Top groups, POY picks and extra

The 2023 school softball season is in full swing, with two months till the NCAA match and the street to the Women’s College World Series start.

Oklahoma began its 2021 championship season with 33 straight wins earlier than struggling its first loss. Last yr, the Sooners began 38-0 earlier than struggling their first loss. There was no long-term undefeated run this yr, as Baylor handed the two-time defending champs their first loss 4-3 on Feb. 19, 9 video games into the season.

The Sooners have not misplaced since, highlighted by a 14-0 run-rule victory over UCLA on the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic on Feb. 26 in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Also excessive within the rankings are Oklahoma State, which took two of three video games this previous weekend vs. Florida State in a matchup of top-10 groups; Clemson, led by two-way star Valerie Cagle, who’s within the high 10 in batting common and ERA; and Tennessee, which has outscored opponents 183-12 this season.

We requested our school softball specialists what they’ve discovered throughout the first month of the season, who has impressed, who must step up and what they’re excited to see the remainder of the best way.

Which crew has impressed you probably the most thus far and why?

Jenny Dalton-Hill: I’ve been impressed by the consistency of UCLA. Everyone was trying on the matchup in opposition to Oklahoma after they struggled to attain and produce, and I feel some folks let that affect their opinion of UCLA. But figuring out Kelly Innouye-Perez and her teaching employees, this crew will win the Pac-12 and is a crew certain for Oklahoma City that can let the teachings discovered in Palm Springs direct their preparation.

Michele Smith: Stanford. The Cardinal are very gifted and are constructing off a terrific 2022 season with some wonderful freshmen stepping as much as assist them. Nijaree Canady, who hasn’t given up a run in 48 innings to begin her school profession, is popping heads within the circle.

Amanda Scarborough: Tennessee. They have quietly flown beneath the radar, however particularly, their pitching employees and Kiki Milloy have impressed me probably the most. They have a crew ERA properly beneath 1.00, which is simply unprecedented, and Milloy is likely one of the finest gamers within the nation who would not get the eye she deserves!

Madison Shipman: I’m going to go together with the apparent reply right here and say the Oklahoma Sooners. They’re a crew that has confronted a troublesome schedule to begin the season and have proven that they will beat the highest competitors. They have the depth and are hitting their stride heading into convention play.

Jen Schroeder: Tennessee is a crew that has impressed me this yr. Kiki Milloy is likely one of the finest all-around gamers within the nation, and their pitching employees has been lights out. I’m excited to look at them compete in convention play.

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No. 5 Tennessee’s pitching on the cash vs. Ole Miss

The Lady Vols maintain the Rebels to a complete of 4 hits over two video games mixed whereas sweeping the SEC doubleheader by the scores of 1-0 and 8-2.


Which crew is that this season’s greatest shock thus far and why?

Dalton-Hill: Baylor was not on my radar to begin the season, however this group has proven up in an enormous method. The Bears grabbed headlines after they knocked off Oklahoma in February and gained 18 of their first 20 video games to begin the season (earlier than back-to-back losses final weekend). Between them, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, there may be a lot expertise within the Big 12 this season.

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Smith: Tennessee is my greatest shock crew. The Lady Vols are all the time good, however they only have a unique really feel about them this yr. They are doing a terrific job in each side of the sport — they’re pitching properly, enjoying nice protection and hitting the ball with plenty of energy, in addition to common. Their greatest check lies forward with SEC play beginning.

Scarborough: Kentucky is a crew that is turning heads and is enjoying constantly properly, particularly with the performances their ace pitcher Stephanie Schoonover has put collectively. Every time you look, she’s having a double-digit strikeout efficiency in opposition to high quality competitors. She has emerged this season as one of many high pitchers within the nation and provides Kentucky a dominant, shut-down power within the circle, which has been a lacking piece for them the previous few seasons.

