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Opening Weekend Preview: The Sunshine State Awaits Mizzou Softball

Larissa Anderson’s squad kicks off their much anticipated season with a gauntlet of games against Utah, NC State, Liberty, South Alabama, and Clemson. (whew... that’s a lot of softball)

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Five games in three days, two against teams ranked in the top 15 (one in the top 5-ish) and another against a team receiving votes? Not only that, but three teams who made the NCAA Tournament last year, and two made it at least to the Supers?

No matter what way you look at it, Missouri’s early schedule isn’t for the faint of heart. Things get kicked off Friday afternoon at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla. For those experiencing some deja vu right about now, Mizzou played in this event last year too, and went 3-2 on the weekend. Jenna Laird was named to the Tourney team.

So as not to just repeat the same “How to Watch”, I’ll just mention it up top here. All of the games can be streamed for free on GameChanger.

NFCA Official Sponsor GameChanger will be livestreaming every tournament game, and two fields will feature expanded coverage with announcers and additional camera angles. GameChanger will run video livestreams for all 40 contests (six fields), through their newly updated GameChanger app. Viewers can watch on their phone, tablet or via web browser for free. Tournament Central | Download GameChanger App

I was in attendance for Coach Anderson’s first media availability of the season, and what I came away with most of all? Well, you can read it here. or here from Brandon.

What’s the main focus? Don’t think about who you’re playing. Worry about Mizzou Softball and that you’re doing your best for the team.

Here’s a little reminder about this Tiger squad to kick things off:

2023 RECORD: 35-26, 7-17 (tied for 13th in SEC)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: 11th, per SEC coaches

PRESEASON RANKINGS: #30 (RV)- USA Softball

PRESEASON ACCOLADES: Both Jenna Laird and Alex Honnold were named to the Preseason All-SEC team and USA Softball’s Top 50 Player Watch List for POY. Jenna was listed as the no. 61 player in D1 Softball’s Top 100 rankings, while Alex was no. 47. Alex was also named a Preseason All-American by Softball America and D1 Softball, and was listed as the no. 19 player in Softball America’s Top 100 rankings. Northern Iowa transfer Mya Dodge, the 2023 MVC Player of the Year, joined the Tigers this offseason. She was listed as the no. 62 player in Softball America’s Top 100 rankings.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Refer to Brandon’s post (linked to at the top)
  • Incoming Transfers: UNI’s Mya Dodge (1.363 OPS | .899 SLG% | 17 HR | 5 3B | 68 RBI) set a single season record in RBI and ranked third nationally.
  • Newbies: “speed demons” Claire Cahalan & Danielle Blackstun; corner infielders Madison Walker & Adi Koller. Anderson says Walker will be in the lineup every single day at either DP or 3B. Stefania Abruscato, LA told D1 Softball, “is projecting to really be our catcher of the future,” Anderson said. “She is an unbelievable receiver and has an extremely strong arm.”
  • Pitching: Per Anderson, Krings learned more about the “art of pitching” in the offseason, and she’s not just trying to overpower hitters now. Taylor Pannell is a freak athlete, and per LA went from squatting 135 to 225 as of late-October. Lilly Whitten, who missed last year with injury (first I’m hearing of this, TBH) will hopefully factor in.
  • Hitting: Larissa is expecting more from 3B Kara Daly, who has always had high power numbers (10 HR | 13 2B | 46 RBI) and says she should be hitting .300+. The aforementioned Walker should help to protect Kara in the lineup, as well as the addition of Dodge.

