KAITLYN SCHMIDT | NCAA
Opening day for college softball is Thursday, Feb. 8 — here are the hottest topics to gear your attention towards this season.
Jordy Bahl’s impact on Nebraska
The Papillion, Nebraska, native has taken the 450-mile trip north to the Cornhusker State to pitch her junior season close to home. The Most Outstanding Player of the 2023 tournament announced her departure from Oklahoma in mid-June of last year, not even two days after the Sooners held a campus-wide celebration for their most recent title. Jordy Bahl amassed a 44-2 record over 288.2 IP with a 1.00 ERA and 397 strikeouts as led the Sooners to consecutive national championships in her first two seasons there.
In Lincoln, Bahl will join forces with Sarah Harness and Kaylin Kinney in the circle, as well as play alongside superstar shortstop Billie Andrews and utility transfer Peyton Cody. As the lone Big Ten player on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year preseason watchlist, Bahl is projected to make a tumultuous ripple in the Nebraska softball legacy. She’ll likely be at the plate and playing more defense at Nebraska, and thus, the best of Bahl may still be yet to come.
Texas returns its core
The depth of Texas’ roster cannot be understated. The Longhorns return every core position player except outfielder Alyssa Popelka and 1B/flex player Courtney Day, who transferred to Washington and Ole Miss, respectively. Along with taking on Notre Dame transfer Joley Mitchell (IF), the Longhorns have a highly-touted recruited class to subsidize their already-talented depth chart.
First-year outfielder Kayden Henry will be joining Ashton Maloney and Bella Dayton on the green this season. Notching a .655 batting average in 2022, Henry was named No. 3 overall in Perfect Game’s Top 50 Class of 2023 recruit rankings and No. 5 (tie) in Extra Inning Softball’s 2023 Extra Elite 100. Henry’s speed and savvy base running skills — her most recent season saw 28 hits, 21 runs and 31 stolen bases — will make an early impact on the Texas lineup.
Standing at 6’0″, freshman Teagan Kavan will be a force in the circle, notching 1,444 strikeouts over 772.2 IP and six no-hitters in her previous club career. Along with this addition, Texas’ bullpen is already saturated with talented arms in Estelle Czech, Mac Morgan, Citlaly Gutierrez and Sophia Simpson.
Just two years prior, the Longhorns posted their best post-season finish in the WCWS Championship Series as the 2022 runner-up. Last year, a 9-0 shutout loss in the Knoxville regional booted the Longhorns from last year’s tournament. Thus, this is a team fully capable of making a deep run this season, and with a reliable roster, Texas has major potential this year to make it to OKC.
Can the Pac-12 ride its momentum from 2023?
In its last few months of existence, Pac-12 softball has the opportunity to make a statement in its leave. The conference boasts five teams in the USA Softball preseason poll: No. 3 Stanford, No. 8 UCLA, No. 10 Washington, No. 13 Oregon and No. 16 Utah.
Though it got double-eliminated by Oklahoma in the WCWS, Stanford posted an otherwise stellar postseason run. Despite the loss of pitcher Alana Vawter, the Cardinal will have NiJaree Canady returning as ace after a breakout freshman season. Canady finished with a 17-3 record with seven shutouts, becoming the fifth player in Stanford history to record 200 strikeouts in a single season (218).
Host of the Los Angeles regional in last year’s tournament, 2-seeded UCLA was shockingly eliminated by GCU and Liberty after a 52-7 season. Returning to the diamond with a refreshed pitching staff and reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Maya Brady (SS), the Bruins are hungrier than ever to return to their former glory — their most recent championship win was in 2019.
Utah made it to the WCWS last season for the first time since 1994, and their 2023 win percentage (.724) was the highest the Utes have posted in nearly 30 years. As for Washington, it’s coming off a 74.6 win percentage year, only dropping three games in Husky Stadium. So, we’ll see how things will shake out during the final year of Pac-12 play.
Arkansas’ highly-touted transfer class
Head coach Courtney Deifel fortified her batting lineup with quite the transfer class, earning an added 7.9 wWAA (Weighted Wins Above Average) according to D1Softball. Nia Carter from Iowa and Bri Ellis from Auburn are the headlining additions, as well as Morgan Leinstock (Southern Miss) and Reis Beuerlein (Mississippi State) for the pitching staff.
NIA CARTER, ARKANAS RAZORBACKS SOFTBALL TRANSFER
A redshirt senior, Carter holds Iowa’s program record for career batting average at .415, and started all 62 games in right field last season. In 2023, she recorded hits in all but 10 of her games played, and recorded a career-high 30 RBIs. A seasoned player, Carter will add experience to the roster as well as versatility in the batting lineup. As for Ellis, she was one of two players for Auburn to start every game during her sophomore campaign and was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2022. Clocking a .989 fielding percentage at first base and 14 homers last season, she’ll be a crucial add on both sides of the ball for the Tigers.
Reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year Chenise Delce will be assisted in the chalk by Leinstock and Beurelein, whose ERAs were 3.30 and 3.13 last season, respectively.
Alabama without ace Montana Fouts
Following the departure of All-American pitcher Montana Fouts, the Tide will have some soul-searching to do to perfect a pitching staff. A generational talent in Tuscaloosa, Fouts hurled 24 complete games in 2023 and led the nation with 323 strikeouts, notching a 7.88 K/BB ratio. Despite tearing her ACL in the SEC tournament last year, Fouts finished out her senior campaign in the national quarterfinals ranked second in program history in strikeouts (1,181) and third in shutouts (35).
Now faced with a dilemma in the circle, head coach Patrick Murphy will turn to his depth in sluggers to find a good rhythm. The Tide picked up two transfers in Kayla Beaver (Central Arkansas) and Alea Johnson (LSU), whose pitching resumes vary from toughness to versatility. Beaver ignited the most successful season in Central Arkansas’ history in 2023 by logging a 21-8 record with 20 complete games and three shutouts. Johnson earned a 7-1 record with the Tigers, tossing two complete games and a shutout.
The lone freshman pitcher is Jocelyn Briski, hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, and topping her high school’s all-time leaderboard in wins (54), strikeouts (1,009), ERA (0.54), shutouts (30), no-hitters (8) and perfect games (2). Senior Jaala Torrence and redshirt junior Alex Salter will also be in consideration for the starting role. But, as Murphy told D1 Softball in their fall report: “I think it’s going to be a mix and match thing and it’s going to be fun.”
Oklahoma’s historic championship run
There’s really no other way to say it: Oklahoma softball is on a dynastic run. Finishing their 2023 campaign with a stellar 61-1 record — with their only loss coming from a one-run decision against Baylor — the Sooners were dominant in every facet on the diamond. Here are the statistical categories that Oklahoma led the nation in, by the end of last year:
- Batting average: .366
- ERA: .96
- Fielding percentage: .987
- Home runs per game: 1.89
- On-base percentage: .456
- Scoring per game: 8.08 R/G
- Shutouts: 35
- Slugging percentage: .666
Oklahoma has won the past three national championships, going undefeated in the final series for their last two titles. No school has ever accomplished a four-peat in the history of the sport; UCLA was the only other program to get a three-peat from 1988-1990. Already on a 53-game unbeaten streak, the Sooners are equipped with a loaded transfer class and returners hungry for their last shot at a perfect season; 2024 presents another chance for OU to make history.