By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Spring is here and No. 3/4 Florida Gators softball is set to kick off the 2014 season by playing six games in four days as part of the Wilson-Demarini Tournament in Tampa, FL.
The Gators open as the preseason favorite to with the Southeastern Conference title, according to the league’s coaches, receiving 10 of 13 first-place votes.
Florida hopes to improve successful 2013 season which saw it finish 58-9 on the year and advance as far as the semifinals of bracket play in the 2013 Women’s College World Series. While the Gators once again fell short in Oklahoma City, OK, they return the core of last year’s squad and possess the veteran leadership to make another deep postseason run, one which could result in program’s first-ever national title despite five WCWS appearances in the last six seasons.
Outfielder Kelsey Horton: The 2012 Capital One All-American, Horton was a mainstay in the outfield for Florida, starting 65 games while also serving as a team captain. She was a steady offensive presence in the middle of the lineup, finishing the 2013 season batting .262 (slugging .524) with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs. While Horton’s ability to impact the team on the field will be missed, her presence in the locker room and dugout might be the greatest loss for the Gators.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Senior pitcher Hannah Rogers: During her junior season, Rogers tallied a 33-7 record and 1.71 ERA in 49 appearances with a team-high 270.2 innings pitched.
Her 2.56 K/BB was stellar, as was the fact that she held the batting average of her opponents to .199. She was also part of a combined perfect game effort and had two no-hitters on her own in 2013. For her efforts, Rogers brought home numerous awards and honors including being named First Team All-SEC and a NFCA First Team All-American. She looks to continue her dominance inside the circle in 2014 while leading Florida to another WCWS appearance.
Sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart: As a freshman, Stewart sprinted her way into the program’s record books. Her 36 stolen bases were a single-season record, while her 10 triples set both single-season and career marks…yet she still has three more years to play in orange and blue. Stewart also led the Gators last season in batting average (.378) and runs scored (62), which undoubtedly helped her get noticed by and eventually named to the 2013 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team. She was dominant while playing with her fellow Americans, batting .450 with three triples and four RBIs. Stewart will be counted on to continue providing an offensive spark for Florida, especially by swiping extra bases.
Junior pitcher and first baseman Lauren Haeger: The NFCA All-American impressed last season with her power, leading the Gators in slugging (.670), runs batted in (70) and home runs – or “Haeger Bombs” as they affectionately became known – with 18 on the year. She also hit .319 out of the box, drew a school-record five intentional walks and set a program record with seven RBIs against South Florida in NCAA Regional action. Haeger impressed inside the circle as well, earning a 16-2 record with six of those victories coming against top 25-ranked opponents. While her 2.35 ERA in 29 appearances was highest among UF’s pitchers, her K/9 average of 0.99 was the best. She exhibited excellent location last season and should only get better going forward.
Junior outfielder Briana Little: Little has been a solid, dependable outfielder for the Gators and has quietly provided constant productivity both on offense and defense. She hits with a fair amount of power, finishing second on the team with 11 home runs and third in slugging (.569), but also does the little things like leading Florida in hit-by-pitches with 20, a mark that set a program record and also good enough for second in the SEC. In addition to her solid and improving offense, Little exhibited stellar defense, contributing three outfield assists while only committing one error on the season, finishing with a .981 fielding percentage.
Junior utility Francesca Martinez: In high school, Martinez always dreamed of playing softball in the SEC; unfortunately, a broken arm ended her senior season and greatly affected her plans. (Martinez broke her humerus with an X-ray showing her bones looking like an “X.”) First attending Radford before transferring to Daytona State Junior College, Martinez now joins Florida with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining. Last spring, the shortstop/outfielder hit .376, belted seven home runs, smacked seven triples and stole 19 bases. She is known as an instinctive offensive player who head coach Tim Walton hopes can provide a spark for UF.
Freshman utility Chelsea Herndon: An impressive two-way player, Herndon posted a 13-6 record as a high school senior with a 3.22 ERA in 25 appearances along with 94 strikeouts in 128.1 innings. She also hit .454, slugged 1.070, smacked 10 homers in 100 at-bats and converted 20 stolen bases on 22 attempts.
Freshman pitcher Delanie Gourley: Also a decorated high school player, she has been described by Walton as “a game-changer and program-changer.” With Rogers set to graduate in 2014, Gourley has the potential to step in and provide the Gators with a hot-shot replacement after the season and strong extra arm this year. As a high school junior, she posted a 0.52 ERA; for her career, she has thrown eight no-hitters. Gourley also swings the bat pretty well with a .544 average and .656 on-base percentage.
THE BIG QUESTION
Can Walton and the 2014 Gators finally bring home an elusive NCAA Championship?
Entering his ninth season at Florida, Walton has amassed a 379-93 record, leading the Gators to victory in 80.2 percent of its games. He has turned UF’s softball program into a national powerhouse with a tradition of winning and excellence while picking up plenty of national accolades and conference titles along the way. The one thing his excellent recruiting and superb coaching has not resulted in for Florida is a national title.
In 2013, the Gators swept the SEC two titles (regular season, tournament) for the third time in school history, advancing to the WCWS for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Florida once again has a ton of momentum coming into the season after falling just two wins short of the WCWS Championship Series. A veteran lineup and revamped roster – following the untimely departure of some key players two seasons ago – should have the Gators rolling once again.
Photo Credit: Ryan Jones/The Independent Florida Alligator