FACTS:

  • When we last saw the Tigers in action, they lost to Oklahoma (no surprise there) and the Cal Golden Bears in the NCAA Regional semifinals. You can read the recap here. And the aftermath I wrote in June.
  • The 2023 postseason was Missouri’s 16th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, which is important to remember for people acting like this past season was the worst thing they’d ever seen (I see you).
  • The Tigers led the SEC in defense with a .978 fielding percentage, which ranks second in program history. However, most of their other stats were... well... kinda in the pits. They were 11th in BA (.265), 9th in SLG% (.435 thanks to Alex Honnold), 10th in On-Base% (.364), 7th in runs-scored (310), 10th in hits (405), 8th in RBI (277), and 1st in strikeouts— no not the ones you want — (313). Not so bad, they were 5th in doubles (75), tied for 1st in triples (16), and 5th in HR (56). On the pitching side, they were 11th in ERA (3.33) and opp. BA (.259), 8th in strikeouts (319), 13th in hits allowed (395, yikes), 11th in runs & earned runs allowed (219; 188), 4th in walks (120), 13th in doubles allowed (64), and 11th in HR allowed (47— Kentucky had 67!!!)
  • Watch for movement amongst the position players. Should Stefania Abruscato do well behind the plate, Julia Crenshaw could move to 2B. 1B will be manned (womaned?) by Katie Chester, Abby Hay, or Madison Walker. Walker & Kara Daly figure to split time at 3B. The OF will be held in check by Honnold (CF), Mya, and then one of Claire Cahalan, Kayley Lenger or Chantice Phillips (ChannyP!).
  • UPDATE (11am): Feast your eyes on these beauties. These are perfection. The video (hell YES, Katie White), the vibes, the music — “A little less conversation a little more action, please”— all of it is ELITE. E-L-I-T-E. Clear eyes, pinstripes, can’t lose.

Let’s check in on the Tigers’ opponents, shall we? (Karen is too busy for fancy graphics this week, y’all.)


UTAH UTES

WHEN: Friday, February 10 at 3pm CT

LIVE STATS: statbroadcast

2023 RECORD: 42-16, 15-9 PAC 12)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: 5th, per D1 Softball

PRESEASON RANKING: #13 Softball America, NFCA | #14 D1 Softball | #16 USA Softball

HISTORY: Mizzou leads the all-time series 4-3, but hasn’t played them since 2019 in Tempe, AZ. The Tigers won that game 9-0 in 6 innings.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Incoming Transfers: Raci Miranda (Cal State-Fullerton P)
  • Key Departures: Sydney Sandez & Ellessa Bonstrom (graduation)
  • Newbies: Utah brings in 4 freshmen, including Utahan Jolie Mayfield, INF/OF Reese Lee, and native Hawaiians, Sianni Sakai and Shonty Passi. While they all got a lot of play in fall ball due to injuries (lots of bad shoulders & knees), the freshies may not get a ton of action in the regular season once the vets heal. Per the D1 Softball Fall Report, they expected to know more early in 2024... so that’s... now.
  • Pitching: The Utes return their All-American lefty, Mariah Lopez, who had 23 wins to go with a 2.23 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .219 OppBA and 206 K in 197.2 IP. The transfer Miranda and Sarah Ladd (3.16 ERA) are expected to get the rest of the innings. Ladd had a 5-0 record and got wins over Stanford and Oregon and nabbed a save in the Utes’ Super Regional dub over San Diego St.
  • Hitting: They’ve got a new hitting coach in Iowa State’s Courtney Martinez, as DJ Gasso left for Arkansas in the offseason, but return more of their primary pieces in leadoff batter Haley Denning (.389 BA | .813 OPS | 51 R | 75 H | 33 SB), Aliya Belarde (.393 BA | .957 OPS | 53 R | 77 H | 31 RBI | only 10 K), who had offseason shoulder surgery, All-PAC 12 Abby Dayton (.368 BA | .858 OPS | 24 R | 43 H), Julia Jimenez (.337 BA | .984 OPS | 29 R | 60 H | 51 RBI), Shelbi Ortiz (2nd highest SLG%— .608) and Karlie Davison (11 HR, 32 RBI as a freshman last year). Per the D1 Softball Fall Report, Utah finished in the top 15 nationally in both scoring and batting average. Denning and Jimenez were named to the Preseason All-Pac-12 team.

