Gators open season in Tempe, Ariz.
Published: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 12:14 a.m.
UF vs. Creighton, 4 p.m.; UF vs. Oregon, 7:30 p.m. at Tempe, Ariz.
RADIO: 104.9 FM
The Florida Gators open the season as a young but talented team with some obvious question marks.
For head coach Tim Walton, now in his eighth year at UF, some of those questions will start being answered when the No. 14 Gators take the field against Creighton and No. 5 Oregon today on the opening day of the 2013 Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
UF, which is coming off a 48-13 season (21-7 SEC) but had its streak of four straight Women's College World Series appearances come to an end in 2012, will also take on No. 3 California, No. 13 Arizona and Cal-State Northridge during the three-day tournament.
“The competition we're going to face is really tough,” Walton said.
This year's roster includes just four upperclassmen — three of them returnees in seniors Kelsey Horton and Ensley Gammel and junior ace and two-time All-American Hannah Rogers.
The fourth is Northern Illinois transfer Stephanie Tofft, a junior who is projected to start at third base.
The remaining 12 players on UF's 16-member roster are all underclassmen and include six sophomores led by pitcher/first baseman Lauren Haeger and shortstop Katie Medina, a pair of returning starters.
The remaining half dozen comprise a freshman class that was ranked among the nation's best and includes several potential first-year starters led by Kelsey Stewart, the No. 2-ranked (ESPN) overall recruit in the nation.
She is joined by catchers Aubree Munro and Taylore Fuller, the latter a local prep standout at Chiefland who is a terrific hitter and can play multiple positions. The two were ranked as ESPN's No. 6 and No. 7 catchers, respectively, and are potential starters (Munro behind the plate, Fuller in the outfield) as are outfielder Kirsti Merritt and first baseman Taylor Schwarz.
“I'm excited about the young players and the process that they've been going through to this point,” Walton said. “They've really worked hard and have done well both in the weight room and on the field. More than anything, that communication is starting to come together.”
Pitching and defense will be the cornerstones for UF, with all three hurlers returning led by Rogers (28-8, 1.23 ERA), one of 25 finalists for the 2012 USA Softball Player of the Year.
“I feel really good,” Rogers said. “This is probably the best offseason that I've had since being here. I feel fresh in my legs and my arm feels strong.”
“She's a rock,” Walton said. “She's very consistent. She just goes about her business.”
Haeger, a dual threat who was a first-team All-Southeast Region pick, returns after starting all 61 games as a freshman, posting a 15-5 record with a 1.85 ERA on the mound while batting .321 — the fourth-best mark on the team — and leading UF in doubles (10), home runs (14), RBIs (52), walks (37) and sacrifice flies (3).
Fellow sophomore Alyssa Bache (5-0, 1.39 ERA) rounds out a strong returning staff.
Florida's defense should be strong as well, especially up the middle where three freshmen — Stewart (second base), Munro (catcher) and Merritt (center field) — join the slick-fielding Medina, who played in 60 games (54 starts) last season and batted .241 while leading the team in sac bunts (10).
“I really like our defense,” Walton said. “I think we have a chance to be a really good defensive team.”
UF takes on Creighton today at 4 p.m. before squaring off with Oregon at 7:30.
All of Florida's games this weekend will be broadcast live on WYGC-FM 105 (104.9).