Spring is here and No. 2/4 Florida Gators softball is set to begin their 2012 season this weekend by playing five games as part of a three-day tournament hosted by South Florida in Tampa, FL from Feb. 10-12.
The Gators enter the 2012 campaign having lost a number of major pieces that formed the core of last year’s team that went all the way to the championship round of the 2011 Women’s College World Series. However, a strong and dynamic freshman class coupled with a crop of extremely talented players and superb coaching by Tim Walton means that Florida may not be far off from yet another successful season.
Outfielder Kelsey Bruder: The 2011 SEC Player of the Year, Bruder was the straw the stirred the drink for the Gators. With game-winning hits and monster shots all season long, Bruder paved the way for Florida’s offense with 19 home runs, 71 RBIs, a team-high 48 walks and a .387 batting average (.764 slugging percentage).
Pitcher Stephanie Brombacher: The heir apparent to Stacey Nelson, Brombacher hoped to set the mound ablaze in her senior season but struggled with injuries early and inconsistencies at the end of the postseason. She still managed to finish 2011 with a 20-3 record, team-low 1.51 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 153.0 innings pitched.
First baseman Megan Bush: Part of an amazing power tandem with Bruder, Bush set the SEC career home runs record with her 21 dingers in 2011 and posted a team-high (and single-season record) 80 RBIs while hitting .333 and slugging .692. Though she may not have received as much nationally acclaim as her counterpart, Bush was just as big of a part of the Gators’ offensive success a year ago.
Seniors catcher Tiffany DeFelice and second baseman Aja Paculba, each of whom were year-long starters at their respective positions, mark two other tough losses for Florida, which will find it difficult to make up for their proficiencies not only in the box but also on the field. Paculba’s 16 homers and 62 RBIs are tough to replace, as is DeFelice’s perfect 1.000 fielding percentage and experience behind the plate.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie: A walk-on as a freshman, Moultrie became a vital part of the team as a junior and is now one of its leaders as the sole senior remaining on the squad. Not only did she lead the Gators in batting average (.443), on base percentage (.519) and stolen bases (31) as the leadoff hitter in 2011, Moultrie at times resembled Spiderman in center by grabbing everything that came anywhere near her. She shined in the WCWS and has spent the offseason playing with the 2012 USA Softball Women’s National Team for the second-straight year, making her a candidate to be one of the top players in the sport this season.
Junior catcher Brittany Schutte: Though her bat got off to somewhat of a slow start in 2011, Schutte found her power stroke in the postseason and wound up leading Florida with 22 home runs while playing right field. She also hit .326 with 69 RBIs while slugging .726 (second-best on the team) and is expected to bat cleanup in 2012 in order to best utilize her power. Schutte will replace DeFelice and move behind the plate this year even though Walton may choose to use her in the field on occasion.
Sophomore pitcher Hannah Rogers: Expected to provide relief and spot starts for Brombacher last year, Rogers was forced to start the majority of the season’s games for the injured senior and finished the year with a 36-8 record and more-than-respectable 1.92 ERA. The experience she gained as a freshman will undoubtedly pay dividends in 2012, but Rogers will be expected to step up her performance even though she struck out 221 batters in 265.2 innings a year ago.
Another trio of Gators will be counted on heavily in 2012, starting with sophomore shortstop Cheyenne Coyle. A freshman starter last year, Coyle is considered Florida’s vocal leader and did a great job at the plate for a freshman, hitting .318 with 60 RBIs with plenty of room for improvement. Utility players junior Kelsey Horton and sophomore Kasey Fagan will also be instrumental in Florida’s success. Though Horton will see some time behind the plate, she and Fagan will rotate around the field until Walton figures out the best spot to play them consistently. He will also be hoping that both improve at the plate as neither hit over .300 last season.
Four of seven new players on the Gators in 2012 – freshmen Alyssa Bache, Jessica Damico, Lauren Haeger and Sami Fagan – are part of the reason why Florida brought in the unanimous No. 1 recruiting class this past offseason.
Bache and Haeger, both right-handed pitchers, will compete for playing time right away with Haeger likely getting the early nod considering her vast experience playing against top competition. In fact, Walton has even compared Haeger to Nelson, which should make fans quite excited about her potential down the road.
The infield speed of Damico and Fagan (Kasey’s sister and the 2011 Gatorade Florida Softball Player of the Year) could fit into a lineup that may play a bit more small ball than in recent memory. Should Walton feel the team needs additional power, he will look to utility players Bailey Castro and Briana Little for some pop.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2012
Can Rogers handle the majority of the pitching duties all year?
Brombacher had plenty of pressure on her shoulders after Nelson graduated and even though she saw some spot starts in her place, she was not forced to carry the load. Rogers has taken a different path to the mound, being counted on as a freshman to handle the heavy lifting while Brombacher nursed an injury and having experienced almost everything there is to see pitching in the SEC and WCWS.
Adding to her obvious talents, Rogers will have comfort in knowing that she has three capable pitchers behind her able to pick up some slack if need be. Freshmen Bache and Haeger will compete for playing time all season long with Haeger likely to win that battle eventually if she has not already. She could very well be the next great thing when it comes to UF pitching with Nelson’s career being her ceiling.
Junior Ensley Gammel, returning from an injury of her own, will also provide a nice spark for Florida. Gammel, as a freshman in 2010, was the second Gators pitcher in school history to start her career with 10 consecutive wins without a loss.
Who will replace the power and offensive of Bruder and Bush?
No one. The fact of the matter is that Florida cannot expect to directly replace 40 home runs and 151 RBIs right away no matter how talented the freshman class might turn out to be in the long run. Schutte’s presence will give the Gators big-time power in the middle of their lineup and if she can continue her hot streak from the postseason, there is no telling what she might be able to accomplish.
Coyle has proven that she has some pop as well with 17 homers and 60 RBIs one season ago as a freshman. Those numbers should improve as she becomes more disciplined at the plate, which Walton and her teammates have both witnessed this offseason. Moultrie hit four dingers in the WCWS and may finally be adding some power to her clutch hitting, but it is doubtful that Walton would move her from the top of the lineup.
Whether Schutte and Coyle will be enough of a power presence for Florida is something that should become known early in the year. Don’t forget that both players were in the lineup last season, so neither is replacing the numbers of Bruder and Bush but rather trying to fill in the gap by making improvements in their respective game.
Castro, who hit 16 homers in her senior season, could help fill in the blanks if she can hit for the same power against top-level pitchers.
Can Walton get over the hump and bring a championship home to Gainesville?
In his seventh season with Florida softball (2006), Walton has reached the promised land (WCWS Championship Series) twice in the last three years but failed to come away with a title for the Gators. He has led Florida to four-straight WCWS events, won more than 300 games and helped his squad set a number of school and conference records both collectively and individually.
A three-time SEC Coach of the Year, Walton’s expectations will be high once again in 2012 though he may have his roughest road to the title in recent memory due in part to the vast amount of youth and inexperience on his roster.
Should the Gators once again prove to be the cream of the crop in the SEC, Walton can expect more coaching honors coming his way. However, individual awards and conference championships have been abundant for Florida lately.
The fact of the matter is that the Gators’ efforts in 2012 will be all for naught if Florida does not win their first-ever (and the SEC’s first-ever) WCWS title. Doing that this year is certainly possible but perhaps not as realistic as it was a year ago with a senior-laden team. UF may have to wait until 2013 for that chance.