Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PAC 12 Conference Forecast

Historically the sport's greatest powerhouse conference, the PAC-12 is home to UCLA and Arizona, arguably the sport of softball two most historic and storied programs. Twelve schools make up the PAC-12, the only Power Five conference with a number in its name that actually matches the current team-count. Of those twelve, nine schools sponsor softball as a varsity sport. Colorado; Washington State; and Southern Cal (USC) are the programs that do not have a softball program.

The PAC-12 does not sponsor a conference tournament; instead, the team with the best conference record at the end of the regular season is crowned the champion and earns the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This is considered little more than a formality, however, as at least 2/3 of the conference's teams traditionally are included in the field of sixty-four.

Expect Arizona ace Danielle
O'Toole to have a major impact
this year.
Team that could improve and surprise: Arizona Wildcats
     (After a few "lean" years, so to speak, Mike Candrea's club rebounded in 2017 with a regional upset of Tennessee in Knoxville and made Auburn work for the Super regional best-of-three win. Danielle O'Toole largely filled expectations in her first season in PAC play and retained her impressive statistics despite the significantly-elevated competition level. The Wildcats lost just one senior and, without disrespect to Lauren Young, should barely skip a beat as they vault their way back to the nation's elite. I expect to see the Wildcats back in familiar territory in Oklahoma City in June.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Washington Huskies
     (The PAC-12 has gotten more competitive and tighter as the years go by, and a good team always takes the brunt of the impact with a bit of a "down" year, falling 'victim' to their conference foes' upswing. This year, I believe that will be the Huskies. Ali Aguilar continues to receive little notoriety, inexplicably, for the talent level she possesses, while young battery members pitchers Taran Alvelo and Madi Schreyer and catch Morganne Flores, all underclassmen, all impressed a season ago. Nevertheless, despite a lot of talent on the Huskies club, I do not expect to see them make it out of the Super regionals; with the afore-mentioned talent level, that would almost certainly be a disappointment for Heather Tarr's club.)

Player of the Year: Delaney Spaulding, UCLA
Pitcher of the Year: Danielle O'Toole, Arizona
Coach of the Year: Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA

Conference Champs: UCLA Bruins
Top WCWS Contender: UCLA Bruins

Players to Watch:
Megan Kleist, Oregon – Kleist looked very impressive at times as a true freshman in 2016, and now, without Cheridan Hawkins behind her, figures to get the lion's share of the load this year as the veteran in the circle. The reigning conference co-freshman of the year, with the added workload will likely come a bit of inflation in her numbers, but I liked what I saw in 2016. I expect Kleist to be one of the conference's best in the circle post haste.

Kylie Sorenson, Stanford – How good the Cardinal's on-field product may be this season shouldn't be considered reflective of Sorenson and her talent; an all-conference selection in three consecutive seasons, she led the Cardinal program in six categories last season, including batting average and home runs when she posted a line of .339/8/25. Despite missing several games in the latter portion of the season due to injury, she still gathered all-conference second-team honors and comes into 2017 looking to finish on a high note. I expect her to make a strong case for all-conference first-team honosr, as well as what would be the first all-region honor of her career.

Ali Aguilar, Washington – Aguilar kept her career's upward tilt going in 2016, earning her first-ever all-American honosr and being named an all-conference first-team selection. She was a top twenty-five finalist for National Player of the Year. Though she took a bit of a step back in a few categories in fewer at-bats and games played, her power numbers improved drastically, as she hit twenty home runs and posted a slugging percentage of .902. The Huskies have a lot of talent, but if they are to break my prediction this season, it starts and ends with Aguilar. 

Biggest Questions:
* Will the Arizona/UCLA rivalry regain its once-illustrious level?
* Can the PAC rebound solidly after a disappointing campaign that saw their only WCWS representative go 2-and-out?
* Will this be the that the Oregon Ducks "Get 'er done" in the postseason?

Top Seniors:
P – Danielle O'Toole, Arizona
C – Annie Aldrete, California
IF – Nikki Udria, Oregon; Delaney Spaulding, UCLA; Mo Mercado, Arizona; Katiyana Mauga, Arizona; Ali Aguilar, Washington; Hannah Flippen, Utah; Chelsea Gonzalez, Arizona State; Kylie Sorenson, Stanford
OF – Gabrielle Maurice, UCLA; Eva Watson, Arizona; Mandie Perez, Arizona; Bessie Noll, Stanford
UT/DP – Casey Stangel, Washington

Conference Projection:
1. UCLA Bruins
2. Arizona Wildcats
3. Oregon Ducks
4. Utah Utes
5. Washington Huskies
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
7. California Bears
8. Oregon State Beavers
Others: Stanford Cardinal

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