Dejah Mulipola has one of the hottest bats entering the third AU season. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Athletes Unlimited softball is back, with the league entering its third five-week season Friday.

Defending champion Aleshia Ocasio is back in Rosemont, Illinois, as is reigning AUX champion Danielle O’Toole. Other familiar faces will also grace the field as all look to claim the third Athletes Unlimited softball crown.

The league as a whole is trending upward, with an increase in viewership and social engagement following the AUX season.

Just Women’s Sports has three players to watch as the season kicks off.

Danielle O’Toole

O’Toole enters the season as one of the favorites to take the crown after amassing 1,436 points during the shortened AUX season to take that title. The left-handed pitcher had the lowest ERA of the AUX season at 1.69 through 28 innings pitched.

She was the only pitcher with an ERA under 2.00, although Georgina Corrick managed a 2.14 ERA across 39 innings pitched coming off a loaded NCAA season.

The last full season didn’t go as well for O’Toole, who amassed just 680 leaderboard points in 2021 while managing a rotator cuff injury that she carried with her through the Tokyo Olympics while playing for Team Mexico. But she’s back this summer, healed and showcasing just what she’s capable of with her AUX win.

“I was in a really bad place, and I worked really hard to try to be able to get back to a place where I could live every day and like and be free and be happy,” she said following the AUX season. “I was not trying to come out and win [the title]. I looked at AUX as a unique opportunity to get better and an opportunity to prepare for the regular AU champ season. I wasn’t planning on doing as well as I did.”

O’Toole also appears to be entering her final professional softball season, with the pitcher posting on Instagram a photo with the caption: “The calm before the last storm.”

Dejah Mulipola

Dejah Mulipola was one of the favorites to win the AUX crown, winning game MVP four times and holding the lead in the standings after the first week of action. She finished in third with 1,368 leaderboard points.

While Mulipola couldn’t get it done in the shortened season, she’s showing signs of improvement from her rookie season in 2021. After posting 13 hits last season, she equaled that in a shorter amount of time at AUX while scoring a league-leading 14 runs in San Diego. She also tied for the league lead with 11 RBIs – three more than she had last season.

Mulipola’s .625 slugging percentage during the shortened season was only bested by Rachel Garcia’s .667. No other batter finished above .600.

The catcher’s bat stayed hot at the World Games for Team USA, where she notched eight hits in 13 at-bats through five games. With five RBI, four runs scored, and a .682 slugging percentage, she helped the United States score a gold medal and revenge from last year’s Olympics, beating Japan 3-2 in the final.

For her performance at the plate, Mulipola was named to the All-World Team alongside fellow AU pro Haylie McCleney, who was named MVP of the tournament. Mulipola was just as good behind the plate, as she was named the best catcher of the tournament.

Sis Bates

Sis Bates enters her second AU softball season as one of the best defensive players in the game. She finished ninth last season, her first in the pros after a standout career at the University of Washington.

During the AUX season a little over a month ago, Bates recorded 21 putouts and a .952 fielding percentage in 12 games. In all but three games, her fielding percentage was perfect. Twice, she featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays for her efforts on defense. At the end of the two weeks, she was named the league’s Defensive MVP.

“It was so awesome,” Bates told Softball America. “I hadn’t been able to play since the last AU (season). This was my first year coaching, which was a little different for me. Being able to put on a uniform again and do what I love was the best experience.”

For as good as she is at taking control of the ball, she’s pretty good at hitting it too. She recorded nine hits and four runs during the AUX season. During the 2021 season, she registered 14 hits and tied for the league lead with five doubles. No matter where she is on the field, Bates is a threat.

The third season of Athletes Unlimited softball gets underway at 7 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN2.