Team that might surprise us all: Kentucky
(Rachel Lawson is putting together a great program in Lexington, and last season's Super-Regional finish was a sign of great things to come. The Wildcats hosted a Regional round and went 3-1 to earn the right to head to Tempe, AZ and face off against the Sun Devils of ASU. Despite two straight losses that eliminated them from the tournament, the Wildcats certainly put up a fight, putting together six runs on a solid Devils pitching staff. Kelsey Nunley came out of the gate and wowed everybody, on her way to an all-conference freshman team nod and the school record for victories. She finished in the top ten in virtually every pitching category in the SEC, no small feat. Although opposing offenses have had the opportunity to "get to know" her a bit now, I don't think it will impact her productivity and dominance very much at all. On the offensive side for the Wildcats, Lauren Cumbess led the Wildcats in virtually every category last season, and I expect her to do the same this season. When I've had the opportunity to watch Cumbess, I was very impressed... as a senior who pitches, hits, and plays defense, she'll be an invaluable team leader this season. I look for the Wildcats to make a major play both in-conference and in the NCAA tournament this season.)
Team that might disappoint us all: Alabama
(Following their 2012 championship and the graduation of five starters that same year, the wheels came off the Tide wagon in 2013. Twelve losses in conference play left the Crimson Tide having to play-in to the SEC tournament, and although they swept their hosted regional, they were eliminated in back-to-back losses in the Super Regional round. When a top-notch program like Alabama is a relative non-factor in the conference tournament, and then receives an unceremonious, unusually-early exit from the NCAA tournament, it's not good. Even with All-American Jackie Traina in her swan song, I predict much of the same again this year. The SEC is getting better and better every year and the competition is becoming much more level. Despite an excellent freshman class, and while I believe they'll be an excellent team during the season, I again do not expect the Crimson Tide to be a postseason factor.)
Player of the Year: Madison Shipman, Tennessee
Pitcher of the Year: Hannah Rogers, Florida
Coach of the Year: Tim Walton, Florida
Conference Champs: Florida Gators
Players to Watch:
Katie Browne, Georgia – Browne took over the catcher's mask from all-American Kristyn Sandberg, leaving her with huge shoes to fill. She did an excellent job, hitting .251 with five roundtrippers while also starting every game for the Dawgs. Lu Harris-Champer could really use an offensive star this season, and I think Browne fits that bill perfectly. I don't think a .275/12/40 line is out of her reach by any means.
Sierra Bronkey, Arkansas – Every team has their "unsung hero", and Bronkey filled that role for the Razorbacks in 2013. Mike Larrabee's team showed that they're not going to roll over for their usually-superior SEC opponents. While pitching stud Kimmy Beasley and offensive explosions like Devon Wallace and Nicole Schroeder get a lot of the attention, Bronkey quietly does a little bit of everything to help the team. Hitting in any spot up and down the lineup, laying down sacrifices or driving in runs, whatever Larrabee called on her to do, Bronkey did it. If the Razorbacks are really on the way up on the National scene (and I believe they are), players like Bronkey are going to be invaluable to get that started in Fayetteville.
Kelsea Roth, Missouri – Another in the 2013 "unsung hero" category, Roth got off to an incredibly-hot start last season, including a day in mid-February when she hit three home runs against two different opponents. She kept up the pace all season long, finishing the campaign with a .304 batting average; 0.696 slugging percentage; and 16 home runs. I certainly expect her to match those numbers this season, if not exceed them. I fully expect some all-conference first-team hardware to be added to Roth's trophy case following this season.
Rainey Gaffin, Tennessee - Gaffin did a little bit of everything in her freshman campaign... she hit in several spots up and down the lineup and started and filled in in different positions across the outfield. Her versatility was invaluable, and will continue to be a bright spot for the Weekly's program. There's talk she could see time at pitcher this season (a position she absolutely dominated during her high school years), adding another stellar arm to the pitching staff and potentially giving bonafide ace Ellen Renfroe a break on occasion. Gaffin should be an everyday starter at one position or another, and I expect her to make the most of the opportunity. A .300/10/35 offensive line seems like a reasonable expectation.
Madison Shipman, Tennessee – I didn’t have Shipman on this list when I first wrote it out, but after some deliberation I decided to add her because I believe she is the key to any kind of success or failure Tennessee will have this year. While players like Gaffin & Cheyanne Tarango will be factors, as will the Lady Vols’ pitching staff, Shipman without a doubt swings the most dangerous bat in the lineup and will be the leader of the defense, as well... she has time and again shown herself capable of Derek Jeter-esque defensive plays, but her offensive production & timely hits will need to be consistent if she’s going to lead the Lady Vols back to Oklahoma City.
Conference Projection (top eight teams only):
8. South Carolina