Spring is often thought of as a time of optimism, new beginnings and hope. Those same adjectives can also apply to the 16 Nebraska Cornhuskers who will hit the softball field this spring, especially the seven freshmen who will begin their first collegiate season. Keeping with the theme of "new beginnings," nearly 45 percent of the NU roster consists of freshmen and 10 of NU's 16 players are in their first or second year as Huskers.
Just as the dawn of spring elicits optimism and the promise of better days, Nebraska's program feels rejuvenated by the influx of young talent. Head Coach Rhonda Revelle hopes it's that eagerness and enthusiasm that will push Nebraska to a trip back to the NCAA Tournament, after the Huskers missed the postseason for only the second time in 18 years last season.
"This is a hungry group of young ladies," Revelle said. "We have a lot of youth and one of the great things about freshmen is the enthusiasm they bring to the field. Everything is new to them, and they are eager to prove themselves. The energy they create is contagious.
"But our veterans are also hungry. Our juniors and seniors were on the cusp of a top-10 ranking and an NCAA Regional championship in 2011, only to fall short of expectations last year. Our older players are driven to produce results this program has come to expect.
"There's a real sense of synergy in our team dynamic. The younger players bring the contagious enthusiasm and energy that you need to be able to endure and enjoy a long season, while the veterans possess the knowledge and experience to help the team focus that energy in a positive, results-oriented way."
Revelle, who enters her 21st year at Nebraska and is poised to become the school's all-time wins leader across all sports, doesn't believe that the Huskers' youth should be a reason to expect less from this year's team.
"We do have inexperience at some positions, especially in the circle, and we will rely heavily on our freshmen," Revelle said. "Especially early in the year, fans may see a starting lineup that has four or five freshmen in it. But the coaches feel this freshman class is very talented, and that's why we're not afraid to throw them into the fire. I also don't think you can underestimate or overstate the success of our upperclassmen.
"We return four starters on the infield and one in the outfield and bring back five players who have been an all-conference player or an All-American. We have a solid nucleus of proven talent, and we have a very promising freshman class with the ability to push our returning starters and contribute immediately, which we expect them to do."
Nebraska returns a total of six starters, despite a freshman-laden roster and the loss of six seniors from 2012. The returning starters boast multiple years of starting experience. In the outfield, senior Brooke Thomason, a two-time all-conference selection, has started each of the last three years, earning 159 career starts. On the infield, senior Gabby Banda has been a three-year starter on the left side of the Husker infield. Banda, a third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, owns 165 career starts.
Classmate Courtney Breault is also back, after starting at second base in her first year at Nebraska in 2012. A second-team All-Big Ten selection last spring, Breault has started 141 career games, including 95 games at the University of Arkansas her freshman and sophomore seasons. Sophomore Mattie Fowler started all 55 games as a freshman last season, primarily at shortstop, although she is still recovering from offseason knee surgery.
Behind the plate, junior Taylor Edwards returns after two straight seasons as Nebraska's starting catcher. The only All-America catcher in school history, Edwards has made 108 starts in her career, while catching an all-conference and all-region pitcher in each of her first two seasons. Taylor's twin sister Tatum also returns for the Big Red. Tatum has made 106 career starts, primarily as the designated player. A two-time all-conference honoree, Tatum is also Nebraska's only pitcher with collegiate experience, twice earning Big Ten pitcher-of-the-week honors last season.
Overall, the Huskers return 68 percent of their position starts from last season and 68 percent of their total plate appearances from 2012. But while the offense brings back plenty of production from what have been two of the top offensive seasons in school history the last two years, Nebraska's pitching staff owns far less experience.
Tatum Edwards is the only Husker pitcher with collegiate experience, as she has made 35 appearances and 25 starts over her first two seasons. Edwards owns a 16-5 career record with a 2.69 ERA. The hard-throwing right-hander with a devastating changeup has the ability to emerge as the Huskers' ace. Opponents have hit only .209 off Edwards in her career, with just 15 extra-base hits in 484 career at bats. While she has proven hard to hit, Edwards has been hurt by a lack of control. She has walked 62 batters and hit 29 in only 130.0 career innings.
Freshman right-hander Emily Lockman is also expected to see extensive action in the circle this spring. The 2012 California Gatorade Player of the Year and first-team high school All-American is a poised and mature freshman, traits that should benefit her as she takes on the challenge of being a key contributor as a freshman pitcher.
Aiding the development of the pitching staff should be the strength of the Husker offense, highlighted by the five returning all-conference hitters. Nebraska has posted the top two on-base percentages in school history the past two seasons, while recording the No. 1 (2011) and No. 3 (2012) slugging percentages. The Huskers' run totals the last two seasons also rank among the top-five marks in school history, despite fewer games played.
"Our offense should be very strong again this spring," Revelle said. "We feel really good about the strength of our lineup, top-to-bottom. We've scored a lot of runs the past few seasons, and we expect that to continue this year.
"Having a strong offense will also benefit our pitching staff. If our offense can produce to its potential, it will take a lot of pressure off the pitching staff, especially early in the season. We feel good about the potential of our pitchers, but their early-season development will be a key toward positioning ourselves to meet our season goals."
Revelle also noted that the Huskers are more athletic this season, something that should help the defense behind the pitchers.
"We've relied a lot on the strikeout the past few seasons, but that may not be the case this season," she said. "We want our pitchers to be around the plate and when you're throwing strikes and pitching to contact, the ball is going to be put in play. We struggled a bit defensively last year, but our range is better than it has been and that should lead to extra outs we may not have gotten last year."
The extra outs and improved defense could be a huge key for Nebraska. Last season, the Huskers posted their lowest fielding percentage in 15 years, while allowing almost one unearned run per game. Unearned runs provided the winning margin in six of Nebraska's 22 losses last season, and six more wins likely would have gotten the Huskers into the NCAA Tournament, a standard program expectation.
Speaking of program expectations, Revelle expects this spring of "new beginnings" to produce familiar results.
"The expectations for this program are to compete for a conference title and play in the postseason," Revelle said. "We expect that at the beginning of every season, and this year is no different. We have some challenges to overcome, but that's true of any season. We have the pieces necessary for a successful season.
"Now it's just about coming together as one team with one dream."