OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma is in prime position to repeat as national softball champion.
The Sooners defeated Tennessee in the finals of last year's Women's College World Series for the school's second national title, and seven players return from a team that finished with a 57-4 record. Tennessee is No. 1 and Oklahoma is No. 2 in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association preseason poll.
OU Infielder Shelby Pendley, the returning Big 12 Player of the Year, said the Sooners are ready for all that comes with defending a national championship.
"I feel like the spotlight's always going to be on us and everyone's looking for us to fail," Pendley said. "The talk is all about us because of us winning."
It's also on the Sooners because several key players return. Lauren Chamberlain, a junior infielder, hit .458 with 30 home runs and 84 RBIs in 2013. Pendley hit .357 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs and was an NFCA second-team All-American. Destinee Martinez, a senior outfielder, hit .347 last season.
Tennessee has even more talent returning than Oklahoma, leading to its No. 1 ranking. The Volunteers return 11 players from last year's 52-12 team, including infielder Madison Shipman. The senior is the team's returning leader in batting average (.367), runs (52), hits (77), doubles (20), home runs (11) and RBIs (63). Senior pitcher Ellen Renfroe went 19-5 last season with a 1.85 ERA.
Volunteers co-coach Karen Weekly said the team is taking the preseason hype in stride.
"I don't think we expected to be ranked preseason No. 1," she said. "I think it's probably a statement about our finish last year and a credit to that team and the tradition of the program, but we're proud of it and it's an honor to be thought of that way. It's preseason. It's really more important where you finish, not where you start."
Perhaps Tennessee isn't making a big deal about the preseason ranking because the Volunteers aren't even the favorites in their conference. No. 4 Florida has that honor, according to Southeastern Conference coaches. The Gators will lean heavily on their experienced pitchers. Senior right-hander Hannah Rogers was a first-team All-American last season after finishing with a 33-7 record and a 1.71 ERA with 243 strikeouts in 270 innings. Junior Lauren Haeger went 16-2 with a 2.35 ERA and struck out 119 in 128 1/3 innings. She also hit .319 with 18 home runs and an SEC-best 70 RBIs.
Washington is No. 3 after reaching the national semifinals last season. The Huskies return first-team All-American pitcher Kaitlin Inglesby. She had a 23-9 record with a 1.95 ERA, struck out 141 and walked just 52.
Shortstop Sierra Romero leads No. 5 Michigan. She was a second-team All-American as a freshman and was Big Ten Player of the Year. She hit .378 with 23 home runs and 71 RBIs and helped the Wolverines reach the WCWS.
No. 6 Alabama, which won the national title in 2012 but failed to make the WCWS last year, is loaded with talent. Outfielder Haylie McCleney was a second-team All American as a freshman. She hit .465 and scored 68 runs. Senior infielder Kaila Hunt, a second-team All American last year, led the team with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs. Utility player Jackie Traina was a third-team All American as a junior last season after posting a 19-8 record with a 2.49 ERA and hitting .333 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs. The Crimson Tide should challenge Tennessee and Florida in the SEC.
No. 7 Arizona State has high hopes after finishing 50-12 and reaching the WCWS last year. Catcher Amber Freeman was a first-team All American and Pac-12 Player of the Year as a sophomore. She hit .361 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs. Pitcher Dallas Escobido, a senior, was a second-team All-American last season after finishing with a 30-6 record and 325 strikeouts in 250 2/3 innings. Another second-team All-American, Cheyenne Coyle, is back. The senior shortstop led the Pac-12 with 20 home runs.
No. 8 Oregon went 50-11 last season and returns a pair of first-team All-Americans — Janie Takeda and Alexa Peterson. Takeda, a junior outfielder, hit .442 with 54 runs and 44 RBIs last season. Peterson, a senior catcher, hit .424 with 39 RBIs and had a team-best .784 slugging percentage a year ago.
Tatum Edwards' all-around play leads No. 9 Nebraska. The senior finished last season with a 30-10 record and a 1.91 ERA and hit 11 home runs on her way to being named a second-team All-American.
Senior shortstop Taylor Thom leads No. 10 Texas, which will look to challenge rival Oklahoma in the Big 12. She hit .382 with 15 home runs, 55 runs scored and 21 stolen bases last season.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .