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Thursday, February 25

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Five “Sleeper” Teams to Keep an Eye on in 2021

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Softball season is just around the corner and there promises to be a lot of great softball in store. Following the PAC-12’s schedule rollout on Tuesday, the Big Ten is the only Power 5 conference where questions remain about how the season will look.

Championship favorites like UCLA, Washington, Arizona, and Alabama certainly merit attention as the season winds on, and other teams like LSU and Oklahoma are sure to dominate headlines in their own right. Outside the upper echelon and the top 25, though, there are some teams you will want to keep an eye on this year. We’ve highlighted five of those ballclubs here.

1. Clemson Tigers

John Rittman’s Tigers club got off to a hot start in their inaugural season in 2020, and a lot of people have jumped on the Clemson bandwagon heading into 2021. The Tigers saw a breakout performance for freshman Valerie Cagle, and slugging infielder Marissa Guimbarda was as good as advertised. Although they haven’t yet faced a full conference slate, the Tigers enter the season with a lot of promise and expectation.

Who to Watch: Cagle and Guimbarda are each likely all-region contenders, and Cagle should get some significant looks for an All-American award now in her “super freshman” season. Cagle’s ability to play both sides of the ball, proving herself a quality pitcher as well as hitter, is a huge mark in her favor.

2. Villanova Wildcats

Winning follows Bridget Orchard wherever she goes. After a majorly-successful tenure at Fordham, Orchard returned to her alma mater to build up the ‘Nova program and immediately got the Wildcats into conference contention. A good portion of that success is thanks to Paige Rauch, a transfer who followed Orchard from Fordham and who also plays on both sides of the ball. UConn’s addition to the Big East should make the conference slate more interesting, and with Rauch in the lineup and the circle, Villanova should be the league’s calculated favorites.

Who to Watch: Rauch is the easy answer here. She performed very well as a true freshman at Fordham, and then followed Orchard to Villanova. The move has paid off for both player and school, as Rauch has already cemented her status as one of the nation’s best. Her solid bat and rubber pitching arm are two majorly-complimentary positives.

3. Marshall Thundering Herd

Aly Harrell is such a dangerous hitter that many teams would rather give her a free pass on base than pitch to her and take a chance that she’ll add to her career home run total. That kind of lineup presence is key for the Thundering Herd, and certainly gives other members of the team’s batting order a chance to shine. The Herd added a number of transfers this summer, some of whom have the chance to contribute right away. In addition, Maddie Holub is a stellar, young pitching coach and can work wonders with a pitching staff.

Who to Watch: Madison Whitaker, one of the aforementioned transfers who came from Wright State, has three years of collegiate experience under her belt and was an every day starter in the first two years of her career. In 2019, she led Wright State in four statistical categories and posted a slash line of .278/5/30.

4. Fresno State Bulldogs

The most common question about Fresno State since the 2020 season ended has been “was it real?” speaking of the team’s tremendous start to the ’20 campaign. In all likelihood, the Bulldogs may see a bit of a drop-off in 2021, but with eight returning starters and a full pitching staff, don’t expect the team to suddenly flounder. They’re still one of the better teams in the state of California, and they were the unanimous preseason favorite in the Mountain West standings for a reason. The Bulldogs will also play a number of games against top-level opponents, which gives them plenty of opportunities to play spoiler.

Who to Watch: Hailey Dolcini, a former UC-Riverside transfer, led the team in ERA and innings pitched last season. Dolcini owned a 10-1 record when the 2020 season shut down, and had impressive stats across the board. She collected a strikeout/walk ratio better than 2/1 and opponents hit .197 against her. She’s an anchor for the Bulldogs’ pitching staff.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Renee Luers-Gillispie has a knack for rebuilding teams in short order, and she’s well on that path since she got to Iowa. Gillispie has a quality roster with the Hawkeyes, including a really impressive pitching duo in Allison Doocy and Lauren Shaw. Doocy posted a 1.54 ERA last season, while Shaw recorded a 1.71 mark. The pair combined for 163 strikeouts in 150 innings, and allowed just thirty-three earned runs on the year. Pitching is a major strength for the Hawkeyes and will be even more crucial with the scheduling changes in the Big 10.

Who to Watch: Doocy and Shaw combine to perform one of the Big Ten’s more impressive pitching pairs, but don’t miss Nia Carter on the offensive side of the ball. She batted .509 for the Hawkeyes as a freshman in 2020 and posted a slash line of .509/.582/.542. Look for her to do some really good things with the bat in 2021.

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