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Friday, January 16, 2015

Big 12 Conference Forecast

Team that will surprise: Texas
     I picked Texas as the disappointment in 2014, and they fulfilled my expectations, finishing the year third in the conference and going home from the Lafayette regional. This year, they hope to make it 2/2 in fulfilling my predictions for their squad. Despite the departures of two of their top offensive players in Brejae Washington & Taylor Thom, I expect the Longhorns to contend. With OU & the Bears from Waco firmly entrenched atop the conference, it may be a while yet before Connie Clark takes home another Big 12 crown, but her squad could play spoiler this season and upset the apple cart a time or two. Lindsey Stephens is still just a junior, and Gabby Smith and Tiarra Davis are back in the circle; watch out for the ‘Horns.

Team that will disappoint: Baylor

     The Bears lost the without-question ace of their staff with the graduation of Whitney Canion. Thanks to a couple of redshirts, she spent six years in the Baylor dugout, so it will be weird seeing the Bears without her. That said, she wasn’t the only major loss the Bears endured. Starting catcher Clare Hosack graduated to a volunteer assistant position, and starting first baseman Holly Holl is gone, as well. All three spots will have to be filled in the lineup. The pitching is definitely a question, as three first-year Bears will have to pick up the slack in the circle, since Heather Stearns can’t do it all herself. Jordan Strickland & Linsey Hays both return, two slugging offensive stars that continue to put fear in opposing pitchers.

Player of the Year: Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma

Pitcher of the Year: Kelsey Stevens, Oklahoma
Coach of the Year: Patty Gasso, Oklahoma

Conference Champs: Oklahoma

Top WCWS Contender: Oklahoma
     (The Sooners took home the title in 2013 and returned to Oklahoma City last year, though they didn’t make it to Sunday this go-around. Patty Gasso’s lineup is deep, and with Lauren Chamberlain presumably healthy, the Sooners offense is once again one that no pitcher wants to face. The prospect of facing Georgia Casey, Shelby Pendley, and Lauren Chamberlain in the same inning is enough to put a bit of timidity into the best hurler. Kelsey Stevens will anchor the pitching staff once again, and the Sooners have a legitimate shot at another title in 2015. )

Players to Watch:
- Heather Stearns, Baylor – With the departure of Canion, Stearns is without a single doubt the Bears’ staff ace. Still a junior, she owns a 2.09 career ERA and opponents hit just .225 against her. She doesn’t give up a lot of extra base hits, just eighteen that went for more than two bases thus-far in her career. 200+ innings may be a difficult reach for a player whose career top at this point is roughly just 120, but if she can do it and establish herself as a workhorse, it will be of great benefit to the Bears’ postseason opportunities.

- Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma – Will we see the old Lauren Chamberlain return in 2015? That’s the question of the hour. Prior to an injury-shortened 2014 campaign, Chamberlain had clubbed 60 home runs; hit .408; and looked to be on her way to being mentioned among the all-time greats of the game. That still may be the case, if no lingering effects from the afore-mentioned injury remain. She’s eighteen roundtrippers away from the record, and has a good chance of hitting it if she’s healthy for a full year. Without a doubt the most talented player in the nation, she’s worth watching to say the very least.

- Alicia Pille, Kansas – Kelsey Kessler is now a Sun Devil down in Tempe, so it falls to Pille to lead the way in picking up the work she leaves in her stead. The other four pitchers on staff have a total of forty-five career Division 1 career appearances between them, and all but eleven of those belong to junior transfer Monique Wesley. Pille is a solid player and needs to prove herself worthy of both the title of “ace” and the workload she may have to handle.

- Lindsey Stephens, Texas – Stephens’ stellar 2014 campaign earned her an invite to Team USA camp earlier this month and earned her this spot. Though she finished the season behind the now-graduated Washington and Thom (mentioned above), she paced the Longhorns squad in six categories, among them extra-base hits; slugging percentage; total bases; and home runs. An electric player with pop as well as steadiness and reliability, we may see an All-American nod headed down to Austin at season’s end.

