College Sport

Breaking down the 2023 college softball season: Players you need to watch, key storylines and POY predictions

The 2023 collegiate softball season is in full swing, two months away from the start of the NCAA Tournament and the path to the Women’s College World Series.

Oklahoma started their 2021 championship season with 33 consecutive wins before suffering their first loss. The Sooners started 38-0 last year before suffering their first loss. There hasn’t been a long unbeaten streak this year, as Baylor dealt the two-time defending champions their first 4-3 defeat on February 19, nine games of the season.

Since then, the Sooners have been undefeated, as evidenced by a 14-0 win over UCLA at the February 26 Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle.

Also high in the rankings are Oklahoma State, which won two of three games last weekend against Florida State in the Top 10 Game; Clemson, led by two-sided star Valerie Cagle, who ranks in the top 10 in batting average and ERA; and Tennessee, who beat rivals 183–12 this season.

We asked our college softball experts what they learned during the first month of the season, who impressed them, who needs to step up, and what they’re excited to see the rest of the way.

Which team impressed you the most and why?

Jenny Dalton Hill: I was impressed with UCLA’s consistency. Everyone was looking at the game against Oklahoma when they were struggling to score and score and I think some people let that influence their opinion of UCLA. But knowing Kelly Innoue-Perez and her coaching staff, this team will win the Pac-12 and head to Oklahoma City, where the lessons learned in Palm Springs will guide their training.

Michelle Smith: Stanford. The Cardinals are extremely talented and gearing up for a great 2022 season, with some amazing freshmen ready to help. Nijari Kanadi, who didn’t give up a 48-inning run to launch her college career, is getting everyone’s attention.

Amanda Scarborough: Tennessee. They quietly slipped out of sight, but what impressed me the most was their pitching and Kiki Milla. They have a team ERA well below 1.00 which is unheard of and Milloy is one of the best players in the country who is not getting the attention she deserves!

Madison Shipman: I’m going to go with the obvious answer here and tell the Oklahoma Sooners. This is a team that has faced a tough schedule to start the season and has shown they can beat top opponents. They have depth and are picking up momentum as they head towards conference play.

Jen Schroeder: Tennessee is the team that impressed me this year. Kiki Milloy is one of the best all-around players in the country and their pitching team is out of business. I’m excited to see how they compete in the conference game.

Which team has been the biggest surprise this season and why?

Dalton Hill: Baylor was not in my plans to start the season, but this group showed itself in a big way. The Bears made headlines when they were eliminated by Oklahoma in February and won 18 of their first 20 games early in the season (before consecutive losses last weekend). Between them, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, there’s so much talent in the Big 12 this season.

Smith: Tennessee is my biggest surprise team. Lady Vols are always good, but this year they are treated differently. They excel in all aspects of the game – they serve well, play great defense and hit the ball with great power and also at an average level. Their biggest test lies ahead when the SEC play begins.

Scarborough: Kentucky is a team that draws attention and consistently plays well, especially thanks to the performances that their top-notch pitcher, Stephanie Schoonover, put in. Every time you look, it has a double-digit score compared to the quality competition. This season, she has become one of the best pitchers in the country and gives Kentucky the dominant, closed power in the circle that they have lacked in the last few seasons.

Shipman: LSU pleasantly surprised me this year. This is a team that has gone unnoticed and I love their combination of speed and power on the plate. High schoolers like Danieka Coffey, Ciara Briggs and Taylor Pleasants have had a great start to the season with their beats. The Tigers also have a good mix of youth and veterans in the circle.

Shredder: There have been so many great mentions above, but I’m going to think a little outside the box and say California State of Fullerton. They’ve had some really big wins: Florida, Tennessee, Oregon and Ole Miss to name but a few, but they also have some really confusing losses. I’m excited to see if they can make the playoffs.

Who do you consider the best player of the year at the moment and why?

