Florida aims to mix small ball into arsenal

February, 7, 2012
02/07/12
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Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his Top 20. Check back daily for updates.

No. 4 Florida
Last year: 56-13 overall, 21-7 SEC (lost in Women's College World Series championship series)

Who returns: There's a lot of coming and going at Florida this season, but there is still some staying, too. The most notable returnee is Michelle Moultrie. The outfielder hit .443 last season, posted an 1.159 OPS and stole 31 bases, but nothing turned heads quite like the four home runs and 27 total bases she accumulated in a losing cause in the World Series. Junior Brittany Schutte (1.189 OPS, 22 home runs, 69 RBIs) brings another proven bat to the lineup.

For all the attention deservedly paid Moultrie and Schutte, and sure to be directed at a talented freshman class, the key for Florida this season may well be how quickly and how reliably sophomores Cheyenne Coyle (.318 BA, 17 HRs, 60 RBIs), Kasey Fagan (.247 BA, 16 stolen bases) and Hannah Rogers (36-8, 1.92 ERA) start producing like veterans.

Who departs: Four trips to the Women's College World Series. Two trips to the championship series. Kelsey Bruder, Megan Bush, Tiffany DeFelice, Aja Paculba and Stephanie Brombacher didn't bring Florida its first national championship in softball, but few senior classes anywhere did more to leave an imprint on a program. In more tangible terms, they take 63 home runs and 238 RBIs at the plate and 20 wins in the circle from the 2011 lineup.

Who arrives: Seven freshmen arrive, meaning 11 of 16 players on the roster are in their first or second year in the program. Plenty of the first-year players will earn immediate time, but no debut is more highly anticipated than that of Lauren Haeger, the 5-foot-11 pitcher and first baseman from Arizona.

In high school, Haeger led her team to the state title when she hit the go-ahead home run in the top of the seventh and then struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh. As a member of the United States junior national team, she threw a complete-game five-hitter to beat Japan 4-1 in the gold-medal game, striking out eight and allowing just one unearned run against a team that pummeled other American pitchers 9-0 a day earlier.

Florida coach Tim Walton stressed he would like to keep Haeger's innings manageable, perhaps splitting innings with fellow freshman Alyssa Bache in support of Rogers, but she'll play somewhere from the outset.

"She's geared a lot like Stacy Nelson in competition, where I don't think she really gets caught up in who she's playing, what she's playing or what the magnitude of the game is," Walton said. "I think she just loves to play."

Preseason question: What will Florida's offense look like?

As it turned out, Walton endured a double dose of disappointment last summer. A little more than two months after his Gators lost the championship series in Oklahoma City, his USSSA Pride dropped the championship series in National Pro Fastpitch, the team's star-studded lineup unable to overcome Monica Abbott and the Chicago Bandits.

But the summer gig hardly went for naught. The World Series misses, against Washington in 2009 and Arizona State in 2011, convinced Walton to take the pro assignment in hopes working with such players could teach him something.

"I coached the NPF team for one reason and one reason only: I wanted to try to find a way to get better at certain things in my offensive philosophy," Walton said. "And having a chance to work with Jessica Mendoza and Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe and Ashley Charters and some of these players has been really good for my evolution as a coach. I've pretty much done it one way. We've pretty much found a way to hit a home run to win a ball game, found a game to hit a home run to put us way ahead in games and from there we continue to hit home runs."

Florida led the nation in home runs per game last season and ranked second in slugging percentage. Its 124 home runs were more than all but three teams had ever hit in a single season. The slugging percentage marked the third season in a row Florida ranked in the top five in the nation. All of those are good things. Championship teams in recent years, particularly those without Danielle Lawrie in the circle, typically ranked among the nation's leaders in power hitting, and the Gators aren't about to stop hitting balls over the fence with Schutte, Coyle and Moultrie around. It's just about finding the right amount of short game to enhance all those long balls.

At times, while being outscored 21-6 by Arizona State last season and 11-2 against Washington in 2009, Florida looked like a boxer who landed a trademark knockout punch, only to find the opponent fully upright and grinning. Those Gators didn't have any other punches. A few more jabs and body blows might be the missing ingredient.

"I have the ultimate confidence in my players to hit a three-run home run to win ball games, and we do that a lot," Walton said. "But I think in the grand scheme of things, we're going to have to bounce the ball a little bit, we're going to have to move runners around a little bit more than maybe we have typically in the past few years."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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