Friday, December 2, 2016

Florida Profile: Gators Seek Recovery to 3rd Championship in Four Years

General Overview/2016 Recap: Coming off of their second-straight national championship, the Gators began 2016 on a twenty-six game winning streak that stretched all the way into mid-March and the start of conference play.

Amanda Lorenz paced the Gators offense with her .403 batting
average in 2016. (Photo: UAA Communications)
Victories over Michigan; Virginia Tech; and South Florida punctuated the season-opening Wilson DeMarini Tournament in Tampa, while wins over UCLA; North Carolina State; Washington; Nebraska; and Utah made for a perfect showing at the Mary Nutter Classic.

The Gators' first loss of the year came in the final game of the Auburn series, though they still left Auburn with the series win.

Through the remainder of conference play, the Gators swept Tennessee; LSU; Ole Miss; Mississippi State; and Arkansas and took a series win over Texas A&M. The only conference series that went to the 'L' column was a home series against Alabama where the Tide rolled for the series win and only allowed the Gators to score four runs all weekend.

A convincing sweep of Louisiana-Lafayette in a non-conference series made for a nice mid-season punctuation mark, and the Gators also swept a home-and-home series against in-state rivals Florida State.

In the SEC tournament, the Gators bested Ole Miss but lost to eventual tournament champion Auburn in the semifinal round.

An easy sweep through the regionals saw the Gators' pitching staff dominate and shutout their opponent in all three games, sending them onto the Super Regional unscathed.

It was in Supers that what some described as the 'shocker of the year' happened, as the Gators were swept in two games by conference foe Georgia, the #16 seed, and eliminated from the postseason after scores of 3-0 and 3-2.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – Delanie Gourley; Aleshia Ocasio; Kelly Barnhill
C – (Aubree Munro)
1B – Janell Wheaton
2B – Nicole DeWitt
3B – (Taylore Fuller)
SS – (Kelsey Stewart)
LF – Amanda Lorenz
CF – (Kirsti Merritt)
RF – Justine McLean
DP – Kayli Kvistad

Carrying the Clipboards: Head coach Tim Walton seems like he has been at Florida forever instead of the eleven years he's put on the blue & orange, but in whatever his tenure, he has become one of the nation's top active coaches and softball minds. A former baseball player at Oklahoma, Walton is often the prime example of a baseball-turned-softball conversion that has paid dividends for his program. In his eleven seasons as a Gator, Walton led his program to become only the third program in softball history to win back-to-back national championships, and the first school east of the Mississippi River to do so. He has won more than 600 games in his Gator tenure alone and presided over four Regional Coaching Staff of the Year award-winners, as well as the 2015 staff that was named National Coaching Staff of the Year.

Like Walton, an Oklahoma graduate, pitching coach Jennifer Rocha has established herself as one of the top softball minds in the nation and her pitching staff has been one of the nation's best for several years running. In 2016, Rocha's staff posted a cumulative 0.93 mark, while none of her pitchers posted an individual ERA higher than 1.36. Her staff enjoyed a better than 4/1 strikeout/walk ratio and allowed just fifty-five earned runs throughout the entire course of the season.

Former longtime professional player Sharonda McDonald joined the Gators staff prior to the 2016 season after a single-season stint as the Associate Head Coach at Texas Tech. It was under her tutelage that each of the Gators' starting outfielders posted a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 2016, including senior center fielder and the female Jim Edmonds Kirsti Merritt. The Gator offense hit .312 as a collective group, paced by seven players that hit .300 or better. Amanda Lorenz led the pack with a .403 batting average while Kayli Kvistad paced the program with her eleven home runs and sixty RBI.

Additions: Incoming Gator freshmen include utility player Jaimie Hoover; catcher Jordan Roberts; pitcher/infielder combo Katie Chronister; and outfielder Jacqui Switzer.
Subtractions: Lost to graduation following last season were catcher Aubree Munro; middle infield guru Kelsey Stewart; third baseman Taylore Fuller; center fielder Kirsti Merritt; and utility player Taylor Schwarz.

Scheduling: The Gators will kick off their season at the South Florida-hosted Wilson Demarini Tournament in Tampa, where their second game of the year will be a rematch of the 2015 championship series vs. Michigan. During the tournament, the Gators will also take on Delaware; Illinois State; St. John's; and South Florida.

At the Citrus Classic in Orlando, the Gators will face Syracuse; Fordham; Liberty; Elon; and Lehigh.

Skipping the Mary Nutter this season, but participating in the Judi Garman Classic, the Gators will take on Iowa and Northwestern from the Big Ten, as well as PAC-12 foes Cal and UCLA, in addition to Long Beach State.

In conference play, the Gators will host Missouri; Auburn; Georgia; and Ole Miss, and will travel to South Carolina; Arkansas; Kentucky; and Tennessee.

A home-and-home series vs. Florida State dots the late-season, non-conference schedule for the Gators.
Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – The Gators are one of the nation's top programs. They have earned that label and have no plans to give it up any time soon. With Walton and Rocha leading the charge, the Gators are perennial championship contenders. Their pitching staff remains one of the best in the nation and, though their offense will take some retooling, they should once-again challenge for the national title.

Weaknesses – As noted above, the offense will require a bit of retooling to finish out the lineup once again, as several valuable pieces have departed. Even more of a noteworthy need is the program's defense - Munro, a stellar backstop, and Merritt, the female Jim Edmonds, provided incredible defensive plays throughout their careers and will be especially tough to replace in that regard. In addition, the team that once looked nearly immortal showed they were beatable by the right team at the right time in the Supers loss last season and that will not soon be forgotten by would-be Gator opponents; the level of 'fear' of the twice-national Champs may wane.

Outlook for 2017: All three of the stellar members of the 2016 pitching staff return in 2017, including Delanie Gourley for her senior season. Expect stellar numbers from the circle for the Gators once again, and to see the pitching staff pace the program in any success they have. The Gators have long stood a head-above-the-rest in the crowded conference fray, though that stature diminished a bit after the surprising early exit a year ago. Expect similar notoriety to return this season as the Gators jump back into the title hunt with a vengeance.

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