Lincoln - The 2017 Nebraska softball season officially began on Wednesday, as the Huskers held their first practice with a two-hour morning workout inside the Alex Gordon Training Complex. Nebraska's first practice comes 29 days before the Huskers open the season against BYU in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Thursday, Feb. 9.
"It was a focused, high-energy practice," Head Coach Rhonda Revelle said. "We were set to practice at 6 a.m. and everyone was ready to go early. We threw them right back into the fire with game situations, and we thought they responded really well."
Nebraska will feature 14 returning players and seven newcomers this season. Highlighting the returning players are two of the Huskers' four seniors, MJ Knighten and Cassie McClure. NU's starting third baseman, Knighten became the seventh Husker to earn first-team All-America honors in 2016, and she is one of only eight returning first-team All-Americans in 2017. McClure has contributed both offensively and defensively while earning first-team all-region accolades in each of her first two seasons at Nebraska. In her career, McClure is a three-time all-region honoree, and she is one of only four Division I pitchers who enters the 2017 season as a three-time all-region performer. Rachel Arthur (37 career games played with seven starts) and Lotte Sjulin (90 career games played with one start) round out Nebraska's 2017 senior class.
Knighten and Sjulin are also serving as Nebraska tri-captains this spring, along with junior Madi Unzicker. Unzicker, Nebraska's primary catcher in 2016, will miss the 2017 season due to injury. Despite Unzicker's absence, the Husker junior class will play a key role in Nebraska's success this season. Three of the Huskers' five pitchers are juniors, led by Kaylan Jablonski, who threw a no-hitter against Purdue last season while slugging four home runs and totaling 13 extra-base hits. Caitlin Bartsch returns for her third year in the circle after posting two scoreless outings in three appearances as a sophomore. Taylor Kadavy also returns after making the first three pitching appearances of her collegiate career last season.
Juniors will also figure prominently in the Husker outfield this spring, as Gina Metzler, Taylor Otte and Austen Urness combined for 77 starts last season. Metzler has started 49 games in her first two seasons, and she produced career highs in hits, doubles, RBIs, walks and stolen bases last season. Otte recorded her first career hit, extra-base hit and walk in 2016 while starting 13 games and ranking third on the team with five stolen bases. Urness, who sat out the 2015 season due to injury, has earned 68 career starts and she ranks third among all 2017 Huskers with nine career home runs and 42 career RBIs. Rounding out the class is Laura Barrow, the lone junior on the infield. Barrow has started 110 of Nebraska's 114 games the past two seasons, including 107 starts at second base. Her .313 career average ranks third on the team, as do her 21 doubles and 34 walks.
Both members of Nebraska's sophomore class gained valuable starting experience last season, and both players look to be significant contributors for the Huskers this spring. Bri Cassidy earned 21 starts at catcher as a freshman last season. Although she saw limited action offensively, Cassidy went 5-for-13 with one double, two RBIs and five walks in Nebraska's six fall games against Division I opponents. Alyvia Simmons started a team-high 35 games in right field as a frehman. She tied for fourth on the team with five home runs while totaling 26 hits, 11 extra-base hits, 17 walks and 21 runs.
All seven Husker newcomers this season are freshmen. The group includes left-handed pitcher Sydney McLeod, infielders Rindy Bryant, Haley Donaldson, Lexey Kneib and Alexis Perry and outfielders Bree Boruff and Tristen Edwards. Bryant, Donaldson, Kneib, Boruff and Edwards were all named 2016 Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) Regional All-Americans, while Edwards was one of 36 players nationally selected for the 2016 PGF High School All-American Game. McLeod missed out on 2016 accolades as an elbow injury sidelined her for her senior eason, but she was a two-time all-state and all-region honoree in Arizona. Perry was a four-time all-district selection in Oklahoma, including earning district player-of-the-year honors as a senior.
All told, the Huskers feature a mix of talented returners and promising freshmen this season, and there will be competition for starting spots, according to Revelle.
"We are planning on our returners to bring our freshmen along with them. We're at a point where we can't slow down," Revelle said. "Some positions are wide open competition-wise and competition can be a really good thing. Ultimately, we are focused on trying to put the best team on the field."
Putting the best team on the field will be paramount early, as Nebraska faces a very challenging schedule. The Huskers open the 2017 season against BYU, a team the Huskers defeated last year in an NCAA Regional semifinal game. Nebraska then plays Oklahoma and Auburn the next day before rounding out the opening weekend with Washington. The Sooners topped the Tigers in last year's national championship series, while the Huskies won an NCAA Regional and finished at No. 13 in the 2016 final rankings. In addition to No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Auburn and No. 13 Washington in the opening weekend, Nebraska will face No. 4 Florida State twice in Tallahassee in week two before taking on No. 15 Missouri and 17th-ranked Tennessee in week three, plus two more contests that week against Oregon State and California, both of whom received votes in the final coaches' poll of 2016.