FACTS:

  • The Utes returned to the Tourney for the first time since 2017 last year, and they made it to Oklahoma City after being one of the Last 4 Out in the 2022 tournament. They finished the year ranked as high as No. 7 in the national polls, which is the highest the program has ever risen in the rankings.
  • Lopez won the Pac-12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award and collected all five of Utah’s victories in the NCAA Tournament. (how very Odicci Alexander of her!)
  • Per UtahUtes.com, In PAC-12 (RIP) play, the Utes achieved their highest win total ever in the conference and their 15 dubs included a sweep of No. 5 Stanford, the highest-ranked team the Utes have ever swept a series from, and three straight wins vs. Oregon IN Eugene, the first time Utah has ever completed a sweep of the Ducks.


NC STATE WOLFPACK

WHEN: Friday, February 9 at 6pm CT

LIVE STATS: statbroadcast

2023 RECORD: 18-34 (6-18 ACC)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: 11th

HISTORY: Missouri and NC State have a small history, tied at just 1-1. They last faced in 2015 in Raleigh, and Mizzou won 13-3 in 6 innings.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Incoming Transfers: Catcher Payton Bordeau arrives from Georgia, where she played 43 games her freshmen season but was a depth piece the last two.
  • Newbies: The Wolfpack welcomes 6 freshmen, including Katie Raper (INF, OF, C), and possible power hitters Tia Beckham, Raylee Leiman & Tori Ensley (sister of Taylor, who’s already on the team). Kayla Fekel & Carly Maxton have, per D1 Softball’s Fall Report, “excited the staff” as Maxton in particular had a WHIP under 1 in fall games.
  • Pitching: NC State returns almost all of their innings, but they had a 5.65 team ERA last season so there’s a lot of room for improvement. Madison Inscoe likely has the most promise, as she has a screwball, rise, drop, curve and changeup and can throw 70mph. She had a 4.39 ERA | 10 CG | .297 OppBA in 130.2 IP. Leftwich is hoping the addition of former Texas Tech & Liberty pitching coach Paige Cassady will help the staff get acclimated and ready to go quickly. Per D1 Softball, Leftwich said, “She (Cassady) was the person I wanted to hire. It was such an easy decision for me. She’s been a part of very hard beginnings and here we are with ours. It was nice to put someone in this chair who can be like ‘This is what we did.’”
  • Returning Hitting: Amanda Hasler (.281 BA | .931 OPS | 36 H | 28 RBI) ; MaKayla Marbury (.808 OPS | 32 H | 27 R | 19 RBI); Hannah Goodwin (.359 BA)

FACTS:

  • The Pack are led by former LSU assistant, Lindsay Leftwich, who spent a dozen years on the Tigers’ staff as a hitting coach. She comes in to take the reins after Jennifer Patrick-Swift and Patrick Swift were let go in March of last year before ACC play began. Wow.
  • NC State returns 18 players from its 2023 campaign.
  • The Pack is 7-3 when opening the season in the state of Florida, which happens all the time (they’ve opened in FL 6 of the 8 past seasons).
  • Per GoPack.com: “Tenacious - the best word to describe the 2024 squad. They accept any challenge thrown their way, no matter how difficult it proves to be. Those who were here in 2023 dealt with some interesting circumstances, but stuck together as they knew the future would bring brighter days.”

LIBERTY FLAMES

WHEN: Saturday, February 12 at 3pm CT

TV/Streaming: MLB Network (as part of a triple-header!, Gamechanger app

LIVE STATS: statbroadcast

2023 RECORD: 40-22 (19-5 Conference USA)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: 1st in their first year in the conference, per D1 Softball

