February 13, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Defending national champion Florida is No. 1 in the softball polls.

Last year's national runner-up, rival Alabama, is lurking.

The Crimson Tide, the defending Southeastern Conference champions, are No. 3 in the USA Today/NFCA poll and No. 4 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.

Haylie McCleney is Alabama's top returnee. The returning first-team NFCA All-American entered the season holding school records for batting average (.454) and on-base percentage (.548). Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said McCleney is the best outfielder in college softball.

''Unbelievable instincts,'' Murphy said. ''If she was a male, she'd be making millions of dollars. She'd be playing center field for the Yankees. She's that good. She's a five-tool player. There's not many in softball.''

Alabama will need to replace All-America pitcher Jackie Traina, a four-year starter. Leslie Jury, Sydney Littlejohn and freshman Alexis Osorio have proven to be capable replacements early. Littlejohn threw a perfect game in her first start, an 8-0 win over Eastern Kentucky on Feb. 6.

The Southeastern Conference should be a grind, with Florida, Alabama and Kentucky, which is No. 5 in the USA Today and No. 6 in the ESPN poll, among the national favorites. Most of the conference's teams are ranked.

''It's been unbelievable to see the progress of the league,'' said Murphy, in his 17th year as Alabama's head coach. ''I think this year is probably the deepest. It's kind of like SEC football and SEC baseball and Big 12 basketball. There's just so many good players, so many good coaches all across the board. It's so much fun to coach in this league.''

Florida lost pitcher Hannah Rogers, the most outstanding player of the Women's College World Series, but the Gators lose just one position starter from the championship team.

Second baseman Kelsey Stewart leads the way. The two-time first-team All-American entered the season with a career .408 batting average, the best mark in school history.

Lauren Haeger will step in as the main pitcher. She was a first-team All-American in 2013 as a utility player. Last season, she ranked second in the SEC by holding opponents to a .179 batting average.

Oregon reached the Final Four last year and is No. 2 in both polls. The winning pitchers for all 56 of the Ducks' victories last season are back. First-team All-America pitcher Cheridan Hawkins returns after finishing 35-6 with a 1.66 earned run average last year. Karissa Hovinga, the team's No. 2 pitcher last year, also returns. Outfielder Janie Takeda, a second-team All-American last year, also returns. She hit .388, scored 56 runs and had 40 RBIs in 2014.

Oklahoma is No. 3 in the ESPN poll and No. 4 in the USA Today. First baseman Lauren Chamberlain is nearing the all-time record for career home runs. She entered the season with 72, 18 shy of the total former Olympic gold medalist Stacey Nuveman hit for UCLA during a college career that ended in 2002.

Chamberlain was a third-team All-American last season, despite missing 23 games with a back injury, in part because she had the best slugging percentage (.950) in NCAA history.

Third baseman Shelby Pendley, a first-team All-American last year, also pitches. Freshman pitcher Paige Parker already has thrown a perfect game this season.

Florida State entered the season ranked No. 5 in both polls, but has fallen to sixth in the USA Today poll after a loss to Kentucky. First-team All-American pitcher Lacey Waldrop returns for the Seminoles. She led the nation with 38 wins last year and was third nationally with a 1.13 ERA. Shortstop Maddie O'Brien, another first-team All-American, also is back. She led the nation with 83 RBIs last season, and was second in home runs (24) and slugging percentage (.942).


Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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