By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
No. 1 Florida Gators softball is poised to defend its crown following a 2014 campaign that saw the team go 55-12 with that last victory resulting in the program’s first National Championship. The Gators have already come out of the gate strong, sweeping the USF Softball Classic and routing Jacksonville on Wednesday, amassing a 6-0 record while outscoring opponents 62-7
Florida was the preseason favorite to with the Southeastern Conference title, having received 11 of 13 first-place votes from the league’s coaches, after failing to win either the regular season or tournament championship a year ago.
Head coach Tim Walton, who is now 498-114 (.813) six games into his 10th season, is confident in his roster. “We’ve got a good group, as deep a group as we’ve had,” he said. Walton no doubt hopes to roll this confidence into a return trip to Oklahoma City and ultimately a second national title in as many seasons.
Right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers: Unquestionably the Gators’ ace last season, Rogers was dominant inside the circle, posting a 30-8 record and 1.60 ERA with 27 complete games. She struck out 167 batters and limited opposing hitters to .197 hitting, which was good enough to get her named the 2014 SEC Female Athlete of the Year. Her dominance reached new heights in the postseason when it mattered the most for Florida; she accumulated a 7-0 record in the 2014 NCAA Tournament with a 0.64 ERA, going 4-0 in the Women’s College World Series and earning a save in the final game of the Championship Series.
Third baseman Stephanie Tofft: The highly-decorated Northern Illinois transfer provided Florida with an exceptional bat and glove for the past two seasons. Tofft hit .356 in 2014, belting 11 home runs and 65 RBIs while accumulating a slugging percentage of .592. She anchored the left side of the Florida defense with an outstanding, glove often making seemingly impossible plays along the third base line. Tofft will be replaced by junior Taylore Fuller this season.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Senior RHP, first baseman Lauren Haeger: A force to be reckoned with, Haeger went 10-3 with a 1.79 ERA over 98 innings last season. In the batter’s box, she frustrated opposing pitchers by leading the team with a .648 slugging percentage while hitting .317, belting 20 home runs and knocking in 67 runs. However, with the success of a first-year position-mate, Haeger will likely not be looked to as the team’s ace but will still be a key contributor offensively and defensively.
Junior second baseman Kelsey Stewart: After a phenomenal freshman year in which she set a single-season school record with 36 stolen bases, Stewart matched that total in her sophomore season while also batting a team-high .438, slugging .639 and leading the team in runs scored with 68. Stewart’s stellar play in 2014 earned her a First Team All-America nod. She provides tremendous range up the middle for the Gators defensively and returns alongside her double-play counterpart, senior shortstop Katie Medina.
Junior outfielder Kirstie Merritt: Though Merritt’s average isn’t going to turn any heads (.299 in 2014), she has a knack for clutch hitting, plating 52 runners and belting 13 home runs a year ago. She also crossed home 57 times and plays a number of positions, allowing her to contribute offensively regardless of where she is needed defensively.
>Sophomore left-hadned pitcher Delanie Gourley: Referred to as “a game-changer and program-changer” by Walton prior to her freshman campaign, Gourley certainly lived up to the billing by going 15-1 with a 2.67 ERA in 107.2 innings, recording 127 punch outs. The high school standout answered the bell whenever it was rung and didn’t shy away from opposing hitters, only walking 47 batters and registering a 2.7 K/BB ratio. With Rogers’s departure, Gourley will be needed to take the reigns of the Gators program, and she definitely has the skills to get it done.
Freshman outfielder Megan Reed: Out of Strawberry Crest High School in Plant City, Florida, Reed holds school records for home runs in a season (nine) and in a single game (two). Though Florida’s outfield can be crowded at times with Merritt and three seniors – Briana Little, Bailey Castro and Jessica Damico – all vying for playing time, Reed’s bat could propel her into lineups, especially considering Walton has never shied away from working in talented freshmen.
Freshman utility player Kayli Kvistad: One of the highest-rated prospects in the nation, the 5-foot-8 utility player was a four-time high school All-American, setting school records at Columbia High School in Lake City, Florida, for batting average (.601) and home runs with 44 in 119 career games.
Freshman infielder Nicole DeWitt: A member of the 2015 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team, DeWitt helped her Garden Grove, California, high school win the Empire League crown in all four years of her tenure. She is another highly-ranked prospect and was a terrific get for Florida all the way from the West Coast.
Freshman pitcher Aleshia “Lele” Ocasio: Walton has indicated that he will once again go with three pitchers with Ocasio as the third on that list behind Haeger and Gourley. The 2014 Orlando Sentinel Softball Player of the Year, “Lele” (as she is known by her friends) pitched for her high school but can also be used as an utility player on defense.
TWO BIG QUESTIONS
Can the Gators win a second-straight national title without Rodgers?
Every season until this point, the question on fans’ minds entering the campaign was whether Florida could leap its final hurdle and go all the way, winning the national championship. Well, that has now happened, which only begs the question: Can the Gators do it again? UF went 10-1 last postseason, including a championship-round route of SEC foe Alabama. Florida returns with all but two of its players – granted, two very important players – and the sky is the limit in terms of the talent of Walton’s freshman class. One thing is for sure: As reigning champions, the Gators have a very large target firmly fixed to their back. Surely this year’s squad will get every opponent’s best effort as the defending champs, which means Florida must remain focused on a game-by-game basis in order to earn a high seed in the postseason.
Will the Gators be able to return to the top of the mountain in the SEC?
It is rare when a national title comes without a conference championship (either in the regular season or a postseason tournament) but that is what happened for Florida in 2014 after the program swept both honors the season prior. UF finished just 15-9 in conference play last season with a four-straight losses and a streak of dropping seven contests in an 11-game stretch seriously hurting their chances. Florida ultimately finished third in league play and exited early in the SEC Tournament, finishing fifth in the event. The Gators enjoyed a tremendous amount of success early in the season, but their flat mid-season streak accounted for over half of their losses during the 2014 campaign.