OSU then-junior Alex Bayne (2) is welcomed by her teammates at home plate after hitting a home run during a game against Penn State on April 6 at Buckeye Field. Credit: Lantern File Photo

The Ohio State softball team begins its season this weekend at the Aggie Classic in College Station, Texas, boasting a senior-laden roster eager to build upon last season’s success.

This season, the Buckeyes return 16 letterwinners from the 2016 team, which reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. That experience will help the team get off to a smooth start, said senior right fielder Alex Bayne.

“That’s going to be huge,” Bayne said. “We have such impact players coming back and with the incoming freshmen and transfers, we’ll be able to pick up right where we left off and not, hopefully, skip a beat.”

Bayne is a vital returning player for the Buckeyes. In 2016, she led the team in RBIs (49) and runs (53) while tying OSU’s single-season home run record with 19. Bayne was named first-team All-Big Ten as well as first-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Midwest Region following the season and made the 2017 preseason Fastpitch News Top 50 players list.

The other returning players include five starters, two more all-region selections and most importantly to OSU coach Kelly Schoenly, the entire five-person pitching rotation.

“I think where you will see the biggest significance with returners is on the mound,” Schoenly said. “We were able to make the postseason with three first-year Buckeyes last season. Having an entire staff with at least one year in the program will be a huge asset.”

One of the team’s returning pitchers is senior Shelby Hursh. Hursh established herself as OSU’s ace on the mound last season, leading the Buckeyes in wins (16), strikeouts (199), opponent batting average (.212) and shutouts (four). She was named to the NFCA All-Midwest Region second team after last season and made the 2017 preseason Fastpitch News Top 50 pitchers list.

“It’s a really big honor; I was really thankful, but my teammates helped me get there,” Hursh said. “I wouldn’t have had such good numbers if they didn’t play such good defense and they weren’t there to support me.”

Behind the pitching, the Buckeyes had one of the top defenses in the Big Ten in 2016, finishing the regular season with a .973 fielding percentage, good for second best in the conference. OSU returns the bulk of that defense, including one of the team’s top fielders in sophomore second baseman Emily Clark. Clark made just two errors in 2016, finishing the regular season with a .988 fielding percentage, and was named to the NFCA All-Midwest Region first team.

The Buckeyes will lean on their experienced core as they face a daunting early-season slate. OSU kicks off 2017 with a 22-game, non-conference road trip with five of those games coming against teams ranked in the top-20 of the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, beginning with No. 19 Texas A&M on Saturday.

“Our scheduling provides us the opportunity to show we belong in the NCAA Tournament,” Schoenly said. “These road trips give us the chance to compete against the best teams in the country, be together as a unit, and challenge ourselves.”

The Buckeyes know there’s a challenge ahead, but they’re confident and eager to prove themselves.

“I think we’re just going to bust it open,” said junior pitcher Shelby McCombs. “I really think that we’re going to come out strong. People are going to be surprised.”