By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - The 2017 season begins the way 2016 ended, with the Tigers and Sooners battling for softball supremacy.
“It’s the toughest (opening) weekend in my 40 years of coaching,” Auburn coach Clint Myers said. “It will give us some direction of where we need to spend time.”
In a rematch of last season’s WCWS finals, No. 2 Auburn plays No. 1 Oklahoma Thursday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU in the Triple Crown Tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Auburn takes on No. 13 Washington Thursday at 7 p.m., with Myers hoping to expedite the maturation of the Tigers’ 15 freshmen and sophomores.
“The two things you really can’t teach are experience and maturity. You’ve got to learn that,” Myers said. “You can try to accelerate it a little bit. They’re called upperclassmen for a reason. They’ve been through the battles.
“We’re trying to get them that postseason experience right away, and then we can build on it the rest of our preseason starting next Thursday at home.”
It’s the first season-opening matchup between No. 1 and No. 2, the first time ESPN will televise college softball from outside the US, and the first time the World Wide Leader will broadcast softball in February, a month traditionally devoted to college basketball.
“I think it shows how much softball has grown,” said All-American Kasey Cooper, the reigning SEC player of the year. “We’re excited that we’re getting to spread the game, and get the little girls excited to play. Softball is back in the Olympics in 2020.”
Cooper takes a big-picture approach to the opening weekend.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” she said. “It’s not a make-or-break game or two. It’s about seeing where we are. If we win, that’s going to be great. But if we lose, we’re going to learn a lot about what we need to fix and overcome to get to postseason.”
Auburn will play Nebraska Friday at 2 p.m. and BYU Saturday at 10 a.m, allowing for a few hours of beach time Saturday afternoon before the flight home.
The Tigers’ all-time record against their four weekend opponents is 2-12, including a WCWS championship series win over Oklahoma to force a decisive game 3 last season.
Haley Fagan returns to shortstop after missing most of 2016 with a knee injury.
“She’s a smart player,” Myers said. “She’s in her fifth year of college. She’s a competitor.”
Auburn is replacing two All-American infielders on the right side, Jade Rhodes and Emily Carasone.
Sophomore Kendall Veach gets the start at first. Myers plans to rotate three players at second, based on matchups.
“We’ve been practicing since early January and it’s getting old,” Myers said. “It’s been a good week of practice and there is excitement.”
— Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) February 7, 2017
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer