Senior Alyssa Rivera hit .333 with 10 home runs last season. (Photo: Auburn University)

AUBURN, Alabama – For Auburn softball, much has changed since the end of last season. Two pitchers and five starting position players are gone. Mickey Dean is headed toward his third season as head coach, but he has a new coaching staff and new operations director.

It’s time, Dean said on a late September afternoon, to win.

There is a new comfort level for Dean, who hired Hall of Fame coach Eugene Lenti to coach Auburn hitters. He later hired highly successful junior college Ruby Rojas. He worked with Lenti in the pro softball league and coached Rojas when she was on the Venezuelan national team. Leisa Lee moved from Tigers Unlimited to run softball operations. Former Auburn All-American Emily Carosone returns for her third season as the volunteer coach.

“Very much so,” Dean said. “I feel good about our direction. We didn’t come here looking for immediate gratification. We’re building something. There had to be a foundation. The foundation, I couldn’t make about wins and losses. Now we are starting to move in that direction.”

The Tigers, who open fall exhibition play with a doubleheader against Gulf Coast Community College on Sunday at 1:30 p.m., welcome a recruiting class ranked by some in the nation’s top 10. Dean expects those rankings to rise in 2020 and 2021.

Right fielder Alyssa Rivera, third baseman Tannon Snow and first baseman Justus Perry, all seniors, are likely starters. Rivera hit .333 with 10 home runs last season and is Auburn’s leading returning hitter. Snow hit .320 with 15 home runs and shared the team lead in RBIs with 48. Perry struggled but finished strong. Every other position, Dean says, is up for grabs.

In the pitching circle, Lexie Handley and Ashlee Swindle return from last season. KK Dismukes is a highly decorated signee. Samantha Yarborough is a transfer from South Alabama.

“We are putting people in different positions, rotating people through,” Dean said. “We want to give people an opportunity to go out there and win a spot. If you are going to win, you have to have pitching and hitting. That’s really been our big focus.”

Last season’s team had a big postseason, reaching the semifinals of the SEC Tournament and going to the championship round in the Arizona regional. It was, Dean believes, a turning point in his program. That turning point seemed far away after the Tigers were swept at Arkansas in the final series of the regular season.

“Just to see what they did in the postseason, especially coming off the sweep at Arkansas was amazing,” Dean said. “They had a different swagger. After Arkansas, we probably the best talk we had in two years. That team played really hard.”

The Tigers of last spring lost All-America pitcher Makayla Martin in the first series of the SEC season. Ashlee Swindle took a vicious line drive off her face in Arizona. Others fought injuries. Still, they pushed on.

“When you look at the SEC Tournament and the regional, Justus was hurt, Taylon (Snow) was out, (Kendall) Veach was hurt, Bree (Fornis) was hurt, Alyssa was hurt,” Dean said. “You were short a pitcher and you are asking in postseason after these young ladies had already pitched more innings than ever expected.”

Auburn has yet to release the 2020 schedule, but Dean said it will be one of the more difficult in school history. Before the start of SEC play, the Tigers will go west to play defending national champion UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and California. They will also play Northwestern, one of the favorites to win the Big Ten.

“You can’t go into the SEC having never faced that kind of competition,” Dean said.