Dalton Hill: I always root for a positional player to win this. Pitchers are quarterbacks and a lot falls on their shoulders, but show me an average infielder who can rob or a catcher who can hit bombs. It lights me up. However, a dominant pitcher who can fire him up in the batter’s box is someone I can get behind. That player for me is Valerie Cagle. I think Clemson played pretty easy before the ACC, but Cagle is hitting .525 with eight home runs and two stolen bases. In addition, she threw for 67.1 innings with a .62 ERA and 82 strikeouts in just nine walks. She is a real find, and if Clemson can go far in the postseason, she will be the main reason for this.

Smith: Following on from my biggest surprise team in Tennessee, I would have to name Kiki Malloy. Not only does she hit over .500, she also has the power to be one of the best home runs in the country. There will be more than one standout player of the year this year, and I think it will be a battle that will be decided by whoever leads their teams to the Women’s College World Series.

Scarborough: The numbers that Cagle has shown this season are really special. So far, Clemson has only lost one game and they have a deep, talented and experienced team. However, if you look at the pitching and hitting statistics that Cagle has compiled, no one on her team, in the ACC or in the country, does what she does. She is healthy, thriving and determined, and is the best two-way player right now. When you hit and serve like she does, it says Player of the Year on it.

Shipman: Kiki Milloy is one of the most dynamic players in the game. She has been nearly unstoppable at the plate this season, has consistent power across all fields and has incredible reach in the outfield. It also changes the rules of the game on the base paths. Milloy is one of those players who grabs attention every time she takes the field.

Shredder: What Kiki Milloy has done this season is incredible, but somehow I feel like she’s never going to get the recognition she deserves. She hits over .500, is an incredible clutch and leads her team both offensively and defensively. However, after following this award for quite some time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hitting pitcher like Valerie Cagle win.

Which team should be activated as the conference approaches and why?

Dalton Hill: I’m interpreting this question not so much as which teams need to start winning to have a playoff shot, but which coaches need to step up and win in order to keep their jobs. We live in an era where coaches are retained based on wins and losses, and there are some great coaches whose track record does not scream longevity.

Smith: I think Northwestern needs to step up a little more. The Wildcats are a talented team with last year’s experience in the Women’s College World Series, but they seem to have stumbled a bit at 9-7 before conference play begins. I think they have what it takes to make a difference and establish themselves well in the Big Ten.

Scarborough: In a year with so much parity and so many early pre-conference losses around the country, it’s hard to answer that question. Considering Arkansas has had such big years in the last couple of years, expectations are very high for the Boars with such a young and talented team, as most of their offense ended last year. After losing to Central Arkansas and losing the Texas A&M Series in just one week, the next upcoming conference series could be a turning point for the defending SEC champions.

Shipman: I think of UCLA when I think of a team that needs to improve in conference play. There is no doubt that UCLA’s goal is to win a national championship this season. They have established themselves as one of the best teams in the country, but with some recent runoff losses, I think they could use the conference to get back in shape at the start of the season to break into the championship.

Shredder: For me, it’s Alabama. They had early losses to unranked teams and showed weakness in defense. If they want to have a Super Regional this postseason, they need to continue their game in the conference.

Which players do you think will break out in the next two months and why?

Dalton Hill: Tiare Jennings was a force on the Oklahoma team for two years, but was overshadowed by the incredible talent of Jocelyn Alo. I’m a big fan of Jennings. I like the way she plays, but this season she has had a slow start to her strengths. She’s hitting well over .400, but in previous seasons her home run numbers have been close to Alo’s. She was 29 freshman and 27 a season ago; she has only three so far this season. Jennings is a great player who will find his way and when he does, look out.

Smith: Continuing the question above, I think Daniel Williams will get back on track and lead the Northwest. Her ERA is now slightly up. If she can get back in line and hit her spots, she’ll be the Williams we saw last year who led her team to the Women’s College World Series.

Scarborough: Texas freshman Lagann Good. She’s already off to a good start in her first month of Division I softball, but I really feel like you’re starting to make more noise when you start the conference and play big games against an opponent…


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