It's hard to believe, but the year 2015 has come and now only exists in the rearview mirror. As we look forward to 2016, here are some of the biggest storylines in the softball world to keep an eye on.
1. Will softball return as an Olympic sport?
The sport is the closest that it has been to a return to the Olympic games and the final decision will come down this fall. Tokyo, Japan is the host for the 2020 Games and, as a historically-powerful softball country, they have helped push for the sport's re-inclusion on the 2020 slate and beyond. September will show us if their efforts and those of many others will prove fruitful.
2. Can the Florida Gators make it a three-peat?
Tim Walton's club has firmly established a dynasty thanks to back-to-back championships and incredibly dominant seasons. The first back-to-back national champs since Arizona in 2006-07, Walton's squad will have to make up for the loss of Lauren Haeger if they are to take another trophy home from Oklahoma City in 2016.
3. Can Tufts four-peat?
Overshadowed by the afore-mentioned dynasty of their Division 1 contemporaries, the Jumbos of Tufts University have put together a pretty impressive dynasty of their own. 2015 not only saw their third-consecutive Division 3 national championship but they pulled off an extremely-rare undefeated 51-0 season en route to the title. Even after losing star all-American ace pitcher Allyson Fournier, expectations remain high in Medford as they look to make it four rings in four years for the class of '16.
4. Who will be the breakout star of 2016?
Lauren Haeger was one of many who embodied this description in 2015; she went from effective second-fiddle to bonafide superstar and National Player of the Year in a year's time. UCF's Shelby Turnier went from a solid Group of Five pitcher to an ace hurler and a first-team all-American in the same time period. With Haeger, Lauren Chamberlain, and Shelby Pendley (three of 2015's biggest headline-grabbers) all moved on to their professional careers, what underclassmen will leap at the opportunity to put a target on their own backs and make a name for themselves?
5. How will the NPF fare in answering many lingering questions?
Despite what many would term progress in the sport's professional ranks over recent times, there remain many unanswered questions out of Nashville. How will the Scrap Yard Dawgs acclimate to the league? Will the dual management of the Charge & Dawgs prove an issue throughout the year? If the sport returns to the Olympics, how big of a blow will the league once-again endure? Perhaps most importantly, how will the USSSA Pride and the league as a whole fill the void left by Cat Osterman's retirement for a true 'Face of the NPF'? Cheri Kempf and her crew, as well as the team owners, have a lot of questions still to answer and not a lot of time to do so if they want to extend the thought processes of continuing to grow the league.