KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the heels of consecutive trips to the NAIA national tournament, the University of Rio Grande finds itself among the programs recognized in the NAIA Softball Coaches’ Preseason Top 25 Poll announced by the national office.
The RedStorm, who earlier this month were tabbed as the preseason favorite in the River States Conference, were 24th in the poll after garnering 103 points in the balloting of 19 head coaches representing each of the conferences and the Association of Independent Institutions.
Rio Grande, which finished 25th in the final poll for 2016, returns seven regular starters and nearly its entire pitching staff from last season.
Head coach Chris Hammond’s club went 41-9 last season, winning both the regular season and conference tournament title in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The RedStorm also won the KIAC (now known as the River States Conference) tourney title in 2015.
Rio opens its 2017 slate on February 11, facing No. 13 Georgia Gwinnett College and Brewton-Parker (Ga.) in a split doubleheader at Georgia Gwinnett.
Defending national champion Oklahoma City will begin the 2017 campaign in the same position it ended last year – at No. 1. The Stars landed every first place vote and 529 points to earn their eight straight top billing.
Oklahoma City recorded a 67-3 mark last year, marking the fourth-straight year with at least 50 wins.
Second-ranked and national runner-up Saint Xavier gathered 529 points. The Cougars competed in their first-ever NAIA Softball World Series title game last year.
No. 3 Southeastern (Fla.) and No. 4 St. Gregory’s (Okla.) both moved up one spot from the 2016 postseason edition, while No. 5 Williams Baptist (Ark.) rounds out the top five with its highest ranking since the 2014 Preseason Top 25 edition when the Eagles were fourth.
No. 8 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) – a team Rio Grande will face twice in the regular season – enjoyed the biggest jump from last year’s final ranking with a four-spot hike.
The poll had two newcomers from last year’s final list – No. 17 Grand View (Iowa) and No. 25 San Diego Christian (Calif.) – while Auburn Montgomery (Ala.) and Arizona Christian slipped off the list. Auburn Montgomery made the jump to NCAA Division II following the 2016 campaign.
Eighteen of the 19 conferences are represented in the poll. Seven leagues had the most representatives with two apiece.
The first regular season poll will be released March 21.