The road to the 2023 Women's College World Series has begun, and back-to-back national champion Oklahoma sits unanimously atop the preseason polls.
Despite losing home run queen Jocelyn Alo and transfer ace Hope Trautwein, the Sooners return star infielders Tiare Jennings and Grace Lyons, as well as pitching phenom Jordy Bahl. Plus, coach Patty Gasso was active in the transfer portal again.
Can anyone stop the Sooners? UCLA, which lost to the Sooners in last year's semifinals, is the last non-OU team to win the WCWS. The Bruins return Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Megan Faraimo and Maya Brady, who had 15 home runs and 53 RBIs last year.
Oklahoma State and Texas also made the WCWS semis a year ago, with the Longhorns being the national runners-up, and the two teams are also among the top 10 nationally.
Florida State returns ace Kathryn Sandercock, and Florida is the favorite in a packed SEC that also includes Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Sure, the season just started, but we are less than three months away from the NCAA tournament beginning and just under four months away from the WCWS in Oklahoma City.
We ask our college softball experts how good Oklahoma can be, who can dethrone the Sooners and which players will stand out on the diamond this season.
Oklahoma's reign | Who can stop OU?
Surprise picks | Top newcomers
POY picks | WCWS predictions
How good is this Oklahoma team compared to the past two championship years?
Jenny Dalton-Hill: Oklahoma has figured out how to manage depth of a roster, consistency off the bench, power 1-to-9, and continues to pick up the most elite talents out of the transfer portal each season. Jordy Bahl and Tiare Jennings will be leading the numbers for this 2023 squad, but when it comes to position players they plucked, Cydney Sanders and Haley Lee out of the portal will take over infield spots with power sticks, and freshman talent Jocelyn Erickson will learn from stellar catchers ahead of her while getting ready to anchor behind the plate. I am curious to see who will step up as the second go-to arm in the circle. Will it be Michigan transfer Alex Storako or will Nicole May claim those innings? Needless to say, opponents will not be able to relax just because some big names have graduated. If anything, new hungry talent has entered the ring, and Oklahoma will still be at the top.
Madison Shipman: I think this year's Oklahoma team can be just as good as last year's team. Bahl comes into Year 2 healthy with a whole season of experience under her belt. Adding Sanders and Lee will help boost the offense that already has established hitters like Grace Lyons and Jennings.
Kayla Braud: Ditto to everything listed above. What sets Oklahoma apart is their depth. Jayda Coleman may be one of the most electric players in the game to watch, from her bat to her ability to make huge plays in the outfield; she's an incredible athlete. Lyons is the best shortstop in the game, and she swings a good stick. This team has every piece to be as good or better than it was a season ago.
Michele Smith: Oklahoma has experience and experience wins games. The Sooners have depth. They have power -- not as much as last year, but power that steps up in big situations. They have a complete pitching staff, and if they stay healthy, this team can three-peat.
Amanda Scarborough: Oklahoma reloaded with possibly the best transfer portal jackpot we have ever seen since the transfer portal started with Alynah Torres, Haley Lee, Alex Storako and Cydney Sanders. Not only do they have one of the scariest batting lineups in the country, they have one of the best pitching staffs and one of the best catchers in the country, Kinzie Hansen. This is a team that is still hungry, powerful and knows how to win.
Which team has the best chance to end OU's reign?
Shipman: UCLA is the team that has the best chance to beat OU. Its experience in the circle with Megan Faraimo and Brooke Yanez, and its depth offensively make UCLA a tough team to beat.
Braud: I like UCLA as a top contender to beat OU, as the Bruins also took advantage of some big pickups in the transfer portal to give them more looks in the circle with Brooke Yanez coming over from Oregon, a lockdown catcher from Arizona in Sharlize Palacios and another weapon in the outfield in Janelle Meono. Don't sleep on Florida State, though. The Seminoles are going to be hungry after missing the super regional round last year and bolstered their pitching with seven options for coach Lonni Alameda in '23, led by Kathryn Sandercock.
Smith: UCLA is most likely to face OU in the championship series. Faraimo has an amazing work ethic, working the last two years to be in the best shape of her life. Her mix of speeds could be enough to take OU's power away.
Scarborough: Since the others took UCLA, which would be my No. 1 choice as well, I'll also throw Oklahoma State in the mix. OSU is a team that is very experienced at the WCWS and has one of, if not the best pitcher in the country with Kelly Maxwell. Adding Lexi Kilfoyl from Alabama, who is a completely different look than Maxwell, to their staff was one of the biggest gets in the off season.
Which team do you think can surprise the softball world?
Dalton-Hill: I am excited to see Wichita State. With graduation affecting very little from last year's roster, the Shockers are poised to make a big splash. Speed, power and average from Sydney McKinney and Addison Barnard at the top of the lineup will lead the way for the Shockers, who will look to do exactly as their nickname says: Shock. This team put up big numbers last season, and now it has experience and seniority leading the way.
Shipman: I think Ole Miss can surprise the softball world. The Rebels picked up great players via the transfer portal such as Mya Stevenson, Savana Sikes, Jenna Lord and Makenna Kliethermes, who will all make a big impact this season.
Braud: Georgia returns one of the best offenses and has a great shot at making a run in the postseason with its bats. The biggest key for its success will be in the circle. Georgia will need help from transfer Shelby Walters if it hopes to make waves in the SEC.
Smith: I believe Georgia will do well in the SEC with the addition of Shelby Walters in the circle, and the Dawgs always hit well. I think that Maryland will surprise in the Big Ten. The Terps are a very good team with offense and some good arms in the circle and they are hungry for a successful season. Among mid-majors, Louisiana has a great pitching staff and will be in the hunt every single game.
Scarborough: I think the University of North Texas can surprise some people this year. The Mean Green have been under the radar and getting stronger and stronger every year that Rodney DeLong has been their head coach. They hit 71 home runs last year and return many of their top hitters like Kailey Gamble, Molly Rainey and Kalei Christensen. Plus, Ashley Peters is a talented LHP and a name you need to know.
Which newcomer will have the biggest impact?
Shipman: I believe Brooke Yanez will have the biggest impact for UCLA. She has several years of experience and being left-handed she will be a completely different look from Megan Faraimo in the circle. The Faraimo-Yanez combination in the circle will be tough for opposing hitters to prepare for.
Braud: Kristina Foreman can be a difference-maker for the Arkansas Razorbacks, who lost a large bulk of their offensive production from a year ago (Danielle Gibson, KB Sides, Linnie Malkin, Taylor Ellsworth and Hannah McEwen). Transferring from Duke, she hit .398 with 15 HRs last season.
Smith: Lexi Kilfoyl at OSU. She is doing damage in the lineup and will be a great addition for Kelly Maxwell to help keep her strong as the end of the season comes around. They are a great 1-2 punch for the Cowgirls.
Scarborough: Payton Gottshall at Tennessee came over from Bowling Green, where she was a two-time MAC Pitcher of the Year, had a 1.78 career ERA and almost 800 strikeouts. She can bring experience and depth to a Tennessee pitching staff behind an All-American who has battled injuries her whole career, Ashley Rogers.
Who will win Player of the Year?
Dalton-Hill: I like the looks of Tiare Jennings. She has been putting up huge offensive numbers in her first two seasons, and with Alo out of the spotlight, Jennings will still be putting up those numbers and be able to capture the POY title. I have never seen a player in their first two seasons put up the RBI numbers that she has. She is on pace to blow my RBI record out of the water.
Shipman: Jordy Bahl is my prediction. We have already seen how dominant she can be in the circle (1.09 ERA, .145 opposing batting average) and it sounds like we will see her bat in the lineup more this season. She did, after all, hit 20 home runs and 55 RBIs as a high school senior.
Braud: If it's not Tiare Jennings, I'll give the nod to her teammate Haley Lee, who transferred from Texas A&M and has the support of the Sooners offense that could really bolster her stats.
Scarborough: Kelly Maxwell has some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in the game. She can be dominant, deceptive and has the ability to take over a game and a season in the circle. More times than not, it has been a pitcher who has won POY, and with Alo winning it two years in a row, odds say it's time for a pitcher to win the award again.
What is your WCWS prediction?
Dalton-Hill: UCLA has the potential to be back in the championship game. The additions in the circle to help Megan Faraimo are potent, but the Bruins need to prove themselves early and stay healthy. Also, adding transfer Sharlize Palacios behind the plate is exactly what the Bruins need to round out their scoring potential. If the Bruins play to their potential, this could be another magical year for them. Getting to the championship game and winning it all are two different things, though. Ultimately, I see Oklahoma winning it all again.
Shipman: I think there is a good possibility that we see UCLA and Oklahoma in the championship series.
Braud: After being left out a year ago, I think the ACC gets a couple of teams back in the WCWS. I'm looking at Clemson and FSU specifically.
Smith: UCLA and OU in the champ series. OU wins it in three games.
Scarborough: I'm with Kayla; the strength of the ACC is growing and I think the ACC gets multiple teams in, such as FSU and Clemson, for the first time. Virginia Tech has also been building every year since Pete D'Amour took over, and the Hokies have one of the best young pitchers in Emma Lemley, who can be absolutely dominant. I know I said multiple ACC teams to the WCWS last year, too, and was wrong (oops!), but I think this is the year they do it.