PRESEASON RANKING: #29 (RV) NFCA | #35 (RV) USA Softball

HISTORY: Missouri also doesn’t have much history with Liberty, and holds a 2-0 all-time record. They faced the Flames in FL back in 2022, where they won 6-5.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Incoming Transfers: Elena Escobar (N. Alabama pitcher) | Tyler Oubre (Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher, used sparingly) | Brooke Roberts (College of Central FL), an NJCAA All-American with 33 HR/154 RBI over two seasons
  • Key Departures: Gretchen Mead (graduation) | 2x A-SUN POY Caroline Hudson (OK State) | pitcher Karlie Keeney (Oklahoma)
  • Newbies: The Flames welcome 8(!) freshmen, including D1 Softball Preseason Freshman of the Year Brooke Wildes. JaMaya Byrum and Ciara Gibson figure to be standouts, as they had good falls. Mariah Bazile, Brookes Wildes, Vanessa Perez and Kerissa Howell figure to compete in the field/offense.
  • Pitching: Keeley leaving leaves a lot of open innings (she had 261.2 last season) from a staff that, per D1 Softball’s Fall Reports, only used three pitchers, so they’ll likely rely on some freshmen in Katie Love and Kaylan Yoder to fill in. The addition of the aforementioned Escobar will be big as her stats were great (1.90 ERA | .202 OppBA | 3.7 WAR) and they’l ask a lot of Paige Bachman, who has been praised for her rise and drop balls. Bachman had a 2.35 ERA last season in 122 innings, and had 9 CG, 4 SHO, and a .22 OppBA.
  • Hitting: The offense is led by hitting coach (and former Mizzou Tiger) Sami Fagan, and includes D1 Softball Preseason Player of the Year Rachel Roupe (.317 BA | 1.049 OPS | 15 HR | 50 RBI | only 15 K); Megan Fortner (.292 BA | . 904 OPS | 28 R | 45 H | 10 HR | 32 RBI | 17 SB) and former LSU transfer KK Madrey (.329 BA | 40 R | 50 H | 22 RBI | 26 SB)

FACTS:

  • The Flames were an at-large selection to the NCAA tournament a year ago, and their season ended with a 1-0 loss to Alabama in the Regional final.

SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS

WHEN: Saturday, February 12 at 6pm CT

LIVE STATS: statbroadcast

2023 RECORD: 39-14 (20-4 Sun Belt, 2nd place)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: 3rd, per D1 Softball | 2nd per Sun Belt coaches

HISTORY: The Tigers lead the other big cats all-time 3-0, all under Larissa Anderson, per MUTigers.com. They last played in FL back in 2022, where they won 3-2.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Notable Departures: Jenna Hardy, Victoria Ortize, Meredith Keel (graduation)
  • Newbies: Lauren Allred, D1 Softball’s Preseason Player of the Year | Ryley Harrison, Cadence Williams (pitching) | Olivia Branstetter, a Missouri native!
  • Pitching: Olivia Lackie, the reigning SB Pitcher of the Year, was again named preseason All-Sun Belt, and was named no. 49 on Softball America’s Top 100 Player ranking and no. 50 on D1 Softball’s. Additionally, Lackie was named no. 21 in Softball America’s top 25 pitchers list. She finished 2023 with a 21-6 record, 1.52 ERA, 2 saves, and 214 SO.
  • Hitting: Makenzie Brasher, Gabby Stagner and Sasha Willems all return for the Jags. Brasher was an All-SBC honoree in 2023 with her .309 average and 27 stolen bases, while Willems’ line was: .291 | .440 SLG% | 41 H | 8 2B | 2 3B | 3 HR | 34 RBI. Stagner batted .286 with a .517 slugging percentage, to go with 42 H (including 22 XBH), 16 2B, 29 R, and a team-high 36 RBI. She also had 13 multi-hit games and nine multi-RBI games, per USAjaguars.com.

FACTS:

  • A year ago, South Alabama had the second-highest RPI in the league, behind only the star (Louisiana). Their 20 conference victories were a program record.
  • Per USAJaguars.com, Lackie set both the single-season (12) and career (31) marks for shutouts at South Alabama last spring, and ranked among the NCAA leaders in shutouts (second) with 12, just one shy of the national leader in the category, while also ranking among leaders in strikeouts (17th), wins (t23rd), ERA (23rd) and strike-to-walk ratio (27th).

