There are many superlatives that could describe the 2014 Nebraska softball team. After all, the Huskers return the bulk of their lineup and their entire pitching staff from a 2013 squad that won the first NCAA Super Regional in school history, advanced to the Women's College World Series for the seventh time and finished with a No. 8 national ranking.
Successful could be one such superlative. Experienced may be another. But for a Husker team with its sights set on a return trip to the Women's College World Series and a longer stay in Oklahoma City, two more apt descriptors may provide the best rationale for why Nebraska has reason to believe it can meet its lofty expectations.
Talented and driven.
Talented can certainly describe a 16-player Husker roster that includes six players who have been either high school or collegiate All-Americans. On paper, Nebraska's talent stacks up well with any team in the country, as the Huskers are one of only seven teams nationally to feature multiple Division I All-Americans on their 2014 roster.
Offensively, Nebraska's lineup boasts a pair of returning All-America hitters, one of only five teams in the country with a lineup featuring multiple All-Americans. In the circle, senior Tatum Edwards is one of 13 returning All-America pitchers in 2014, and the Husker pitching staff boasts two first-team all-region hurlers from last season. Florida is the only other Division I team who returns a pair of 2013 first-team all-region pitchers. In the field, NU returns all but one infielder from a defense that turned a nation-leading 49 double plays in 2013, the third-highest total in NCAA history.
Talent can certainly take a team a long way, but talent that is motivated and driven to work toward a common goal can take a team to the top. The 2014 Huskers are not only talented, but they are also driven. Nebraska got a taste of success last season, and the Huskers are hungry for more.
Nebraska's trip to the 2013 Women's College World Series not only provided the Huskers with valuable postseason experience, it gave the Big Red plenty of motivation for this spring. The Huskers lost three games in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, once at third-ranked Oregon in the Eugene Super Regional and twice in the WCWS to No. 9 Washington and second-ranked Florida. Each of those losses came in extra innings, and the Huskers lost a seventh-inning lead in two of those three setbacks.
The three extra-inning postseason losses serve as a reminder for the 11 returning Huskers of how close they were to making a deeper run in Oklahoma City. Those losses added to Nebraska's competitive fire during the offseason, and the Huskers are aiming to prove they can do more than simply compete with the nation's elite.
While the outlook for the 2014 Nebraska softball season is justifiably optimistic, the Huskers will have to overcome some challenges. Nebraska must replace four starters from last year's roster, all of whom earned All-Big Ten accolades. While seven starters return - including four All-Big Ten selections - 75 percent of the roster consists of underclassmen, including five freshmen and seven sophomores among the team's 16 players.
“Last year I said we were young and athletic and this year, I feel like we’re younger and athletic," Head Coach Rhonda Revelle said as she begins her 22nd season at her alma mater. "I’m approaching this season with the same thought as last year – we will work to get better every game."
Revelle believes a team's success starts up the middle and that is certainly Nebraska's strength, starting with senior All-America twins Tatum and Taylor Edwards. Tatum was a second-team All-America selection in 2013 as a pitcher/utility player, while Taylor was a third-team All-America catcher in 2011. Together, the twins team up to form an All-America battery, a rarity that only Nebraska and Arizona State can claim in 2014.
“The great news is we have both of them back," Revelle said. "Now that they’ve both been All-Americans, it will be interesting to see what they produce together. I could see both of them putting together their best year, individually and collectively.”
The twins not only excel defensively, but they rank among the best hitters in school history. Combined, they have produced 61 doubles, 68 home runs, 212 runs scored and 265 RBIs over the past three seasons.
Continuing up the middle, sophomores Alicia Armstrong and Hailey Decker return as starters on the Husker infield. Armstrong led NU with a .346 batting average in 2013 during a productive freshman season in which she earned All-Big Ten honors and was named the shortstop on the Big Ten All-Defensive team. Decker appears poised for a breakout sophomore season after batting .692 in Nebraska's eight-game fall schedule against Division I opponents. As a freshman in 2013, Decker slugged 13 doubles and six home runs, while producing 29 RBIs as NU's starting second baseman.
Moving to the outfield, another sophomore returns for her second year as a starter. Kiki Stokes was Nebraska's primary leadoff hitter and center fielder in 2013. After adjusting to the speed of the college game, the three-time high school All-America slapper could take her game to another level this spring.
Armstrong, Decker and Stokes are three members of Nebraska's talented seven-player sophomore class that figures to benefit from having a season under their belts. Adding to that trio is Dawna Tyson, who started 29 games as a freshman in 2013. In the circle, Emily Lockman returns after earning first-team all-region and second-team All-Big Ten accolades as one of the nation's top freshman pitchers last spring. She posted a 15-6 record with a 1.78 ERA in 2013.
"Hailey Decker, with the fall she had, is a testament to what the sophomore class can bring to the team this season," Revelle said. "The talent is there. They've all settled into their roles. Their improvement can be a real key to our season."
Lockman will also team up with Tatum Edwards to give Nebraska one of the nation's top pitching tandems. The pitching depth will be a key early in the season as the Husker lineup could feature as many as four first-time starters. Edwards and Lockman will also play a key role in the Huskers' postseason aspirations, something the coaches considered when they planned the duo's offseason bullpen sessions.
“The entire staff really grew last year and really, they’re still in that growth pattern," Revelle said of a Husker staff that ranked 15th nationally in ERA in 2013, despite entering the year with only 27 combined career starts. "They are continuing to get better. We've really worked with them on adding pitches designed to take them to that next level."
Improvement from an already-stellar Husker pitching staff, combined with continued production from Nebraska's proven, returning talent could drive the Huskers right back to their desired destination - Oklahoma City and a second straight trip to the Women's College World Series.