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Mid-Major Programs To Watch In 2021

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(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)

Division I college softball has historically been dominated by Power Five programs. The likes of UCLA, Arizona and Oklahoma, as well as several other Power Five programs, have often reigned supreme over the college softball landscape. However, a number of Division I programs have still had significant success, even at the mid-major level.

Here are five mid-major programs set to make some noise in 2021.

James Madison

James Madison’s 2020 season got halted before it ever really got started. Fresh off an appearance in the Super Regionals after winning the Ann Arbor Regional in 2019, the Dukes got off to a 13-6 start in 2020 after a grueling non-conference schedule.

James Madison has built one of the nation’s strongest mid-major programs in a relatively short period of time. In just 10 seasons, James Madison has won five Colonial Athletic Association titles and made the NCAA Tournament eight times.

Even in a mostly cold weather state like Virginia, James Madison has built a foundation as one of the premier college softball teams on the East Coast. Much of the Dukes’ success can be traced back through star two-way player Megan Good, who tore through college competition from 2015-2019.

During that time, James Madison won three conference championships and advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals twice. The Super Regional stage remains the furthest it has advanced in the NCAA Tournament, as a Women's College World Series trip has still yet to be achieved.

James Madison had ranked wins over Texas Tech and Missouri at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational and were the odds on favorite to win the CAA again and make another NCAA Tournament run before the season’s abrupt ending.

JMU's three leading hitters from 2020, senior outfielder Kate Gordon (.557 average), junior infielder Sara Jubas (.439) and junior infielder Hannah File (.389), all return next season as a part of a very experienced and talented lineup. Former All-American Odicci Alexander will also return for the Dukes in 2021.

Fresno State

Fresno State became one of the lone mid-major softball programs to ever win a WCWS title when it captured the crown in 1998. It is one of the long-standing West Coast powers and has become a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament. But since Linda Garza took over in 2017, Fresno State has only gotten back to the big dance once.

The 2020 Fresno State team was well in line to break that drought before the COVID-19 pandemic put an early halt on the season. The Bulldogs posted a 21-4 record when the season was finished and were ranked No. 12 in the final edition of the RPI. The team's schedule was among the best in the nation, with a win over Texas serving as the crown jewel of its non-conference slate.

Fresno State should have plenty of optimism heading into next spring. With the return of sophomore outfielder McKenzie Wilson (.474 batting average) and junior pitcher Hailey Dolcini (10-1, 1.71 ERA), Fresno State has one of the most lethal offensive-defensive combinations in the country.

Louisiana

Louisiana has established itself as such a strong program, it can hardly be considered a mid-major. It has finished sub-.500 just one time in program history and has 10 50-win seasons to its name.

Louisiana has won 18 Sun Belt championships this century, only twice failing to win the league’s regular season crown in that span.

It’s an unprecedented run of success for a program that consistently has to battle high-major programs like LSU, Florida, Alabama and Texas for recruits. However, that hasn’t stopped Louisiana from posting successful results against its local foes. During the COVID-19 shortened season, Louisiana picked up wins over Oklahoma State, LSU, Florida and Texas.

With the return of junior outfielder Raina O’Neal and sophomore Kendall Talley, Louisiana has a strong heart of the order that will only be aided by transfers Jade Gortarez (Arizona State), Frankie Izard (Lake Land College) and Karly Heath (South Carolina). Heath will join Vanessa Foreman (Arizona) in the circle for Louisiana next season.

Troy

Louisiana has long been the Sun Belt’s premier power and a fixture in the southern college softball landscape. Meanwhile, Troy hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1996 and has never recorded a conference championship.

But, in 2020, Troy jumped out to a 15-6 start that featured a ranked win over South Carolina and the nation’s 26th best RPI. The Trojans figured to be a big factor in the Sun Belt this year, even after getting off to a 1-2 start in conference. If 2020 was the turning point for Troy, 2021 could potentially be the breakthrough it was looking for.

With an additional year of eligibility for its seniors, Troy will return its best four hitters. Senior infielder Katie Webb (.368 batting average), sophomore infielder Kelly Horne (.368), sophomore outfielder Katie Lively (.364) and freshman outfielder Jade Sinness (.300) will anchor the middle of a talented Troy lineup. In the circle, sophomore Leanna Johnson (1.71 ERA) will anchor a pitching staff that had a collective 2.27 ERA in the shortened season.

Western Kentucky

After bowing out early in the 2019 Conference USA Tournament, Western Kentucky had the makings of a team that could compete for the 2020 crown and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Although COVID-19 ended those chances, Western Kentucky has the talent returning to be a major threat within its conference next year.

Western Kentucky returns its four leading hitters from last season, including sophomore outfielder Taylor Davis (.437 batting average) and sophomore outfielder Kennedy Sullivan (.417).

Sullivan (2.26 ERA) will also help anchor a three-person pitching staff that features senior Kelsey Aikey (1.86 ERA) and junior Shelby Nunn (1.15 ERA).

With a full, healthy roster next season, Western Kentucky should be in prime contention to make a trip to the NCAA Tournament next season.

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NCAA Softball Division I Transfer Tracker

A ton of college softball players have entered the transfer portal this year. Track the movement here.

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