Coming off their first Pac-12 title in a decade, the Arizona softball team is ranked No. 7 in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Preseason Coaches Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 to begin the 2018 season.
That is Arizona’s highest preseason ranking since 2011.
But repeating as conference champions won’t be easy because three other Pac-12 teams — Oregon (3), Washington (4) and UCLA (5) — are ranked above Arizona.
Plus, Utah is ranked 15th and Arizona State is ranked 23rd. Only the SEC (8) has more teams ranked inside the Top 25.
The Wildcats return six starters from last season’s Pac-12 title team, including first-team All-American sophomore infielder Jessie Harper and sophomore catcher Dejah Mulipola, who was recently selected to compete for USA Softball this summer.
But they lost arguably their four best players from a season ago in ace Danielle O’Toole, third baseman Katiyana Mauga, shortstop Mo Mercado, and left fielder Mandie Perez.
Replacing them will be tricky, but junior left-hander Taylor McQuillin is poised to take over as UA’s ace after a strong sophomore season, while Arizona added two late transfers from Louisiana-Lafayette in Aleah Craighton and Alyssa Denham who should make an immediate impact.
Craighton, a two-time All-American outfielder, will likely bolster the top of the lineup while Denham, last year’s Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, provides quality pitching depth and potentially a lethal one-two punch with McQuillin.
The Wildcats also signed the No. 6 recruiting class, which could produce an immediate contributor or two.
Arizona went 52-9 last season including an 18-6 mark in the Pac-12, though replicating that will be difficult as the Wildcats are scheduled to play eight teams ranked in the preseason NFCA Top 25.
Arizona plays 15 games against the ranked Pac-12 teams (9 of them are on the road), along with neutral-site contests against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 24 Oklahoma State, and a home game against No. 16 Minnesota.
The Wildcats open the 2018 season Friday, Feb. 9 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe when they will face Northwestern and Oklahoma State on the Pac-12 Network.
Arizona has a lot to live up to coming off the 2017 season, but it should make for an interesting year.