Auburn softball

Auburn's Alyssa Rivera bats during the team's game against UAB on Feb. 14, 2019, in Auburn. The Tigers open their 2020 season Friday in Florida. 

Every time Mickey Dean huddled his team this preseason, he looked around and saw plenty of new faces.

Auburn has 13 newcomers on this year’s softball team. That’s more than half the roster. That’s 13 players who’ve never gone through opening day with Auburn, before today. That’s 13 players who’ve never taken to the diamond in orange and blue, until about 11 a.m.

Maybe most importantly, that’s 13 players who’ve never been through the SEC schedule before.

And that’s why Auburn is running through the gauntlet with a difficult nonconference schedule this season, starting this morning when Auburn opens its season against Baylor in the NFCA Division I Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla.

Auburn is set to play five games there over the weekend, with the Baylor game set to start at 11 a.m. The Tigers are scheduled to play Notre Dame at 1:30 p.m.

In total, Auburn will play four teams in those five games that made the NCAA Tournament last season.

It’ll be a challenge but something Auburn had better get used to. Auburn is ranked No. 23 in the NFCA’s preseason Top 25. But there are eight other SEC teams ranked even higher.

“We have a tough preseason schedule. That’s to get us ready for SEC play,” Dean said last weekend as his team geared up for opening day.

“If we play a mush schedule before we get to SEC, it could be more of a detriment. We want to know what our weakness are, so that we can work on them. In order to find out what those are, we need to play high-caliber teams, and we are in our preseason.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he admitted. “It’s scary, too. It’s going to keep their attention. I can promise you that.”

After today Auburn is set to play Liberty at 9 a.m. Saturday then play Texas State at 11:30 a.m. before capping its play in Clearwater with a game against Illinois at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Auburn will then play its first home game next Thursday against Kennesaw State at Jane B. Moore Field.

That’ll mark the home-field debut for those 13 newcomers, which include nine freshmen and in all make up the tiger’s share of the team’s 24-player roster.

They have plenty to learn before that brutal conference season kicks off in March, but the Tigers say they’ve already brought their version of competitive fire to the team at practices.

“I told one of the freshmen the other day that I’m afraid that they are going to do better than the returners,” senior infielder Justus Perry joked last week. “I was walking with her as was like, ‘That was a good hit. OK, maybe I need to go practice a little more.’

“They’re awesome. They’re super fun. … It’s extremely difficult, but you’ve got girls that just want to play. That’s all you could ever ask for.”

Perry and the rest of the team’s veterans are in their third season under Dean.

Outfielder Alyssa Rivera is also back after driving in 35 RBI’s to tie for the team-high last season on .333 batting. Tannon Snow hit 15 home runs last season to mark the most among Auburn returners for this season. Rivera and Snow were both ranked on Softball America’s Top 100 this preseason.

One of the key comes in mixing that returning talent with those newcomers — and Auburn plans to work on that by trial through fire starting today.

“We’ve got some gamers,” Rivera said of her new teammates. “I will say that.

“I’m really excited for the season. We’ve got a bunch of people that can really play together and got a lot of talent.”

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