How does that work with a seemingly mediocre 2-2 showing at tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico?
It is all about the competition. The Cougars crushed Nebraska 12-1 in five innings and edged No. 13 Washington 4-2. They outhit No. 1 Oklahoma before falling 7-1 and dropped a 3-0 decision to No. 2 Auburn in the final game. They cracked the national rankings Tuesday for the first time since 2011, landing at No. 25 in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 poll.
"We are thrilled," BYU coach Gordon Eakin said. "We had big expectations because we do have a very talented team. It wasn't surprising to us because we knew we were capable of doing it, but we are excited we actually did it."
The Cougars head back out on the road this weekend to play in the DeMarini Desert Classic in Las Vegas, weather permitting. After that, they are scheduled to face Georgia, Arizona, Louisville, Texas A&M, UCLA, Oregon and Utah before opening defense of their WCC title against Loyola Marymount on April 7.
"This is probably the most challenging non-conference schedule we've ever had," Eakin said.
The Cougars have won three straight WCC titles, eight consecutive conference titles and made 12 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. This might be the team that gets the program over the next hurdle and into its first Super Regional appearance since 2010, perhaps even the Women's College World Series.
"This team matches the 2010 team, at least in talent," Eakin said. "But we have a lot more overall depth on this team. We have more pitching depth. We have more speed, and we have better balance through the lineup in terms of speed and power. And I would say this is by far the strongest defensive team that we've ever had."
It all starts with pitching in softball, and the Cougars have one of the best in the country in senior McKenna Bull, the two-time WCC Pitcher of the Year. She beat Nebraska and Washington last weekend and is the all-time shutout and saves leader and second in wins, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts at BYU.
Bull should have more help this year. Arianna Paulson and Olivia Sanchez are back and joined by newcomers Kerisa Viramontes and Arissa Paulson.
"It is a complete staff this year," Eakin said. "We've got five pitchers, and they are all a little bit different in what they bring. Will we use McKenna less? Yes. Will she still be our workhorse? Absolutely. The last two years we just overworked her to where we got to the end of the year and she didn't have a lot left."
Defensive Player of the Year Lauren Bell moves from shortstop to second base this season, and Alexa Strid is back at shortstop, where she started her career. Former Viewmont star Caitlyn Larsen Alldredge won the starting job at third base and will be backed up by Briielle Breland, a transfer from Grand Canyon. Eakin is excited about freshman Brooke Vander Heide in center field. The Alta High product "is probably the most talented defensive outfielder we've ever had in our program. She covers a lot of ground and has a strong and accurate arm."
The offensive leaders will be Bell, Alldredge, 2016 WCC Player of the Year Ashley Thompson and catcher Libby Sugg. Thompson had a .400 batting average and .490 on-base percentage and led the team with 66 hits last year. Sugg led the team with 58 RBIs and 18 home runs.
"We are very, very good offensively, which was proved out this last weekend," he said. "We came out of that with a .337 team batting average, which is really good for early in the year, especially against that kind of competition. In the past, we had four or five offensive weapons. Now we are much deeper."
A closer look at the Cougars
Key losses • CF Gordy Bravo, 3B Coco Tauali'i Bond
Key returners • P McKenna Bull, C Libby Sugg, 1B Ashley Thompson, 2B Lauren Bell, SS Alexa Strid, 3B Caitlyn Larsen Alldredge
Key newcomers • OF Brooke Vander Heide, 3B Briielle Breland, OF Rylee Jensen, P Arissa Paulson
Bottom line • If ace pitcher McKenna Bull gets some help from the four other pitchers on the staff, the Cougars should win their fourth straight WCC title, ninth straight conference title, and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight season.