Shipman: LSU has shocked me in a great way this yr. They are a crew that has flown beneath the radar, and I like their mixture of velocity and energy on the plate. Upperclassmen like Danieca Coffey, Ciara Briggs and Taylor Pleasants have had a terrific begin to the season with their bats. The Tigers even have a pleasant mixture of youth and veterans within the circle.

Schroeder: So many nice mentions above, however I’m going to suppose somewhat extra out of the field and say Cal State Fullerton. They’ve had some actually massive wins: Florida, Tennessee, Oregon and Ole Miss, to call a number of, however in addition they have some actually complicated losses. I’m excited to see if they will make a postseason run.


Who is your Player of the Year decide as of now and why?

Dalton-Hill: I all the time cheer for a place participant to win this. Pitchers are the quarterback, and quite a bit rides on their shoulders, however present me a center infielder that may rake or a catcher that hits bombs. That fires me up. That mentioned, a dominant pitcher who can mild it up within the batter’s field is somebody I can get behind. That participant for me is Valerie Cagle. I feel Clemson has performed a reasonably mild pre-ACC schedule, however Cagle is hitting .525 with eight house runs and two stolen bases. Plus, she has thrown 67.1 innings with a 0.62 ERA and 82 strikeouts to only 9 walks. She’s the true deal, and if Clemson could make it far within the postseason, she might be a serious cause why.

Smith: Going together with my greatest shock crew in Tennessee, I’d need to say Kiki Malloy. Not solely is she hitting over .500, however she additionally has energy as one of many high house run hitters within the nation. There is not only one standout Player of the Year decide this yr, and I feel it’s going to be a battle determined by whoever leads their groups to the Women’s College World Series.

Scarborough: The numbers Cagle has put up this season are actually particular. Up thus far, Clemson has solely misplaced one recreation, and so they have a deep, gifted and skilled crew. However, while you have a look at the pitching and hitting stats that Cagle has put collectively, nobody on her crew, within the ACC or within the nation, is doing what she is doing. She is wholesome, thriving and decided and the perfect two-way participant proper now. When you hit and pitch the best way she has, it has Player of the Year written throughout it.

Shipman: Kiki Milloy is likely one of the most dynamic gamers within the recreation. She has been practically unstoppable on the plate this season, has constant energy to all fields and has unbelievable vary within the outfield. She can be a game-changer on the bottom paths. Milloy is a type of gamers that turns heads each time she steps on the sphere.

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Schroeder: What Kiki Milloy has executed on the plate this season is unbelievable, but I by some means really feel like she by no means will get the credit score she deserves. She’s hitting over .500, has been extremely clutch and has been main her crew on each offense and protection. However, having adopted this award for fairly a while, it could not shock me to see a hitting pitcher like Valerie Cagle win.


Which crew must step up as convention play nears and why?

Dalton-Hill: I interpret this query much less about which groups want to begin profitable to present themselves a shot on the playoffs and extra about which coaches have to step up and win to avoid wasting their jobs. We are in an age when coaches are retained based mostly on wins and losses, and there are some wonderful coaches who’ve data that do not scream longevity.

Smith: I feel Northwestern must step up somewhat bit extra. The Wildcats are a gifted crew with Women’s College World Series expertise from final yr, however they’ve appeared to stub their toe a bit at 9-7 earlier than convention play begins. I feel they’ve what it takes to show it round and have a superb run within the Big Ten.

Scarborough: In a yr with a lot parity and so many early pre-conference losses everywhere in the nation, that is robust to reply. With Arkansas having such massive years the previous couple of years, the expectations are so excessive for the Hogs with such a younger, gifted crew since a lot of their offense graduated from final yr. After dropping to Central Arkansas and dropping the sequence to Texas A&M multi function week, the subsequent upcoming convention sequence could possibly be an enormous turning level for the defending SEC Champs.

Shipman: My thoughts goes to UCLA once I take into consideration a crew that should step up in convention play. There’s little question that the purpose for UCLA is to win a nationwide championship this season. They have established themselves as one of many high groups within the nation, however with some current run-rule losses, I feel they may use convention play to get again to their early season kind to make a run on the championship.

