|No. 3||Oklahoma State|
|No. 5||Texas Tech|
|No. 6||Iowa State|
Player of the year: Janae Jefferson, Texas
Pitcher of the year: Giselle Juarez, Oklahoma
Newcomer of the year: Jayda Coleman, Oklahoma
Projected regional teams: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas
Teams to watch
New faces are a big part of the story at Oklahoma this season. The arrivals include freshmen infielders Jayda Coleman and Tiare Jennings and pitcher Nicole May. Like UConn’s Paige Bueckers on the basketball court, Coleman brings star power that goes beyond being the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Also coming aboard is South Carolina transfer Jana Johns. How did adding a proven slugger in the infield work out when it was Shelby Pendley? Add those new arrivals to what we saw in 2020 from Jocelyn Alo, Kinzie Hansen and Grace Lyons and away we go. And yet it isn’t an arrival but Giselle Juarez’s return that promises to define the spring. Her first attempt at a final season undone by biceps tendon injury even before the pandemic halted play, Juarez will be rested — and any rust long since dispatched by the postseason. Coach Patty Gasso told Rhiannon Potkey this could be one of Oklahoma’s strongest offenses, a list that has to begin with the 2013 national champions. A healthy Juarez gets the Sooners closer to the same sort of pitching that juggernaut team also featured.
Oklahoma State followed a World Series appearance in 2011 with a losing record the following season, in large part because the offense fell apart. It followed a World Series appearance in 2019, and the departure of All-American Samantha Show, with a .390 on-base percentage and .514 slugging percentage in 2020. In other words, Kenny Gajewski is definitely building this for the long haul. Alysen Febrey was one of the nation’s most valuable players in the shortened 2020 season, arriving from Georgia and putting up a 1.417 OPS in 24 games for her new team. But it wasn’t just her, with third baseman Sydney Pennington’s Cal-Ripken-like consistency, first baseman Hayley Busby’s power and shortstop Kiley Naomi’s breakout production fueling the offense. Now Georgia transfer Jordan Doggett adds yet another asset to the formidable lineup. Two more arrivals, pitching coach John Bargfeldt and Tennessee transfer Gabby Sprang, could provide the final pieces of the pitching ensemble already ably led by Carrie Eberle.
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Miranda Elish’s recent decision to forgo her additional season of eligibility plops the biggest question mark of the season squarely in Texas’ lap. But it’s not as if the Longhorns lack for potential answers. In returnees Ariana Adams, Courtney Day, Shealyn O’Leary, Ole Miss transfer Molly Jacobsen and highly touted 6-foot-1 freshman Ryleigh White, talented arms still abound. Watchlisted for player of the year, O’Leary stands to inherit the lead role, but Jacobsen is an addition who shouldn’t be overlooked. A second-team all-SEC pick in 2019, she saw her ERA climb in the shortened 2020 season due mostly to bad luck. Indeed, Elish may be almost as difficult for Texas to replace at the plate as in the circle. But a core including Lauren Burke, Mary Iakopo, Janae Jefferson, Shannon Rhodes and Kaitlyn Washington should be bolstered by the continued development of former UCLA transfer Colleen Sullivan.
Keep an eye on
Baylor starts the season with heavy hearts following the death of longtime assistant coach Mark Lumley in December after multiple bouts with cancer. But part of Lumley’s vast on-field legacy is this program’s status as a perennial contender. That won’t change in 2021. Around long enough that she once pitched against Cheridan Hawkins in the NCAA tournament, Gia Rodoni returns for a sixth year and should give the Lady Bears both wisdom and plentiful strikeouts. The other side of the game may determine whether or not Baylor joins the lead pack as World Series contenders. A .304 team batting average in 2020 somewhat belied run production better exemplified by a .439 slugging percentage. Without the running game often a part of Baylor teams in the past, the lack of power was glaring. A strong second senior season from Goose McGlaun (28 home runs in her first 112 games but four in 73 games since) would be a boost.
Between one season with Jamie Trachsel and now a fourth with Jamie Pinkerton, Iowa State quietly put down a foundation of stability and competency. That’s no small thing for a program that has struggled to find a foothold for decades. More growth awaits. Iowa State had a better team ERA in 2020 than either Tennessee or Northwestern and did that with three first-year pitchers accounting for all the outs. Karlie Charles, Janessa Jasso and Ellie Spelhaug all return. If experience brings better honed control for Jasso and Spelhaug, the Cyclones have ample pitching. Shortstop Sami Williams returning for a second senior season was crucial. With her, an otherwise unproven lineup has one of the best hitters in the conference. Carli Spelhaug, Ellie’s sister, is also an emerging run producer to watch.