. Junior transfer Ciera Schick (Arizona State) could end up at third while sophomores Kaitlyn Slack and Mallory Schattle will take over shortstop and first base, respectively.

Pitching rotation: Junior Erica Wright is the ace of this staff that features five pitchers. Senior Kristen Clark was a solid reliever as a junior and should continue that role. Senior Paige von Sprecken will likely be the No. 2 starter and junior Brooke Bolinger could work her way into the rotation.  Freshman Chloe Romero was a highly regarded recruit. Another freshman, Ariana Adams, provides another choice. Look for all five pitchers to see action this weekend.

Designated player: Hathaway should see most of her early action at this position should Clark want to slowly get her back into the outfield. Hathaway’s bat is valuable and she’s a solid No. 3 or No. 5 hitter. Leahy and Ellsworth also may see time as the DP as Clark figures out her infield.

Outfield: Transfer Ki’Audra Hayter (Butler Community College) may replace the graduated Stephanie Wong in left field. Sophomore Tuesday Dermagosian took over right field after Hathaway was injured and Kaitlyn Washington, a sophomore, also saw a lot of playing time. Junior Bekah Alcozer is also an option in the outfield or the designated player slot. She led the team with six home runs last season.

Junior Erica Wright will be Texas No. 1 pitcher in the starting rotation and will see plenty of action this weekend. CREDIT: Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

On deck

The Longhorns host the Texas Classic beginning Friday at McCombs Field.  The three-day tournament features Colorado State, Wisconsin and Incarnate Word. Texas went 2-2 in last year’s classic, defeating Colorado State and Maryland while losing twice to Minnesota. All games will be televised on the Longhorn Network. Here’s the Longhorns’ schedule:

Friday — vs. Incarnate Word, 4:30 p.m., vs. Wisconsin, 7 p.m.

Saturday — vs. Colorado State, 1 p.m., vs. Wisconsin 3:30 p.m.

Sunday — vs. Incarnate Word, 12:30 p.m.

Texas State senior pitcher Randi Rupp and the Bobcats open this season at with a chance to prove themselves against a ntaionally ranked opponent – No. 9 Florida State. CREDIT: Texas State athletics

Around the Horns

Taking a look at other top programs from the Big 12, state schools and UT opponents:

Texas A&M: The Aggies, ranked No. 6 in the NFCA/USA Today preseason poll, host the Aggie Classic this weekend and will play two games against Houston, two against Boston College and one against Texas Tech. A&M made it to the Women’s College World Series last year and has eliminated Texas in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two years. Samantha Show, along with Tori Vidales, Riley Sartain and Lexi Smith, return; the Aggies are expected to contend for the SEC championship and return to Oklahoma City in June.

Texas State: All-American pitcher Randi Rupp begins her senior season this weekend at the Bobcat Classic in San Marcos with an intriguing matchup against No. 9 Florida State. Rupp, also is on USA Softball’s player of the year watchlist. The Bobcats’ first game against FSU is Friday at 4. The Bobcats weren’t ranked but received the most amount of votes outside the top 25. It will be a Central Texas homecoming for Sam Houston State pitcher Lindsey McLeod, who set Westlake’s all-time strikeouts record in 2014.

Baylor: The 10th-ranked Bears open their season with a three-game home series against Northwestern State. Baylor reached the College World Series last year. Junior outfielder Kyla Walker was named to the watchlist for USA Softball’s player of the year award.

That’s all the dust for this week. As always, swing for the fences.

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