Florida softball: What to watch as undefeated Gators open first weekend homestand of 2022

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports
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Through their first six games of the season, the fourth-ranked Gators have left little to be desired as they've sprinted out to a 6-0 start on the season and have outscored opponents 47-2 — including a 4-0 shutout win over then-No. 16/13 Michigan on Feb. 12.

It had been 291 days since the Gators had last taken the dirt at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium when Florida hosted Jacksonville University on Wednesday night, giving fans a long-awaited taste of Florida softball. 

The Gators, who beat the Jacksonville Dolphins 13-1 in Jacksonville the previous night, opened their five-game homestand with an 8-0 run-rule victory in just six innings.

Florida freshman pitcher Lexie Delbrey got her first start at home and struck out nine Jacksonville batters in four innings of work. Meanwhile, the Gators offense was paced by a five-run sixth inning, which was ignited by a leadoff double from freshman Reagan Walsh and ended with a walk-off double off the bat of junior Alabama transfer Skylar Wallace. 

While Wednesday night's turnout was a sizeable one, the Gators are excited to host their first weekend slate of the season in the T-Mobile Tournament.

With games against No. 14 Duke, Villanova, Louisville and Florida A&M due up, here's what to watch with Florida softball this weekend.

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Speedy additions for Gators make baserunning electric

While the Gators weren't lacking speed last season, they certainly weren't as quick as they present so far this season. 

Having Wallace eligible to play after sitting out last season due to SEC transfer rules, paired with the addition of freshman Kendra Falby, has elevated Florida's baserunning. 

Falby, though green, has been impactful for the Gators starting in left field and splitting time with fifth-year Hannah Adams in the leadoff spot. 

"Kendra Falby has done a great job," UF head coach Tim Walton said. "I haven't loved Hannah Adams in the two hole, just because it's changed a little bit, but she's gotta be ready to hit with a runner on second base every time she comes up."

Falby has reached safely 60% of the time through the open of the season and gone a perfect 7-for-7 when stealing a base.

As a team, the Gators have gone 13-for-15 when stealing, with Wallace, who Walton ranked as his top base runner, chipping in four steals. 

University of Florida left fielder Kendra Falby (27) makes a catch near the wall during the Florida Gators home opener against Jacksonville at Katie Seashole Pressly stadium in Gainesville, Feb. 16, 2022. The Gators beat Jacksonville 8-0 to stay undefeated on the season.

Duke's aces could present tough test

If anyone knows what it's like to have more than one ace on its staff of pitchers and the advantages that come with it, it's the Gators. 

While Florida boasts considerable depth in the circle, the visiting Blue Devils aren't much different. Duke's experienced bullpen is highlighted by fifth-year righty Peyton St. George and senior righty Shelby Walters. Together, the two have combined for 22.1 IP and have given up 21 hits and eight earned runs. 

"They're total opposites. One goes down in the zone and one goes up in the zone," Walton said of St. George and Walters. "The two of them are completely different but they're both very successful. We've just gotta do a good job being Gators and being able to adjust to a drop, adjust to a rise and swinging at pitches in the strike zone."

So far, the Gators have been consistent from the plate and have scattered 55 hits across six games and maintain a team average of .342. 

UF offense is most powerful in years

Florida's top three hitters in batting average, runs scored and hits from 2021 returned to the roster this season. 

Adams, Cheyenne Lindsey and Charla Echols all played major contributions in last season's success and are geared to do much of the same in 2022. 

While Adams and Lindsey are off to a hot start, Echols has been slower to have her breakout. 

"She's not 100% healthy, so she's going through that," Walton said. "As she gets healthier and gets better, she will get better... She hasn't been 'Charla Echols good' yet, she's had some good contact... I really don't worry about Charla Echols, especially when she's 100%."

In addition to Florida's returners, what the Gators have added to the dugout makes their lineup one that demands respect. 

The new faces of Falby and Wallace are also joined by Walsh, who Walton hasn't been hesitant to gush about in the past. 

"When you get (Wallace), and you get Charla, and you get Reagan Walsh, and then Cheyenne, and Hannah, those (five)... and then what Avery (Goelz) is providing for us in that bottom line, it's a different offense than we've been running," Walton said. 

"I think we're taking too many good pitches and swinging at too many bad pitches. And when we switch that around and start swinging at better pitches and take some of the bad pitches away, this team is gonna be pretty... I think we're going to score a lot of runs."

University of Florida starting pitcher Lexie Delbrey (16) celebrates a strikeout with catcher Sam Roe (13) during the Florida Gators home opener against Jacksonville at Katie Seashole Pressly stadium in Gainesville, Feb. 16, 2022. The Gators beat Jacksonville 8-0 to stay undefeated on the season.

Pitching staff will have its hands full with Duke

Despite Duke's youth as a program, the Blue Devils have loaded their roster with talent since the program's inception in 2017. 

As a team, Duke is hitting with a .366 average. But the stat that stands out the most is the Blue Devils' 12 home runs, which have come off the bat of six different hitters. 

"Anytime you're putting together a team, you want to have a dynamic lineup that does a lot of different things," Walton said. "And they present some issues. They've got some speed, they've got some power. They've got some contact-type hitters. So it's a good variety."

Duke senior Caroline Jacobsen, who hails from Tallahassee, garnered ACC Player of the Week honors last week after going 6-for-13 from the plate and tallying three home runs in the first week of the season. 

Jacobsen is joined by fellow senior Kristina Foreman, a Tampa native who has also sent three balls out of the yard to open the season. 

"We don't try to combat what other people do," Walton said. "We just kinda try to do what we do. With our pitchers and our process, it's very simple. First thing we try to key in on is locating pitches. Second thing we try to key in on is to change speeds... When we hit our spots and play defense, it is kinda what we are."

Schedule this weekend

Friday: No. 4 Florida vs. No. 14 Duke, 6 p.m. 

Saturday: No. 4 Florida vs. Villanova , 11:30 a.m. 

Saturday: No. 4 Florida vs. Louisville, 2 p.m. 

Sunday: No. 4 Florida vs. Florida A&M, 2 p.m. 

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