Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 Big 12 Softball Forecast

Team that might disappoint us all: Kansas
(First, the good: Kelsey Kessler & Alicia Pille both had impressive seasons a year ago, in their freshman & sophomore campaigns, respectively. They will anchor Megan Smith's rotation, and give her some confidence that her squad is in a good position to win pitching-wise, each and every game. Now for the bad: The Jayhawks' top hitters from last season, including All-American Maggie Hull (graduation); Mariah Montgomery (graduation); & their #1 power threat Alex Hugo (transfer), are no longer with the program. Anytime you lose your top three hitters and your two best run producers, it can be very hard to continue to consistently play at the same level as you have been with those players on your squad.)

Team that might disappoint us all: Texas
(I'm not sure there really is ANY good news in Austin right now. After a graduation class last season that took their ace hurler Blaire Luna; All-American slugger Taylor Hoagland; and expert do-it-all'er Kim Bruins, Connie Clark might just be in some trouble. Her offense still boasts the likes of Taylor Thom and Mandy Ogle, but I was very unimpressed with the pitching efforts during the fall ball games. They performed pretty well as far as results, but there were several instances when I saw things that gave me cause for concern this season. I was wrong with my prediction of the Longhorns' 2013 season (I actually picked them in this spot last year, and we all know how that worked out), but with the losses they endured following last season, I do not expect to see a WCWS repeat from the Longhorns.

Softball fans got used to seeing a lot of smiling faces in
Norman over the last few years. Even with some key departures,
expect that to continue this season.
Player of the Year: Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma
Pitcher of the Year: Whitney Canion, Baylor
Coach of the Year: Patty Gasso, Oklahoma

Conference Champs: Oklahoma Sooners

Players to Watch:
Heather Stearns, Baylor – It's almost an even draw between Stearns and Kessler (discussed more just below) as to who had the better freshman season in 2013. For Stearns' part, she boasted a 2.11 ERA and an opponent's batting average of .207. She put up an exact 6/1 SO/BB ratio (an insane number), and less than 25% of the hits she *did* allow went for extra bases. Do not be surprised if Stearns' statistics closely match those of Canion, her experienced counterpart, throughout the year.

Kelsey Kessler, Kansas – Fully realizing that I just predicted the Jayhawks to be a "disappointing" team, this is also a conference that could easily be up for grabs. If the Jayhawks are to challenge for the conference crown, Kessler is going to be a big part of any kind of title-run. As a freshman (a freshman!) she had the most in-conference wins for a KU pitcher since 2001; no-hit Texas Tech; and, perhaps most impressive of all, threw a complete-game shutout against the Sooners from Norman. I don't believe her overall W-L record gives an accurate depiction of her talents. I think she'll be even better in-conference this year, and could be looking at some all-conference honors after the season.

Brittany Williams, Oklahoma – Keilani Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain, Brianna Turang, and Michelle Gascoigne were rightfully the focus of much of the attention during OU's championship run last season. But possibly the greatest reason Patty Gasso's team was so successful in 2013 was her lineup's consistent run production and quality at-bats from 1-9 in the batting order. With the loss of Ricketts, Turang, Gascoigne, and Jessica Shults to graduation, Gasso will turn to Williams to be a big part of any kind of championship run. Now a senior herself, she'll be counted on to be the big slugger on the squad, driving in runs from the the 3- or 4-hole. Lauren Chamberlain can't do it all herself (although I'm not convinced she can't come mighty close), and Gasso will depend on Williams to provide a power bat in the middle of the order.

Conference Projection:
1. Oklahoma
2. Baylor
3. Oklahoma State
4. Kansas
5. Texas
6. Texas Tech
7. Iowa State

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