Texas’ nonconference schedule looks similar to the way its season ended last year — a long slate of road games against tough teams.
The Longhorns will open up the season on the road for the first time since 2007, taking on No. 19 LSU in Baton Rouge on Thursday. From there, they’ll head to Lafayette to play North Carolina and then No. 15 Louisiana-Lafayette twice.
“We always play a really difficult nonconference schedule,” head coach Connie Clark said. “It prepares and challenges us so that, when we get to conference and postseason, we feel that we have been there before.”
Texas will face six teams ranked in the preseason ESPN.com rankings, including two contests with No. 5 Washington, as well as facing three teams that received votes in the poll.
Four out of the five tournaments for the Longhorns will feature at least one ranked opponent. The Judi Garman Classic will be the toughest tournament, with Texas running up against Washington, No. 4 Michigan and No. 7 Arizona State.
Even coming off of a College World Series run, Clark expects her young team to experience some growing pains during the difficult stretch.
“We may go out and dominate early, get a false sense of how good they think they are and then get thumped later on,” Clark said.
But Texas is no slouch coming into the season. Despite losing both Blaire Luna and Taylor Hoagland and bringing in seven freshmen, the Longhorns are ranked 10th and senior shortstop Taylor Thom, who played with the U.S. National team over the summer, said it’s something they’re embracing.
“I think we all are excited about the ranking and excited to prove that we are in the top 10,” Thom said.
Texas is also coming off of its first College World Series visit since 2006, and senior catcher Mandy Ogle said knowing what it takes to get there will help them with this tough stretch.
“You always talk about what you actually need, but, by actually being there, I think it’ll be easier to get back to it,” Ogle said. “We know what it felt like and we just want to get back there again.”
The development opportunities that come with playing a tough schedule should pay off when Big 12 play starts in March, especially with the conference being wide open. Oklahoma lost a couple of its starters, including pitcher Keilani Ricketts, leaving Baylor with the most experienced pitching staff in the conference.
Thom said that the difficult nonconference schedule will help them gain consistency, especially with a younger team.
“I think, right now, since we do have a lot of young faces, we aren’t very consistent,” Thom said. “So if we can get through this preseason and work on our consistency, we’ll be better off in the Big 12.”
But getting through the tough nonconference schedule and into conference play will be the test for the Longhorns early on. With difficult opponents and a young team, senior Brejae Washington expects this year to be a challenge.
“I think it’s going to be something different that we aren’t used to,” Washington said.