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2024 Big 12 Softball Season Preview: Oklahoma Leads Five Contenders in Transitional Year

The 2024 College Softball season will begin next week, marking the final season in which Oklahoma and Texas will play as members of the Big 12.

Oklahoma’s domination of the conference has been unmatched since Patty Gasso arrived in Norman, winning the conference title in 1999, 2000, and 2007, before starting a streak of conference championships in 2012 that is still ongoing entering the year.

2024 is a new season though, and the three-time defending national champions will have to replace Jordy Bahl, the top pitcher (and arguably player) in college softball. Will the conference still run through Norman, or will someone finally dethrone Patty Gasso’s group before they hit the horizon headed for the SEC?

 

In this preview, we will give a preseason power ranking of the conference’s teams, a projected record for each squad, and finish with a prediction for which teams should make the NCAA Tournament in May.

Let’s get started with the No. 1 team in the Big 12, and in the country.

1. Oklahoma Sooners (2023 Record: 61-1)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (7): Rylie Boone (OF), Alyssa Brito (UTL), Jayda Coleman (OF), Kinzie Hansen (OF), Tiare Jennings (INF), Kelly Maxwell (P), Nicole May (P)

Coming into the 2024 season, Patty Gasso and the Sooners will continue to be the team to beat as they’ll carry an NCAA-record 53-game winning streak into the year. Oklahoma lost the best pitcher in the country after winning its third consecutive national title last June, but there’s a chance the staff as a whole will be more lethal than it was a season ago. On top of a contingent that included All-American Nicole May, the Sooners have two of the nation’s top pitchers from the last two recruiting classes, with Kierston Deal and SJ Guerin waiting in the wings.

If that weren’t enough, OU went out and got two All-Conference talents from a season ago in Kelly Maxwell (Oklahoma State; First-Team All-Big 12) and Karlie Keeney (Liberty; 2023 All-ASUN Second Team), plus one of the brightest young pitchers in the Big Ten, Wisconsin transfer Patyn Monticelli. Add to that the return of Boone, Coleman, Hansen, and Jennings, who’ve never not won a national championship, and you’ve got all the makeup of a national title contender. The Sooners are looking to be the first team in softball history to win four consecutive national championships.

Projected Record: 50-2

2. Texas Longhorns (2023 Record: 45-15-1)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (5): Citlaly Gutierrez (P), Ashton Maloney (OF), Viviana Martinez (INF), Mac Morgan (P), Mia Scott (UTL)

Texas was one of the youngest teams in softball a season ago, as an uber-talented group of freshmen played major roles for Mike White. Now, that contingent of freshman will head into their sophomore years with another offseason of development and a Super Regional run of experience to build on. Citlaly Gutierrez, Viviana Martinez, and Ashton Maloney highlight the list of second-year standouts, but Reese Atwood (C/1B) and Leighann Goode (UTL) played great a season as well. Mia Scott, Bella Dayton, Estelle Czech, and Alyssa Washington were all around for a run to the Women’s College World Series Finals two years ago and provide that all-important leadership to a team that is rife with upside.

The Longhorns also add First Team All-ACC transfer Joley Mitchell, who spent each of her last four seasons at Notre Dame. Last season, she led the Irish with a .382 batting average and ranked third on the team with 40 RBI and 10 HR. Her addition to an already dangerous infield and batting rotation makes Texas a title contender if they can get the most out of Mac Morgan, Sophia Simpson, and Czech in the circle.

Projected Record: 52-10

 

3. Oklahoma State Cowgirls (2023 Record: 47-16)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Lexi Kilfoyl (P)

Aside from their rivals in Norman, there hasn’t been a team in the country who’s had more success than Kenny Gajewski and the Oklahoma State Cowgirls in recent memory. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the only two teams to finish each of their last four seasons in Oklahoma City at the WCWS. The 2024 season will be different though, because unlike in each of the previous seasons, the Cowgirls won’t have Kelly Maxwell in the circle. Last season, we saw Maxwell give way to Alabama transfer Lexi Kilfoyl as the go-to arm in the postseason, and Kilfoyl was everything she was expected to be and more. However, she’s the only preseason all-conference player on this squad, and in years past, Stillwater has been second to only one program in the Big 12 when it comes to on-field talent.

Preseason selections can be a bit deceiving though, as OSU certainly made some noteworthy additions in the portal this offseason. Liberty transfer pitcher Caroline Wang is a two-time first-team All-ASUN selection and the winner of back-to-back ASUN Player of the Year awards. Macy Graf (INF) started 30 games as a freshman at Mississippi State and Jilyen Poullard (UTL) was a two-time all-conference selection at McNeese. Add to that the return of Micaela Wark, Tallen Edwards, and Megan Bloodworth, and there’s reason to believe this could be another team capable of a deep postseason run.

