Seniors Kayla Bonstrom, Jessica Plaza and Kaitlin Schaberg understand the national softball landscape. They were part of it as members of the 2013 Stanford squad that qualified for the NCAA tournament.
After missing out the past two years, the seniors are ready to take charge of a 16-player roster that has plenty of talent but lacks experience.
The Cardinal (17-37 last year) opens its season with five games at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe this weekend in Arizona, beginning with Portland State on Friday night.
Stanford shoved its first losing season in 19 years into the back of the closet, taking the lessons learned of an injury-plagued, tumultuous year, and moved forward in the new year under completely different -- optimistic -- circumstances.
Junior shortstop Kylie Sorenson can concentrate on her position after serving as an emergency pitcher for the Cardinal following an unfortunate series of injuries, transfers and off-field commotion.
Second-year coach Rachel Hanson seems to have stabilized the situation after dealing with adversity that normally fills a career, let alone a season.
"It's a special team this year," Hanson said. "They are committed. I haven't been this excited for an Opening Day in a long time. This team gets it. They're all in it together. It's team first, being selfless and being ready to compete."
Bonstrom, who set a single-season school record with her .806 slugging percentage in an All-American season last year, returns as one of the best hitters in the nation.
"She's a spectacular player," Hanson said. "She's had a lot to do with getting the team into a great place, culture-wise. You can learn something from anything. When you go through trials and tribulations together, it can completely drive you away or it can draw you closer. From all they've been through, they know what kind of team they want to be."
Bonstrom, already the owner of several of the best offensive years in program history, likely will finish her career among the top five all-time in several categories, including home runs, batting average, RBI and doubles.
If there were records kept for being hit by a pitch, Bonstrom probably would be at the top of the list, reaching base the painful way 33 times.
"She's so driven," Hanson said. "She's such a technician that she worked on her swing and wants to execute it perfectly."
If Bonstrom is the ideal offensive player, Plaza is the ideal defensive player. She's at the top of the depth chart as a catcher, one of the more demanding positions. She does her job so well, she went over two years before making an error and her career fielding percentage is .997.
"She does a tremendous job of being the field general," Hanson said. "She's like a coach out there. She knows what pitchers need, whether it's a pat on the back or a kick in the rear. She also has a gun for an arm. She has a lot of strengths."
Schaberg, who started 33 games last year, is in the mix for a spot in the infield. Like her fellow seniors, she's been a remarkable example of consistency.
"She's in it for whatever the team needs," Hanson said. "She'll make the routine plays."
Sorenson was not alone in volunteering to pitch last year, though she threw 99 innings, second on the team, when both of Stanford's starting pitchers had to miss time.
"There will be far less shuffling this year," Hanson said. "Kylie is a tremendous ballplayer. She has to be careful not to over think the game and allow her athleticism to shine through. She has a great arm and she's swinging the bat with confidence. She's in a great place."
Juniors Bessie Noll and Lauren Bertoy also return as valuable contributors. Bertoy hit .281 with a home run and 16 RBI last year, while Noll added five home runs and matched Bonstrom for the team lead with 23 walks.
Pitcher Haley Snyder, catcher-infielder Arden Pettit, pitcher-infielder Kaitlyn Lagattuta, catcher Victoria Molina, outfielder Savannah Schulze and infielder Lauren Wegner comprise a sophomore class that made progress throughout the season.
Snyder led Stanford in innings pitched (112 2/3) and wins (8) last year. Slowed by injury, she returns in good health.
"It was a tough year for her," Hanson said. "She learned a lot and came back a lot more savvy. She's zoned in on a couple of pitches."
Pitcher Carolyn Lee heads the list of freshmen who come in with a ton of potential. Lee pitched all but two innings as a senior at Dougherty Valley in San Ramon. She was 17-9 with an 0.99 ERA. She averaged 11.8 strikeouts per seven innings. Lee also led the Wildcats with a .416 batting average and 25 RBI.
"She really has no fear," Hanson said. "She attacks the zone and gives you all she's got."
Redshirt Whitney Burks was a star hitter in high school. Freshman Lauren Frost grew up playing baseball in Alaska and freshman Molly Fowkes continues a family legacy by attending Stanford. Her father, Dan, played tennis and was part of the 1980 and 1981 national title teams.
Stanford's schedule includes five defending conference champions and 14 teams that reached last year's NCAA tournament.
Included among the defending champions is Hanson's former team, Dartmouth.
"It will be fun to see the kids I recruited and coached," she said. "When we square off, I want to beat them but I will always have a special place in my heart for them."
As for her current team?
"They are so much fun to coach," Hanson said. "They are committed to being better and constantly ask what they can do better."