Author's note: This is the first entry of what will be an ongoing notebook on 2018 University of Washington softball. Until the season starts in early February, entries will be less frequent, but once we get going, I plan to give updates at least once a week, maybe more, depending on what's going on.
If you have any questions to ask me, or ideas for what to ask the players, fire away! I can't guarantee I'll know the answers or that I'll be able to find out, but I'm happy to try. You can comment publicly here, find me on Twitter @DawgoneCrazy (DMs always open), or e-mail me at ekstrong.86 (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you so much for reading, and #GoHuskies!
Coming off an appearance in the national semifinals last year and graduating just two regular players Husky softball is one of the preseason favorites on the national stage. Games don't start for about another month (a tournament starting Feb 9 at Bradley University in Peoria, IL), but spring practice is underway - despite the uncooperative weather.
The most important development? Star senior third baseman Taylor Van Zee is 100 percent after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. She had a very strong season last year despite playing through the injury for basically the entire season.
"Oh yeah, I'm ready to go," Van Zee said. "(I was medically cleared) sometime in October, so it's been awhile and I'm ready and excited to get going again."
The other good news? As far as I can tell, everyone I expected to be there at practice was there. The three pitchers who do not bat (junior ace Taran Alvelo, sophomore Samantha Manti, and senior reliever Kristin Cochran) had left by the time I arrived after throwing their bullpen sessions, but everyone else was there and participating in all of the drills.
Looking at the Lineup
With just two starting position players leaving (All-American SS Ali Aguilar and power-hitting LF/DP Casey Stangel), there's not too many questions here. Here are the positions, sorted by how confident I am that I know the starter.
Catcher: junior Morganne Flores is one of the best in the country. Junior Rachel Ogasawara (defensive stud) and freshman Emma Helm (line-drive machine) are both more than adequate backups.
Third base: senior Taylor Van Zee is also one of the best in the country. Freshman Morgan Allen is the likely backup.
Right field and center field: speedy seniors Trysten Melhart (RF) and Kelli Burdick (CF) return. Both are pure lefty slap hitters - lots of infield singles, bunts, stolen bases, and great defense. Power hitting is basically impossible with their downward-slicing swings, but there's plenty elsewhere.
First base and designated player: seniors Kirstyn Thomas and Julia DePonte both return, having shared the starts at first base last year. But usually, whichever one was not the starting 1B was the DP. I would expect that to continue, although freshman Noelle Hee was one player that coach Heather Tarr specifically mentioned as a good DP/pinch-hitting candidate and could work her way into the first base mix. Slightly unfortunate coincidence that all three hit righty - a situational platoon would make a lot of sense if at least one were a lefty.
Shortstop and second base: These are the first positions with at least a little bit of intrigue. Sophomore Sis Bates returns as a newly-anointed member of the US National Team. So she's clearly in the lineup. But it seems much more likely that Bates moves to her natural shortstop, replacing the departed Aguilar, than stay at second, where she played last year. Instead, sophomore Taryn Atlee, a transfer from Rutgers who was a freshman of the year semifinalist, likely fills the void at second. True freshman Nawai Kaupe (pronunciation: Nah-vi Cow-pay) would likely be the backup for both Bates at short and Atlee at second, though Kaupe splitting time with Atlee also seems possible.
Left field: the one true unknown. With Stangel gone, there's no obvious replacement here. My gut tells me to go with Maggie Gallagher, the best hitter of the available options, but still adapting to playing outfield regularly. Gallagher mostly played as a backup infielder last year, but with Atlee and Kaupe both entering, she has moved to training with the outfielders. The other options would be sophomore Kaija Gibson and junior Amirah Milloy - both are extremely fast and good defensively, like Melhart and Burdick. But my guess is that Gallagher's bat and versatility wins out.
A closer look at the rotation, and a preview of the non-conference portion of the schedule. And answers to any questions you might have!