Projected Record: 44-12

4. Baylor Bears (2023 Record: 40-18)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Shaylon Govan (INF)

Glenn Moore returns a group that made a trip to Salt Lake City for the NCAA Regionals last season before ultimately being eliminated by Ole Miss in a Saturday elimination game. That didn’t tarnish what was an incredibly promising season for the Bears though, as they’ll return the vast majority of their production from last season, and then some. Shaylon Govan and Dariana Orme stole the spotlight in Waco last season, while Amber Tovan and Emily Hott also provided a spark for the first BU team to eclipse the 40-win mark since 2017.

Now, that 2023 squad returns 10 of 11 starters, key rotation player Ashlyn Wachtendorf, and will now get Aliyah Binford back after she missed all but the first 11 games of last season. In 2022, Binford started 54 games and racked up 156 strikeouts in 137 innings of work. Adding that production to a circle with Dari Orme could be just the ticket to giving Baylor the dynamic pitching staff that is required to make a run in the postseason. Remember, this is the only team in the country that was able to beat Oklahoma last season and they’ll be back at full strength for the first time since doing so.

Projected Record: 37-13

5. UCF Knights (2023 Record: 40-21)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Sarah Willis (P/OF)

UCF will enter the Big 12 after winning the American Athletic Conference tournament last year and earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the Tallahassee Regional, UCF knocked off South Carolina in their opening game but ran out of gas and was eliminated later that weekend. Luckily for them, they lost virtually no experience or production from that team, as the Knights will return 11 of their top 12 players and all four pitchers who started a game in 2023. Sarah Willis, the senior transfer from Washington, returns after a big season in Orlando and is set to be UCF’s top arm once again in their inaugural Big 12 season.

Chloe Evans (All-AAC Second-Team) leads a group of UCF’s top seven batters who will return in 2023, with only one player with double-digit RBI (Micaela Macario, 12) gone from last season. The Knights also have some new additions coming with them to the Big 12, with Stormy Kotzelnick (UTL) and Sona Halajian (RHP/DP) coming aboard. Kotzelnick started 46 games for Louisiana (50-16), helping guide them to the NCAA Super Regionals last year. Meanwhile, Halajian comes to Orlando after spending four seasons with the Cal Bears, appearing in 34 games with 25 starts on offense last season. The jump in competition will be an adjustment for the Knights, but by season’s end, they’ll be holding their own against the Big 12’s best.

Projected Record: 39-15

 

6. BYU Cougars (2023 Record: 35-17)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Huntyr Ava (1B)

BYU will enter the Big 12 after a 35-17 season in 2023, which ended with the Cougars finishing second in the West Coast Conference. The Cougars were a WCC powerhouse during their time with the league, winning the regular season title in eight of the 10 years they were there, from 2014-2023. In fact, last season was the first time that BYU had played a full season in the league and not finished at least tied for first place. BYU went on to make an appearance in the NISC tournament, where they finished as the runner-up. Now, they’ll take a major step up in competition in 2024, with conference series against teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, rather than Saint Mary’s and LMU.

Huntyr Ava will provide the Cougars with offensive firepower out the gate, returning to Provo for a fifth season after tying a career-high with 16 home runs in 2023. Ava led her team last season with a .746 slugging percentage and 50 RBI as well. The Cougars also bring in some transfer help heading into 2024, with Lily Owens and Aleia Agbayani coming aboard. Owens spent one season with Lehigh and will have three years of eligibility remaining and was a four-time “Rookie of the Week” last year, posting a .305 batting average and .444 slugging percentage as a freshman in 2023. Meanwhile, Agbayani brings 60 games of experience from Cal, and was Hawaii Gatorade Player of the Year prior to that. This season is going to be a culture shock for BYU, who has been the top dog in their conference for a decade. With an experienced coach like Gordon Eakin (21 seasons), I expect some upsets, but the weekly grind will be a tough transition for the program in Year 1.

Projected Record: 33-20

7. Texas Texas Red Raiders (2023 Record: 31-22)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Kailey Wyckoff (C/OF)

Craig Snider inherited something of a mess after the 2022 season and managed to build a winner in 2023, finishing the season at 31-22 after back-to-back losing seasons. Still, conference play was brutal for the Red Raiders, as they managed just a 5-13 clip in league play and felt like a distant straggler when it came to the Big 12 race. They’ll hope to turn things around in 2024, but it will take replacing a ton of production. Three of Texas Tech’s top four batters from a season ago are gone, with Kailey Wyckoff being the only one of that quartet set to return.