Schroeder: For me, it is Alabama. They’ve had early losses to unranked groups and have proven weaknesses on protection. If they need to host a Super Regional this postseason, they should decide up their play in convention.


Which participant do you suppose will get away over the subsequent two months and why?

Dalton-Hill: Tiare Jennings has been a power on Oklahoma’s crew for 2 years however was overshadowed by the unbelievable expertise of Jocelyn Alo. I’m an enormous Jennings fan. I really like the best way she performs the sport, however she has had a gradual begin to her energy numbers this season. She is hitting properly above .400, however in earlier seasons her house run numbers had been near matching Alo’s. She hit 29 her freshman yr and 27 a season in the past; she has simply three thus far this season. Jennings is a superb participant that can discover her stride, and when she does, look out.

Smith: Going together with the query above, I feel Danielle Williams goes to get again within the groove and lead Northwestern. Her ERA is somewhat elevated proper now. If she will get her spin again and hit her places, she’ll be the Williams we noticed final yr that led her crew to the Women’s College World Series.

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Scarborough: Texas freshman Leighann Goode. She’s already off to a robust begin in her first month of enjoying Division I softball, however I actually really feel you begin to expand noise while you start convention play and have massive video games in opposition to rival faculties. She is an incredible athlete, hits for energy to all components of the sphere, runs bases properly and is the leadoff hitter/second baseman for Texas, which is massive footwear to fill contemplating she is taking the place of four-time All-American Janae Jefferson, who graduated final yr.

Shipman: Hannah Gammill is coming off a outstanding 2022 All-American season. After graduating a number of seniors from final yr’s crew, Gammill is the participant opponents circle after they play Arkansas. We noticed final yr the consistency and energy she introduced up on the plate, and I feel she’s a participant that has the flexibility to show this season round over the subsequent two months.

Schroeder: I’ve two: 1) Savannah Pola from UCLA was a top-25 Freshman of the Year finalist a season in the past — she’s hitting .410 however has been overshadowed by Maya Brady and Megan Grant — because the Bruins get into robust Pac-12 matchups, I have a look at her to be the difference-maker. 2) Kinzie Hansen of Oklahoma. Days earlier than the season, she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgical procedure and did not compete till the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic — as she will get extra comfy within the field, I solely see her success skyrocketing.


What is the most important storyline to look at over the remainder of the season?

Dalton-Hill: I might go together with the apparent one: Can Oklahoma three-peat? But one other factor I’m watching is using the slapper and the quick recreation. There are people who say the quick recreation is lifeless, however I firmly imagine in its potential. So many groups reside by the lengthy ball, however the desk setters are such a beneficial piece of the sport. When a hitter comes up with geese on the pond, the pendulum can swing rapidly in a unique route with one massive hit. Solo pictures aren’t as pivotal, so the velocity and abilities of slappers are key for me.

Smith: This excellent class of freshmen is making huge impacts on their groups and conferences. It’s unbelievable to see their confidence, their expertise and the extent of play in how they contribute to their crew’s successes and lead them.

Scarborough: How coaches use their ace pitcher for the remainder of the season. We are seeing many ace pitchers pitch a LOT of innings early on within the season, and it is one thing to look at how coaches handle them, their endurance, fatigue and what number of greater alternatives they do (or do not) give the remainder of their pitching employees. It appears it has been a pattern thus far to rely closely in your ace to begin a number of video games inside per week and be the go-to in reduction and closing-type conditions.

Shipman: In a season the place groups are trending in direction of having a whole bullpen of various arms to throw at opponents, will it nonetheless be that one dominant strikeout pitcher that may carry their crew to Oklahoma City? Or will they proceed to throw a number of pitchers all through the postseason?

Schroeder: For me, it is that you just can not win with only one ace and also you want a employees. Can the likes of Alabama and Montana Fouts show me mistaken?