Top Seniors:
P – Gabby Smith, Texas; Alicia Pille, Kansas
IF – Lea Hopson, Texas Tech; Jordan Strickland, Baylor; Georgia Casey, Oklahoma; Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma; Shelby Pendley, Oklahoma
OF – Kaitlyn Thumann, Baylor; Shelby Davis, Oklahoma State
UT – Maddie Stein, Kansas

Conference Projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Oklahoma (1)
2. Baylor (2)
3. Texas (3)
4. Texas Tech (4)
5. Kansas (5)
6. Oklahoma State (6)
7. Iowa State (7)

Coach Says: We’ve written extended pieces on nearly half the teams in the Big 12 in this article, but we can’t end it without hearing from the conference’s only freshman head coach. Adrian Gregory came to Texas Tech this offseason, and has put new life into the Red Raiders program. Click "read more" to read what she has to say about several different topics.

On her coaching staff... I’m very fortunate that I’m surrounded by wonderful people; in who they are, what they care about, what they also excel in in their individual avenues. Sharonda is a great slapper, runner, and outfielder, so when we’re going in after slappers, outfielders, runners, who would you get that’s more successful at teaching you that than somebody who was so successful in her career? Then you have Amanda Locke. She pitched and was a designated hitter for Alabama. She’s a dynamite personality and huge when it comes to chemistry with the kids, but can also back it up. She hit BP on our field and put all of our kids to shame. *laughs* It was awesome. They’re fantastic people, they care about individuals, and they care about excelling Texas Tech to the next level. I’m highly blessed.

On added pressures of being a first-time coach at a Power 5 school... "I actually don’t feel any stress over it. I played in this conference. I loved playing at the elite level, being a part of elite ball. It was exciting. I was in a conference before where they took one team out of it, but now in a conference where they take three or four. It’s exciting, really, because you’re constantly able to play the top teams in the nation. We scheduled that way this year, and it’s really more exciting than stressful." 

On benefits of being a former player now coaching... "I think I’m a little bit of both; definitely a player but I’m also a student of the game. So for me, the fact that I was a female athlete, I know the pressures; the good and the bad. I’ve been up and down in my career, hit highs and lows, and I understand all of that. For me, it’s being able to have that natural connection with kids so that they don’t have to explain it to me. I know how it feels, and I hired the same way. People that have played at that elite level, that know the grind and how to get through it. We understand what the kids are going through, and impart the knowledge we wish we had when we played."

On goals... This year, we had each individual kid write their mission statement & what their individual goal sectors were. We want to play with our guts. We want our kids to give it everything they have, win, lose, or tie. Each day, we’re striving to be students of the game and give our A+ effort every single day. We want to make sure our goals are controllable. We’re not worried about our stats, our wins/losses over RPI schools. We worry about ‘Did we do our best today’ and ‘Did we get better over our best yesterday’. That’s really our motto for this season.

On her coaching inspiration... As you watch individuals that come out of programs that they respect, often times, they reflect where they came from. Sharonda and myself were coached by Jo Evans, who we believe is the best coach in the game. The knowledge of the game she has and excelling in life, I would be privileged to look anything like Jo Evans’ program. She enamors everything that we want to be, so I would say that our program looks a little bit like hers, but with our own individualistic flair.

On what moment she's looking forward to most this season... Literally, it is the day that our kids play a full seven-inning game; guts out, win or lose, and we wear Double Ts with pride. That will be the day I’m looking forward to. I am ambitious, but it’s more so of where our time and energy are paying off and if that pays off, and we represent what we need to represent as Red Raiders, that’ll be the day.

On the toughest pitcher she ever faced during her playing days... Peaches James from Nebraska. She had a sick change, speed to boot, and she could play the mound like a cat. She had everything she needed. And of course, completely, you go back to Cat Osterman. I’d not be an intelligent person to say she wasn’t by far the best, but James is right there, too.

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