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COLUMN: Where does Texas softball go from here?

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Since she got to Texas in the summer of 2018, Miranda Elish’s star had steadily risen. A top-ranked recruit coming out of travel ball, Elish began her career at Oregon with an undefeated streak that stretched for more than a year. She spent two seasons as a Duck before following Mike White to the 40 Acres to become a Longhorn.

In her two seasons as a Longhorn, including the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Elish went from being a piece of one stellar pitching staff at Oregon to a bonafide star all on her own in Austin. She immediately stepped into the pitching ace’s role at Texas, and also began to pick up the bat regularly for the first time in college. She was an All-American in 2019 and was on track for the third such award of her career when the 2020 season shut down.

After previously announcing that she would take advantage of the NCAA’s extended eligibility waiver to get another shot at her senior year, Elish changed course one week ago and announced that she would forgo the 2021 season.

Multiple sources have indicated that Elish’s collegiate career is likely over at this point, though others told JWOS that outside influencers have attempted to gauge interest from other programs in adding Elish to their rosters. No matter what, it is clear that Elish’s days as a Texas Longhorn are over.

With the ace of their pitching staff now departed, just weeks before the 2021 season is set to begin, Texas seems to be in quite a spot. Who will take Elish’s innings in the circle? Can her dominance of opposing hitters even be matched? What effect will her sudden departure have on the Longhorns as a team?

Let’s dissect those questions one by one.

Behind Elish, the Longhorns still have a deep pitching staff. Mike White’s addition of former Ole Miss pitcher Molly Jacobsen now looks like an even smarter move on his part. Jacobsen has previously shouldered the responsibility of helming the staff of a top-level program and can hold down the fort in some big games and against big-time opponents. Shealyn O’Leary and Ariana Adams are quality pieces of the puzzle, and freshmen Ryleigh White and Courtney Day enter their first full years in burnt orange with much acclaim. The staff may not win any awards as the most dominant on paper, but don’t expect White and Co. to hit the panic button; this staff can win ballgames.

At the same time, no one on the staff is likely to match Elish’s sheer dominance in the circle. There were a number of times during Elish’s career at both Oregon and Texas that her team was competitive in and on the winning side of a game simply thanks to her mastery in the circle. On top of that, Elish could make a strong case as one of the nation’s most identifiable and recognizable college players. Now that she has ended her Longhorn career, there’s no obvious member of the Texas pitching staff (nor roster in general) who has shown themselves worthy of assuming that mantle. The Longhorns will have to rely more on finesse and individual strengths in the circle this season, as well as lean more heavily on their offense.

The effects of Elish’s departure could have one of two long-term effects on her now-former team. The remaining members of the team could wallow in the departure of their finest player, but don’t be surprised if things go in a different direction and this unexpected move actually has a positive result for the ‘horns. Some players will have to step into roles and situations that they are not used to or might even be uncomfortable with, and with the talent on the Texas roster, any number of those players could quickly become step-out stars.

There’s no denying that Elish’s sudden decision will have a wide-ranging impact on Texas, the Big 12, and the national softball landscape. The Longhorns could have been a consensus top-5 preseason team; Elish would have earned some preseason award recognition; and the ‘horns would have had favorable odds to reach the Women’s College World Series.

None of that will happen now – preseason hype will be significantly quieter in Austin – but don’t count the Longhorns out of anything quite yet. They’re still a high-level club with quality arms and dangerous bats, capable of making a major impact at a national level.

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