With a healthy mix of experienced upperclassmen and talented youth, Stanford is poised to challenge for a Pac-12 softball title and make a run to the Women's College World Series.
The journey to Oklahoma City begins this week at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., with the Cardinal playing six games over four days -- starting Thursday against North Carolina St.
Stanford, ranked No. 22 and 20 in the polls, will take on a challenging nonconference slate before pursuing a Pac-12 title and a chance to advance to Oklahoma City at the end of the season.
The Cardinal finished the 2013 season with a 39-21 overall record -- the 17th consecutive winning season under head coach John Rittman. Stanford finished fourth in the Pac-12 with a 13-11 mark, and was 26-10 against nonconference opponents. The Cardinal competed in its 16th straight NCAA Tournament, concluding its season with a 2-2 result at the Lincoln Regional.
"Our expectations of this team are very high," said Rittman. "We're a relatively young team with just two seniors and have five freshmen that are going to be called upon to contribute at some point. Like every year, our expectations are to win a Pac-12 championship and a national championship, and this year is no different."
The Cardinal roster of 18 players features 13 letterwinners, two all-region selections, five players who earned All-Pac-12 Conference honors and six returning starters.
However, the team will have a couple big holes to fill after seeing the graduations of All-American Jenna Rich, pitcher Teagan Gerhart, center fielder Sarah Hassman and infielder Tegan Schmidt -- each of whom played significant roles throughout their collegiate careers.
Perhaps the most important need to address will be in the circle. Junior Nyree White is the lone returner on the pitching staff and is joined by freshmen Carley Hoover and Madi Schreyer.
"We're going to need our pitching staff to step up and do a great job," said Rittman. "We have one returning pitcher, Nyree White, that we're going to look for to provide leadership among our pitching staff and we have two freshmen that are going to need to step in and do a good job.
"All three are capable of doing the job and they complement each other well with their styles of pitching. For us to be successful, it starts in the circle with those three."
Among the key returners for Stanford will be all-region selections Kayla Bonstrom and Hanna Winter. Bonstrom had a terrific freshman campaign and was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, becoming the third Cardinal to receive the award. She paced Stanford offensively, batting .404 with a team-high 55 RBI.
Winter led Stanford in hits for the second straight year with 72, and was second on the team with a .346 batting average. She has started every game of her collegiate career at either second or third base and handled the hot-corner in all 60 games in 2013.
Along with Bonstrom and Winter, the Stanford lineup is deep in terms of defensive options and offensive production. Harboring that depth and taking advantage of matchups will be a major factor in the team's success.
"We're going to have to score runs and have offensive production up and down our lineup," said Rittman. "We will also have to play good defense, which is going to be a big part of winning a championship."
Rittman, now in his 18th season at the helm of the program, has guided the Cardinal to 17 consecutive winning seasons, made 16 straight NCAA postseason appearances and compiled a .684 winning percentage.
Associate head coach Claire Sua-Amundson returns for her fourth year with the program. With the departure of assistant head coach Danielle Henderson, who became the associate head coach at her alma mater Massachusetts, Rittman has promoted two-year volunteer assistant Leticia Olivarez into the assistant role. Teagan Gerhart ('13) joins the coaching staff this year as the volunteer assistant coach.