What is/are the biggest storyline(s) entering play for your school this year?
Andy Hutchins (Alligator Army): Florida's storyline is simple: After winning back-to-back national titles, the Gators were shockingly vanquished from the 2016 NCAA Tournament by Georgia at home on a walk-off homer in Super Regional play, and now seek a return to the rarefied air they occupied before. I think this team is likely to rebound strongly under Tim Walton, and I'd be surprised if Florida doesn't return to Oklahoma City.
Chris Stanley (GAB Attack): Bev Smith's in her seventh season at South Carolina, and while she's taken the program from 26-30 her first season to two regional finals in the last four years -- she's still yet to notch a winning record in conference play. With two senior pitchers returning, can South Carolina work its way to becoming an SEC contender this season?
Eric Saltzman (AndTheValleyShook): The Tigers are in “reload not rebuild” mode. They lost to Oklahoma in the Women’s College World Series and graduated three of their best hitters but still maintain a great group of pitchers. LSU also brought in a really good group of recruits and the hope is that one or two of them have strong rookie campaigns to keep the Tiger offense going strong.
Who will be the key players to watch this season?
AH: The Gators' trio of aces that comprise arguably the best pitching staff in the country, I think? Senior Delanie Gourley, junior Aleshia Ocasio, and sophomore Kelly Barnhill all posted at least 15 wins and ERAs under 1.50 in 2016, and any one of them could be the best pitcher on the staff or in America. If they can repeat (or improve on) their 2016 success, the most important player for Florida might actually be sophomore Amanda Lorenz, who was Florida's best hitter as a freshman in a lineup that struggled to compensate for the loss of the Ruthian Lauren Haeger after her incredible 2015 campaign.
CS: Those aforementioned pitchers -- Nickie Blue and Jessica Elliot -- will be the make-or-break players for SC. They pitched a combined 490 innings last season to notch a combined ERA of 2.66, so if they can improve that mark they'll fare well in three-game weekend series with the LSU's and Alabama's of the NCAA. Senior first baseman Kayla Snaer returns as the NCAA's leader in doubles and will be the primary run creator in the Gamecocks lineup.
ES: It’s all about the pitching. Carley Hoover is the staff ace who throws hard and racks up a ton of strikeouts. Not to be outdone, Allie Walljasper finished the year with a 1.78 ERA. A freshman last season, Sydney Smith had a sub-one ERA for most of the year before finishing with the seventh best ERA in the nation, 1.17. Smith only pitched 96 innings last year and could see her role increased substantially On offense, the best returning bat is Sahvanna Jaquish who led the Tigers with 76 RBI’s and a .632 slugging percentage.
Which players do you think will emerge in a big way?
AH: I think Lorenz will improve, and I could see Barnhill going from somewhat wild strikeout artist to best pitcher on the staff, but Florida could most use a breakout season from Kayli Kvistad. She socked just 11 dingers as a sophomore, but that total still led the team, and she has a great swing that could help her threaten to hit 20 homers if she can find some protection in Florida's lineup.
CS: Freshman Cayla Drotar is a three-time South Carolina Gatorade player of the year and one of, if not the most coveted recruit Smith has landed in her seven seasons at South Carolina. She'll pitch in behind Blue and Elliot to give South Carolina a possible Sunday starter or strong reliever.
ES: Bailey Landry and Amber Serrett are two keep an eye on this year. Two years ago, Landry .426 average but then dropped to .324 last year. Serrett was a freshman who forced All-SEC selection Bianka Bell to third. Serrett hit .304 with nine doubles. Both players could see time at the top of the lineup, setting up for Jaquish.
How do you see your school faring this coming year on the diamond?
AH: Again, I think Florida's bound for Oklahoma City. This is a relatively young team, with only seven upperclassmen, but its pitching should be ridiculous, and could carry an even slightly better offense both to and deep into the Women's College World Series. And if a slugger or two emerges, the Gators could win it all again.
CS: Bev Smith told me in an interview she believes her team is good enough to host a regional, and if the pitching comes through like it's supposed to I have no reason to doubt her. The schedule will be brutal as always, with road trips at Alabama, at Georgia and home series against Auburn, Florida, Florida State and LSU. However if South Carolina can find a way to go .500 in those combined series', they'll have a shot at hosting in their new stadium.
ES: Oklahoma City is an attainable goal for LSU, even if the Tigers are a bit young. The pitching staff will be one of the best in the nation and will carry the team even if the lineup needs some adjustments. If a couple of the freshman start to click the Tigers would have a very formidable offense to go along with a staff full of aces.