The college softball season has officially begun, which means the road to the 2024 Women’s College World Series starts now.
From Oklahoma’s quest to make history to the many impact players who transferred in the offseason, this year is sure to be memorable. We will also say goodbye to the game’s most storied conference, the Pac-12, due to realignment.
We asked our college softball experts to answer some of the game’s biggest questions. Can the Sooners actually four-peat? Which newcomers will make an impact?
They also made early player of the year picks, WCWS predictions and named sleeper teams to watch. Finally, with the Clearwater Invitational starting on Feb. 15, they shared which games they are circling on their calendars.
What’s the biggest non-Oklahoma storyline for 2024?
Jenny Dalton-Hill: I’m looking at impact transfers across the country. Big names and big players are on new rosters. Can these players who have won player of the year accolades in different conferences step in without skipping a beat and make an immediate difference on their new teams? Does NIL create additional pressure for some players to perform in their new environments? Can they put their head down and work, or will they read and believe the hype?
Michele Smith: I’m interested in seeing how the conference realignments shape up with the start of those additions in 2024. Adding BYU, UCF and Houston to the Big 12 helps the conference in 2024 and takes it to a new level with the impending departure of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC next year. With the addition of Utah, Arizona and Arizona State in 2025, the Big 12 becomes a powerhouse conference.
Madison Shipman: I am looking forward to seeing if the teams that have made it to the WCWS in the past few seasons who relied heavily on their aces can make it back with new pitchers. Alabama lost Montana Fouts, Florida State lost Kathryn Sandercock, Tennessee lost Ashley Rogers, UCLA lost Megan Faraimo and Brooke Yanez, and Northwestern lost Danielle Williams. Who will emerge as the new aces for those pitching staffs?
Amanda Scarborough: The Pac-12. This is the last year for us to watch the most decorated conference in softball with 24 national championships by five different programs. We are coming off a year where UCLA (which has the most national championships with 12) went 0-2 in regionals, Arizona and Arizona State didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and Utah, Washington and Stanford were the ones at the Women’s College World Series. I’m interested to see how this last year as a conference pans out. To make things even more intriguing to start the season, Stanford was picked in the preseason coaches’ poll as the Pac-12 favorites for the first time ever.
Can Oklahoma actually four-peat?
Dalton-Hill: Oklahoma has the talent to win it all again, but it will come down to the Sooners staying unified. One bad attitude, one selfish mentality that can recruit others into a pity party about playing time can hurt a team and prevent the four-year sweep. Everyone gives their best game to No. 1, and it can be hard to stay focused all season long. However, a talented team that plays for each other can drown out the noise and be next to impossible to beat. The Sooners just need to stay hungry.
Smith: Absolutely, Oklahoma has a shot. Coach Patty Gasso has her team trained in what they call the “Championship Mindset,” and from day one when that squad gets together, they are thinking of nothing other than a national championship. The key this year will be if they can handle the pressure — I believe that they can as they have in the past.
Shipman: I think it’s a possibility for this team. The offensive lineup is stacked with talents like Jayda Coleman, Kinzie Hansen, Alyssa Brito and Tiara Jennings. They have pitchers who complement each other in the circle, both righties and lefties. This is a team full of players who know how to win big ballgames. That experience goes a long way in the postseason.
Scarborough: Yes, they can. Their senior class knows how to win, how to lead, what it takes and knows nothing other than winning a national championship. There are unknowns in the circle with the departures of Jordy Bahl (transferred to Nebraska) and Alex Storako (graduated) — who pitched 65% of their innings last year — and the addition of three new, impactful transfer pitchers to their roster. But their pitching coach, Jennifer Rocha, seems to always find a way to get the best out of their pitchers both mentally and physically. I think we’ll see this staff grow as the season goes on.
Which newcomer will have the biggest impact?
Dalton-Hill: Tennessee freshman shortstop Bella Faw. She is a player I will be keeping my eye on. Faw was named Extra Inning Softball’s No. 5 prospect in the Class of 2023 and is already making her coaches predict that she will turn heads and impress with her defensive skills. She could be compared to one of our own ESPN greats, Madison Shipman! There are big expectations for her.
Smith: UCLA freshman left-handed pitcher Kaitlyn Terry. She can hit the ball with power from the left side, as well as pitch with a good amount of velocity and movement. UCLA will have a young pitching staff, so there’s a good chance that the Bruins will need to use Terry a significant amount in the circle.
