Gators to take different approach to continue their softball success

Florida's Kendyl Lindaman with another home run. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough/File)

 Down through the years, Florida has pretty much followed the same plan to win in softball.

 It starts by putting a dominant, All-American pitcher in the circle, lining up a sure and steady defense behind her and throwing in some timely, clutch hitting. The result has been multiple national championships and SEC titles.

 Well, the plan is about to change.

 The Gators are going to have to take a different approach this season, one where they will have to rely more on their hitting than their pitching. Because for the first time in what seems forever, they don’t have a dominant, every-day pitcher to carry them — a Kelly Barnhill, a Lauren Haeger, a Hannah Rogers or a Stacey Nelson.

 “This is the first time we haven’t had a returning All-American pitcher since 2008,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “You feel that. As a coaching staff, you feel that.

 “That’s really what I said last year. I was more fearful what this year was going to look like than what last year looked like pitching Kelly every game. Kelly could handle that part.”

 Kelly, of course, is Kelly Barnhill, the Gators’ latest in a long line of All-American pitchers. Her four-year run of dominance came to an end with a loss in last summer’s Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.

 She’s gone — and there’s no next in line, no star ready to step into the circle and step up for Florida.

 So, new approach.

 Instead of having one dominant pitcher, the Gators are going to be pitching by committee this season, with as many as five sharing the load — senior Katie Chronister, junior Natalie Lugo, sophomore Danni Farley, sophomore Elizabeth Hightower and freshman Rylee Trlicek.

 “I don’t think we have a No. 1 (pitcher),” Walton said. “I’ve been happy with the way they’ve embraced the position, and they all know they’re going to get the ball at some point. It’s hard on them learning how to compete, to actually be called upon as opposed to watching Kelly pitch every game.

 “It’s a good opportunity for all five of them to get some meaningful innings and go out there and compete. We won’t have a short rope on them, we won’t over manage them. We’re going to go with what’s going. You might see five pitchers in every game this season. I have no idea how it’s going to be.”

 The Gators are facing rare uncertainty with their pitching. But if any team can overcome it, this might be the one. Defense is expected to be sound again. And the hitting lineup, led by catcher Kendyl Lindaman, infielder Hannah Adams and third baseman Charla Echols, should be UF’s most potent in years, according to Walton.

 “We’re going to be a little bit more of a scary offense where we can change the game with one swing, or drive someone in from first base with a double in the gap,” Walton said. “It’s a better lineup (than we’ve had).

 “I’d rather have a No. 1 pitcher and the No.1-ranked defense in the country. It’s not the most exciting team, because there are a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games. It’s not the most exciting to the casual fan.

 “I think we have a chance to be a little more exciting. I don’t know that we’re going to win more games. This team has a chance to be a little more exciting, a little better, a little more fun to watch.”

 This is a new season. And this is clearly a different Florida softball team, one that will have to find other ways to win games other than with dominant pitching and defense.

 “We have a lot of different components that we didn’t have last year,” Lindaman said. “It will be a different type of game. That doesn’t mean we’re out of the game. A few more runs might be scored by the other team, but we have the ability to score a lot of runs.

 “We have a lot more hitters that have the ability to produce more runs and everything else. I’m excited for this year. I can’t wait to see what happens out there.”

 One of the most promising new components is the addition of Echols, the talented Michigan State transfer who hit .359 with 15 doubles and seven home runs as a true freshman for the Spartans.

 She can be a game changer, Walton said.

 “She has the red in her eyes that wants to kill you in the game that Amanda Lorenz had,” Walton said. “She wants to kill you. That’s her mentality when she’s in the batter’s box. The best way to describe her is professional hitter.

 “She’s got it. She’s got the eyes. She wants to be up there when the game is on the line. Her swing is compact, simple and easy. She’s definitely brought the presence and confidence that Kendyl brought into our program (last season).”

 Lindaman transferred in from Minnesota and had an immediate impact last season as a junior, hitting .330 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI. Echols could have a similar impact, and seems a perfect fit for a team that might have to outscore opponents this season.

 “It’s different than how we’ve won in the past couple of years,” Walton said. “I would say this looks a lot like the 2011 season, where we had a returning All-American (pitcher), but she got hurt and we had to use a freshman a lot.

 “We had to outscore people. I think we set the SEC record for home runs with 124. We’re just practicing at what we’re good at right now, trying to get better and better and better.”

No. 9 Florida is set to begin its campaign at the USF-Rawlings Invitational in Tampa against Illinois State at 6:45 p.m. Friday.

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