Thursday, January 19, 2017

Big 12 Conference Forecast

A member of the "Power Five" group of conferences, the Big 12 is actually made up of ten schools, which has been the case since the departure of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC in 2012. Seven of the ten teams sponsor softball, with Kansas State; TCU; and West Virginia the trio of holdouts.

The Big 12, which has not sponsored a championship tournament since 2010, will reinstate their conference postseason in 2017. The two-day tournament will take place at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four.

OK State's Vanessa Shippy is primed and ready
for a breakout campaign.
Photo: Cowgirl Athletics
Team that could improve and surprise: Oklahoma State Cowgirls
     (In Kenny Gajewski's first season at the program's helm, the Cowgirls advanced past a subpar conference record and advanced to the Athens, Georgia regional. The Cowgirls took victories over all three of their fellow participants, including the Big Ten's Northwestern and host Georgia, but losses to the Wildcats and Bulldogs bookened the regional slate and ended the Cowgirls' season prematurely. The Cowgirls lose home run leader Tiffany Mikkelson and and innings-eater and pitching leader Kacy Freeze, but return, among others, Vanessa Shippy and Taylor Lynch on offense. Shea Coats and Brandi Needham both should benefit from having another year under their belt, and freshman Logan Simunek should make a valuable addition to that staff. Expect the Cowgirls to improve swiftly in Gajewski's year #2 and make some noise in conference play and in the postseason.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Baylor Bears
     (The Bears fell just short of earning a national seed in the NCAA tournament last year, and inexplicably instead earned placement in the Eugene, Duck-hosted regional. The departed senior class included two players responsible for twenty-three of the Bears' fifty-eight home runs a season ago, including .400 hitter Sarah Smith, as well as workhorse hurler Heather Stearns and her 2.10 ERA. Smith and Stearns may be the biggest losses for the Bears, though Hays' impact should be underscored, as well. Though some pieces remain in place on offense and Kendall Potts performed well in just over 100 innings of work in the circle, the Bears should still make the postseason, but expect them to regress considerably.)

Player of the Year: Vanessa Shippy, Oklahoma State
Pitcher of the Year: Paige Parker, Oklahoma
Coach of the Year: Kenny Gajewski, Oklahoma State

Conference Champs: Oklahoma Sooners
Top WCWS Contender: Oklahoma Sooners

Players to Watch:
--> Shay Knighten, Oklahoma – If an uninformed person just stopped to watch Shay Knighten last season, he would have seen the style of play of a seasoned vet, not a player in her first year in college. Knighten was a huge catalyst in the Sooners' championship run, finishing the season with a .397 batting average, thirteen home runs, and a .670 slugging percentage. She led her team in four categories, including batting average, home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage, none of them a minor feat. She came in clutch in the postseason, dropping clutch home runs including the walk-off shot that beat Alabama. It seems to me that Knighten was only getting started a season ago - I would not be surprised to see her even improve on her freshman season, put up a strong fight for Player of the Year, and earn all-American honors.

--> Taylor Lynch, Oklahoma State – As a rookie herself in 2016, Lynch earned all-conference second-team and all-freshman honors. Her .391 batting average was good enough for sixth overall in the Big 12 and was second on the Cowgirls squad. She makes a nice compliment to Shippy in the lineup and batting order, giving the Cowgirls two dangerous weapons that are very similar to one another, statistically-speaking. Expect her also to breakout in 2016; she has a good chance of challenging for the conference batting title and earning all-conference and all-region first-team honors in just her second campaign in Stillwater.

--> Tiarra Davis and Erica Wright, Texas – Despite suffering through injury for part of the year, Davis still paced the Longhorns in the circle, amassing a sub-2.00 ERA with 186 strikeouts in 213 innings of work. She pitched well and absorbed the lion's share of the work in the circle after Erica Wright fell ill to a rib injury and did not play all season. With Wright back, expect she and Davis to put together a solid 1-2 punch in the circle and perhaps help lead the Longhorns to postseason relevance once again.

Biggest Questions:
* Will Oklahoma repeat as National Champions?
* How difficult will the Sooners' challengers be in the conference race?
* How will Tripp MacKay's return to the Red River Rivalry impact the Big 12 as a whole?

Top Seniors:
P – Shea Coats, Oklahoma State; Brandi Needham, Oklahoma State; Tiarra Davis, Texas; Mattison Maisel, Texas Tech
IF – Celina Felix, Texas; Kelli Hanzel, Texas; Ari Hawkins, Baylor; Rachel Hartman, Iowa State; Susan Welborn, Texas Tech
OF – Cathlin Bingham, Iowa State
UT/DP – Lindsey Cargill, Baylor; Kierra Miles, Texas Tech

Conference Projection:
1. Oklahoma Sooners
2. Oklahoma State Cowgirls
3. Texas Longhorns
4. Kansas Jayhawks
5. Baylor Bears
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders
7. Iowa State Cyclones

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