Shipman: Texas freshman pitcher Teagan Kavan. Coach Mike White seems to have an eye for young talent, and Kavan was a strikeout machine in the fall ballgames. She struck out 15 of the 29 batters she faced. I am looking forward to seeing her pitch this season.
Scarborough: FSU freshman pitcher Ashtyn Danley. She is another incredibly talented dual threat and has a chance to impact FSU on both sides of the ball. With FSU having graduated three pitchers from their staff, including Kathryn Sandercock, there’s an opportunity for Danley to be at the top of the pitching rotation and get a lot of innings at a young age. When she’s not pitching, she’ll likely get a lot of starts in the outfield, too.
Who is your early pick for player of the year?
Dalton-Hill: Clemson pitcher Valerie Cagle. She has a burr in her saddle and something to prove because of the matchup in super regionals that put the Tigers against the No. 1 seed. Cagle has set goals every season, and the WCWS has eluded her. This is her year to make it to Oklahoma City and also win the POY for the second straight year.
Smith: Since JDH went with Cagle, I’ll go with Oklahoma outfielder Jayda Coleman. Three rings in three years with the Sooners. She’s a staple in the lineup and in the outfield. She’s an incredible player, and her energy and experience might give her an opportunity to do something no other college softball player has done: win four consecutive national championships.
Shipman: Cagle. She continues to get better every year, and I am really looking forward to watching her perform on the field, in the circle and up at the plate again this season!
Scarborough: Nebraska pitcher Jordy Bahl. We saw Bahl pitch and be named the 2023 WCWS Most Outstanding Player and win Big 12 Pitcher of the Year twice, but we really haven’t gotten a chance to see her hit. Now that she is at Nebraska, she’ll likely have a big chance to do that. Cagle has proved herself as the premier two-way star in softball, and now we could have a chance to see another side to Bahl’s game that we’ve never seen before. She’s already one of the best pitchers in the game; what offense will she bring to the table now?
Which team not in the preseason top 10 do you think has the best chance to make it to the WCWS?
Dalton-Hill: No. 17 Nebraska. We have all seen how an impact pitcher can propel a team to big things. But can the Cornhuskers’ bats score? Can their defense stay alert? Can Jordy Bahl stay Jordy Bahl? If they get clicking, it could be a fun year for them.
Smith: No. 15 LSU. With Taylor Pleasants anchoring the infield and an experienced pitching staff, the Tigers are a good fit to make it to the WCWS. If they play on the field the way they talk to you on paper and run their offense with fire and vengeance, this is a legitimate team!
Shipman: No. 13 Oregon. The Ducks have a lot of talent in their lineup. Pitchers Stevie Hansen, Raegan Breedlove and Morgan Scott are all back, and LSU has added transfers like Emma Kauf and Kaila Pollard to boost their offense.
Scarborough: Unranked UCF. The Knights have been building, and this year they return so much experience and add a few impactful transfers. After making it to super regionals in 2022, losing in regionals last year was a bit of a letdown. The good news for them is that they return pretty much everyone who can remember those highs of 2022 and learn from 2023. They’ll be hungry to make the most of this talented roster.
What is your prediction for the WCWS?
Dalton-Hill: Clemson makes its first appearance.
Smith: The SEC finally gets a team into the championship series for the first time since 2017.
Shipman: Georgia makes it back to the WCWS (last appearance was in 2021).
Scarborough: Two ACC teams make it to the WCWS.
Which game in the Clearwater Invitational are you most looking forward to watching?
Dalton-Hill: Tennessee vs. Stanford (Feb. 16, 3 p.m. ET) is circled on my schedule to watch. Can Tennessee’s hitters figure out how to attack Stanford pitcher NiJaree Canady? This is a matchup between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the preseason rankings — what a game!
Smith: Tennessee vs. Texas (Feb. 16, 6 p.m. ET) is a rematch of last year’s super regionals (Tennessee won the series 2-0), and I think that this game will be fire! However, I’m excited for every game — this tournament is impressive!
Shipman: Hands down, Tennessee vs. Stanford (Feb. 16, 3 p.m. ET). They have a ton of returners and pitchers who can throw absolute gas in the circle! I hope to see the matchup between Canady in the circle and Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy at the plate!
Scarborough: FSU vs. UCLA (Feb. 16, 1 p.m. ET). When these two teams meet, it’s always epic! Both programs graduated aces in the circle, so I’m interested to see how their new pitchers can handle both of these dominant offenses.