While preparations for the 2021 softball season are in full swing in some parts of the country, the nation’s historically greatest conference has slowly just begun to return to the diamond. With teams on the West coast and many in the state of California, regulations amid the COVID-19 pandemic have kept many of the normal January preparations in check.
Some teams remain optimistic that they’ll be able to begin the season on time – Washington is currently set to begin the season at a 4-team tournament in Las Vegas on February 12th, for instance – while others won’t even begin spring practice until the beginning of February.
No matter what shape the 2021 season ultimately takes on, each team enters the year with various question marks. Read on for our thoughts on what the most pressing queries are.
1. Can Arizona’s pitching staff match the success of their offense?
The Wildcats have nothing short of a dynamic offense heading into the 2021 season. Seasoned veterans Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Jessie Harper are some of the best-known names in the sport; Dejah Mulipola is rejoining the offense after spending the 2020 spring with Team USA; and freshmen like Carlie Scupin were recruited in large part for their big bats. As solid as the team’s offense is, though, the pitching staff carries question marks. Former Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Alyssa Denham and ex-Oklahoma Sooner Mariah Lopez headline the staff, and while both can turn in quality innings and stellar performances, neither has the spark of a PAC-12 ace on a consistent basis. If either or both – or one of the younger members of the staff, even – can turn things on to the highest level in the circle, it will be of great benefit to their squad.
2. Will Arizona State be able to hold a spot in the conference’s upper echelon?
ASU turned heads in 2018 when they reached the Women’s College World Series in just the second year of Trisha Ford’s tenure in Tempe. One year later, in 2019, the Sun Devils finished fourth in the PAC-12 standings with a conference record just two games above the .500 mark, and were 22-7 during the abbreviated 2020 season. That fourth-place finish is fairly accurately reflective of the Sun Devils’ position in the conference even now, with a wide gap between the top three teams and #4 and below. Arizona State returns a pair of powerful super-senior weapons in the Hackbarth sisters, as both Kindra and Maddi chose to return under the extended eligibility waiver. Ex-Long Beach State transfer pitcher Cielo Meza also elected to return for her fifth year in the circle. Despite their returning talent, it seems (on paper) to be a long-shot at best for the Sun Devils to make up any ground across the afore-mentioned wide gap.
3. What is a proper measurement of “success” for Cal in Chelsea Spencer’s first year?
Spencer was long-thought to be the frontrunner to take over for Diane Ninemire at Cal, and after an oddly-elongated process, she ultimately did take the reins early in the summer. The Golden Bears will not move into their new stadium in 2021, as initially planned, but the construction of that stadium will serve as a major highlight of Spencer’s future recruiting efforts. The Golden Bears have not been particularly successful in the last several years, and it’s easy to forget that the program played in the Women’s College World Series twice last decade. With the current roster makeup, high-level of talent throughout the conference, and a new coaching staff still implementing their system, defining “success” for the Golden Bears in 2021 could take on several definitions.
4. How close can Oregon return to past form?
It feels a bit like ancient history to recall Oregon softball earning the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, or even to bring to mind Missy Lombardi’s tumultuous arrival in Eugene. After a first year to beat all first years in 2019, Lombardi now has the Ducks back to their winning ways. Her squad was 22-2 when the 2020 season shut down, posted a .350 team batting average, and owned a 1.62 staff ERA. Lombardi has cultivated the talent that remained after her arrival, brought in some talented transfers, and returned the program to significance in short order. The question remains, though, if Lombardi’s Ducks can return to the level of play and prominence where they were in 2018 and in years prior.
5. Does Mariah Mazon belong in the conversation of the conference’s elite?
The easy answer is “yes.” Mazon has shown flashes of absolute brilliance in the early years of her career as a Beaver, and was on track for a likely All-American award when the 2020 season shut down. Mazon earned all-conference honors in each of her first two seasons in Corvallis, and finished in the top ten nationwide in three separate statistical categories in 2020. She owns 337 career strikeouts, and oh, let’s not forget her offensive skills – in 2020, she batted .377 and notched four home runs. For the next couple of years, as goes Mazon, so go the Beavers.
6. Is Stanford’s favorable scheduling a positive or a negative?
“Favorable” scheduling is not a new concept, nor is it a negative one. Some coaches have made a career on easy early-season scheduling ahead of a tough conference slate. Allister isn’t one of those coaches, but Stanford’s 2020 schedule definitely fit the bill of a low-key start. The Cardinal were 22-4 when the season shut down, with their best wins coming over Fresno State and in a two-game split over Tennessee. The record not only looks good on paper, but gave the Cardinal players a chance to experience some winning ways after several “down” years. At the same time, though, the lack of conference play and true “tests” didn’t give much of a chance to see what the Cardinal have to work with. Teaghan Cowles and Maddy Dwyer are about the only well-known top-level commodities on the roster, but it’s a safe bet that Allister’s team has more future stars just waiting to break out; they just haven’t gotten their chance to shine against big-time foes.
7. Where’s the Achilles heel in UCLA?
“Murderer’s row,” I’ve taken to calling it. The moniker of the New York Yankees of the 1920s is also a fitting one for the UCLA batting order of 2021. In a lineup that includes names like Garcia, Nickles, Brady, Peres, Wisz, Jordan, Godin, Perez, and more, there are no obvious weak links. Rachel Garcia and Megan Faraimo are easily the nation’s best 1-2 in the circle, and Faraimo’s emergence in 2020 will enable her to better share the pitching load with the elder Garcia. As good as the still-defending champions look on paper, though, every team has some downsides and weak points; that UCLA doesn’t have any obvious ones is a positive thing, but also has the potential to be a hardship down the road if the team isn’t prepared for a wrench to be thrown in the works.
8. How important is one more year of Alyssa Barrera at Utah?
Barrera is the Utes’ biggest star since Hannah Flippen, and her return for her “super senior” year is a major positive for her club. The Utes have struggled to remain in postseason contention since hosting a regional in 2017, which also happened to be the final year of Flippen’s collegiate career. Barrera is a 2-time all-conference and all-region selection, and led the team with a .421 batting average in 2020 when the season shut down. The Utes need all of the firepower that they can get to truly compete in the conference, and Barrera’s return for one more season is a big step in that direction while Amy Hogue and Co. foster their young talent.
9. Can Washington finish the deal?
Washington has been one of the most consistent teams in the nation over the last half-decade, appearing in the Women’s College World Series every year since 2017. Their senior class – with super senior returners headlined by Sis Bates and Morganne Flores – is one of the nation’s best. The Huskies played for the national title in 2018 and finished in the WCWS semifinals in both 2017 and ’19, but still own just one championship in program history – all the way back in 2009. With one of the nation’s most loaded rosters and deepest pitching staffs, the talent is in place for the Huskies to make another title run. Their championship window is far from closing, despite the forthcoming graduations of some of their biggest stars, but Heather Tarr’s club is too good to take on status as perennial second-place finishers.