The Red Raiders will have to lean on newcomers this season, as well as hope that players like Arriana Villa and Alanna Barraza can step into bigger offensive roles to offset some of the production from the top of their order. SEC transfers Aubrey Barnhart (Alabama) and Jenna Lord (Ole Miss) will need to be immediate contributors as well, with a group of six freshmen working their way into the young lineup. It could be a difficult year for TTU in league play, but they do get Oklahoma, UCF, and Texas in Lubbock, so that’s got to count for something.

Projected Record: 30-21

8. Iowa State Cyclones (2023 Record: 25-30)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Milaysia Ochoa (OF)

Iowa State enters the 2024 season after finishing out last season with back-to-back series wins over Baylor and Kansas to end the regular season and an upset over the Bears in the Big 12 Tournament before being eliminated by Oklahoma in the semifinals. It was a positive finish to an otherwise peculiar season in Ames, where inconsistent play at both the plate and in the circle left head coach Jamie Pinkerton with more questions than answers at times. Now, the Cyclones will turn the page to 2024 without Mikayla Ramos and Kasey Simpson, who started a combined 105 games last season.

The good news is, that ISU will return each of its 10 most experienced players outside of Ramos and Simpson and have some momentum from last season to work off of. If Iowa State can get a season’s worth of work from Karlie Charles and Ellie Spelhaug that resembles what we saw at season’s end last year, this team could put up a fight in the second tier of the Big 12 hierarchy. However, if the inconsistency continues, there’s a chance that they find themselves closer to the back of the pack than they’d like.

Projected Record: 28-26

9. Kansas Jayhawks (2023 Record: 25-27)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections: N/A

Kansas is coming off a 25-27 season in 2023, which showed plenty of signs of improvement for a squad that went 20-36 in 2022 and 22-26 in 2021. After receiving a contract extension following 2023, head coach Jennifer McFalls has eight of her top 11 from a season ago. Unfortunately, the three players who are leaving take a ton of experience with them, as Shayna Espy, Haleigh Harper, and Peyton Renzi combined for 138 appearances and 106 starts last season. Still, each of the Jayhawks’ top six batters, in terms of RBI, are set to return, led by Olivia Bruno and Lyric Moore.

Kansas will also return every pitcher from its 2023 squad, including Lizzy Ludwig, who had a team-best 2.72 ERA. The Jayhawks did not add any pieces from the transfer portal but do have a group of four incoming freshmen with Kadence Stafford (INF), September Flanagan (INF/UTL), Anna Soles (LHP/UTL), and Abby Carsley (C/UTL). With a few key players leaving and not much experience filling in behind them, 2024 could be a chance for some young players to carve out a big role for themselves moving forward. Still, that could mean more growing pains for a program that is desperately trying to gain traction in the Big 12.

Projected Record: 24-30

10. Houston Cougars (2023 Record: 20-30)

All-Big 12 Preseason Selections (1): Turiya Coleman (INF/C)

Of the three newcomers that enter the Big 12 this season, there might not be a tougher road than the one that Houston faces. The Cougars were 20-30 as members of the American Athletic Conference last season and managed just a 7-10 record in league play. Kristin Vesely will now enter her eighth season with the Cougars and will have her toughest test to date in the same conference that her alma mater has dominated for the past two decades. The Cougars signed nine incoming freshmen in the 2024 recruiting class, but also has a huge contingent of transfer players, with 15 of 23 players having prior experience at another school.

Second-year transfer Turiya Coleman (Oklahoma) was a unanimous All-AAC selection in 2023 after leading the Cougars offense in batting (.397), OPS (1.148), hits (56), runs (33), and on-base percentage (.503). Bree Cantu also earned All-AAC first-team honors last season and led the Cougars with nine HR and 35 RBI in 2023. The most difficult thing to predict about this Houston team is the ceiling, as they added 10 transfers in the 2023-24 cycle, a class that ranked 15th nationally. All 10 players bring starting experience with them and come from a house of programs around the country: Tamya Waiters (P, UT Arlington), Paris Lehmen (P, Nicholls), Mandy Esman (INF, Michigan State), Jazmyn Rollins (INF, Arizona State), Lair Beautae (INF, Tennessee), Zaquai Dumas (INF, Michigan State), Shelby Smith (P, Seton Hall), Kennedy Thomas (C/OF, Cal), and Nicole Bodeux (P, Maryland). I expect improvement, but how much will that show up on the scoreboard in a much tougher league?

Projected Record: 24-30


Projected NCAA Tournament Teams

Oklahoma (50-2)

  • No. 1 Seed – Host Through Super Regionals

Texas (52-10)

  • Top Eight Seed – Host Through Super Regionals

Oklahoma State (44-12)

  • Top 16 Seed – Host a Regional

Baylor (37-13)

  • Unseeded Tournament Selection

UCF (39-15)

  • Unseeded Tournament Selection
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