CLEMSON TIGERS

WHEN: Sunday, February 11 at 9am CT

LIVE STATS: statbroadcast

2023 RECORD: 49-12 (18-6 in ACC, 3rd)

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH: Tied for 2nd, per ACC website

PRESEASON RANKING: #5 Softball America, NFCA | #7 D1 Softball, USA Softball

HISTORY: These two Tigers have never faced each other. Anderson, even in her previous coaching stints, has never gone against the SC Tigers.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

  • Incoming Transfers: Lindsey Garcia is a grad transfer from Auburn who can play both in & outfield and in 2023 had a line of .280 BA | 45 H | 30 R | 10 HR | 43 RBI; Infielder Alex Brown arrives from UNC, batted .399 last season with a .434 BA in the ACC. She also had 63 hits.
  • Newbies: The Tigers are welcoming in five freshmen, including two pitchers in Olivia Duncan and Julia Knowler and two outfielders (touted as “speedy” in the D1 Softball Fall Preview) in Kylee Johnson and Kennedy Ariail.
  • Pitching: Clemson returns all their arms from their WCWS run, including D1 Softball Player of the Year Valerie Cagle, whose 13.6 WAR was better than that of Fouts (AL), Penta (AUB), Milloy (TENN). Cagle’s line was astonishing: 25-8 | 1.56 ERA | 88 K to only 35 BB | 193 IP. She’s also a crazy good hitter (see below). Also worth mentioning, as we don’t know who Mizzou will see by Sunday, is Brooke McCubbin, who finished the season going 5-1 (1.34 ERA in 73.1 IP) and Milli Thompson (14-3 | 1.82 ERA | 72 K | 15 BB | 92.1 IP
  • Hitting: The Tigers held a .313 BA, .409 OBP and a .527 SLG% in 2023, and were led by the other-worldly Valerie Cagle (.469 BA | 19 HR | 15 2B | 50 R | 57 RBI | .887 SLG | 1.452 OPS). Also back is leadoff batter McKenzie Clark (335 BA | 13 HR | 11 2B | 56 R | 38 BB | 1.069 OPS) and middle of the order hitter Alia Logoleo (.314 BA | 3 HR | 19 RBI)

FACTS:

  • When you last saw them, the Tigers were thisclose to beating Oklahoma in the second game of the Super Regionals before falling to the Sooners 8-7 in extra innings. This was their second consecutive season of reaching the Supers, per D1Softball.
  • Clemson’s 2023 included an astounding 23-game win streak. Let’s hope if that happens again, that it’s AFTER Sunday, eh?
  • Clemson’s pitching staff returned every pitcher from 2023 and added freshmen Olivia Duncan and Julia Knowler to the rotation. In 2023, the Tigers held a 1.59 ERA through 392 innings of work and had 318 strikeouts.
  • Per D1Softball, they are in their “Early 8” for WCWS picks. Some details:

If you have Valerie Cagle, you have a chance. The two-way superstar will head into her final season and it’d be a shame if she never played in Oklahoma City. That doesn’t make this a pity pick. The Tigers of course have found themselves on the wrong side of Super Regionals in the state of Oklahoma the past two years. Cagle, Mille Thompson and Brooke McCubbin will lead an experienced pitching staff that also adds talented freshman Olivia Duncan. Of course, Cagle will also be back in the lineup and as will McKenzie Clark. The Tigers likely will need their freshmen or work the portal to help replace the three graduate transfers they will lose from the 2023 squad. The most important thing might be making a tougher schedule as strength of schedule was a big reason why Clemson went on the road for this year’s Super Regional round.

Whewwwwww-weeeeeee [wipes brow], this is a helluva way to start a season, right? What’s that saying? If you want to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best?

WHY NOT MIZZOU!?

Batter up.


With softball season finally here, stay up to date with all our softball content by following me, @KarenSteger, @BrandonHaynes_ and @RockMNation. I’ll likely have previews for each of Missouri’s series, as well as recaps when available. We’ll also have some extra coverage throughout the season, like takeaways, feature stories, podcasts, etc.