This special guest commentary was written by Nate Rohr, the play-by-play announcer for Husker softball. Nate has called Nebraska softball games since 2004 and will call every game of the 2014 season for free on Huskers.com. Nate is not employed by the University of Nebraska and the opinions and content of this commentary are his own.
Most people would say the 2014 Huskers are an experienced team.
After all, from a team that made an improbable run to the 2013 Women’s College World Series, the Huskers return every inning pitched, over half of the batting order, three-fourths of the infield and two players who have already earned All-America honors in their careers.
But as you look at the national and Big Ten picture, it’s amazing how much talent so many teams have coming back. In some ways, Nebraska returns as much, if not more, than most of the other teams in the country. But by other measures, the Huskers lack the experience some teams have, particularly in the batting order.
The big edge Nebraska has on most teams among its returners is quality. Taylor and Tatum Edwards have both earned All-America honors earlier in their careers, meaning Nebraska is one of just seven schools in the country with at least two All-Americans. The Huskers are just one of 12 teams in the country that can boast an All-America pitcher returning this year.
The news is fairly good when examining what Nebraska brings back in the circle. Nebraska returns every inning pitched from last year. But as you look around the Big Ten, it’s surprising just how much pitching returns in the conference. Seven of the 12 Big Ten teams return all three of their top pitchers. Only Illinois lost multiple pitchers from their top three. Of the aces for each team in the conference, 11 return.
It’s just as striking when you look at the top 25 and see that 13 teams in the top 25 return their top two pitchers. Three more schools return their ace, while just four schools (Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Stanford) return neither their first or second pitcher. Of the 52 major conference schools, 25 bring back their top two pitchers, while 34 return their ace.
By those counts, the tag of “experienced” seems to fit. But when you look at the Nebraska batting order, the Husker lineup looks somewhat inexperienced compared to the others.
Nebraska returns five hitters from last year’s batting order. Returning more than half of your lineup would seem to be good enough. But in the Big Ten, NU’s five returning hitters rank 11th, only ahead of Penn State, which lost five of its nine hitters from last year. Among top-25 teams, only Tennessee returns fewer hitters, with just four starting hitters back from last year’s team. Three other teams, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and UAB, also return just five. Meanwhile, four teams (Washington, Florida, LSU and South Florida) return eight hitters, while Arizona State returns its entire batting order (along with both pitchers). Among major conference schools, 10 return eight or more hitters from last year’s batting order while 10 schools return five or fewer.
Again, here’s where the argument of quality over quantity helps the Huskers. Nebraska is one of just seven teams in the country with two or more All-Americans in the batting order. Still, it highlights the importance of strong starts by the established players in the Husker lineup while the other four spots in the order are settled.
How much does experience matter? Last year, Oklahoma returned all but one starter (and plugged in Arizona transfer Shelby Pendley at third base). The Sooners returned at least 89 percent of their RBI, hits, runs scored, home runs, innings pitched, wins and strikeouts. They were expected to dominate on their way to a national championship, and did just that.
At the same time, Nebraska entered last year losing three hitters and their ace pitcher, and still found a way to go to the Women’s College World Series. Florida lost five of nine starting hitters before the 2013 season and still won the Southeastern Conference and earned a bid to the WCWS. Experience in the circle seems to trump experience in the batting order.
In the end, where you’ve been doesn’t decide where you’re going. But it provides a good starting place for both sizing up the teams in college softball and assessing how teams will get through the early part of the season. It’ll take strong pitching and fast starts from the five returning starters in the batting order to propel the Huskers to a start in the same neighborhood as the one we saw last year.