Florida softball team opens season at USF
Published: Thursday, February 6, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 4:36 p.m.
A year ago, the Florida softball team opened the season with a lot of new faces, numerous question marks and few expectations.
Following a 58-9 season that included a sweep of both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since 2009 and was capped by UF's fifth trip to the Women's College World Series in the last six years, the Gators find themselves back in a familiar spot as the hunted, not the hunter.
“We've got a big challenge,” said coach Tim Walton, who is entering his ninth season at UF. “We have a great group of returning players with a lot of experience, but we're still a young team.”
For the second straight season, UF features just two seniors in right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers and third baseman Stephanie Toftt.
Unlike last year, though, expectations are high for this year's squad. The Gators were ranked No. 3 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 preseason poll and No. 4 in the USA Today/NFCA one.
They open the season against No. 23/25 USF on Thursday at 6 p.m. in Tampa in a game that will feature two of the nation's top pitchers in Rogers and USF senior lefty Sara Nevins.
The Gators will stay in the area for the USF Wilson-DeMarini Tournament, where they will play five games over a three-day span (Friday-Sunday) highlighted by a Saturday contest against No. 4/5 Michigan.
“I'm really excited about our schedule,” Walton said. “We've not only got a great opening tournament, but we start with USF. There will be two first-team All-Americans facing off. It should be a great challenge and a great start to the season.”
Rogers, junior pitcher/first baseman Lauren Haeger and sophomore infielder Kelsey Stewart top the list of 14 returning letterwinners from last year's squad that led the nation in wins.
Rogers led the SEC in wins (33), strikeouts (243), saves (five) and innings pitched (270.2) last season and finished second in ERA (1.71) while holding opponents to a .199 batting mark.
Haeger, one the premier two-way players in the country, was 16-2 with a 2.35 ERA in the circle and batted cleanup, hitting .319 while leading the Gators in home runs (18) and RBI (70).
“I'm a junior. I've done this a couple times now, and I can say that it's really exciting,” said Haeger, who has crushed 32 homers and knocked in 122 runs in her first two seasons. “I think it's more motivating and exciting than it is feeling pressure. I like pressure. That's how I like to play and that's how I like to perform. I think we're all just really excited.”
Rogers and Haeger were both selected to the Top 50 Watch List for USA Softball's Player of the Year.
“I'm excited about them,” Walton said. “They represent our team. Any great team has to have some great leaders and some great talent, and those two are very, very much at the top.”
Stewart, who along with Rogers was named to the Preseason All-SEC team, returns after a sensational freshman season in which she led UF in batting average (.378) and hits (90) while setting single-season records for triples (10), stolen bases (36) and stolen base attempts (39).
A four-member freshman class led by left-handed pitcher Delanie Gourley will have an impact as well.
UF's first home game will be Feb. 12 against Jacksonville.
“We had 58 wins last season, and obviously it was a tremendous season for us after coming into the season with very few expectations and just wanting to play hard,” Walton said. “Now you've got a season with a lot of expectations, but I don't think in what we do, we're going to change our mindset. Our mindset is to come out and work hard every day, and good things happen when we stay focused.”
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