If college softball teams had franchise tags, Tim Walton’s Florida Gators would be tag-less. After losing Kelly Barnhill and Amanda Lorenz, Florida is searching for a new identity. And the search starts now.
For years, the Gators have been notorious for their hard-nosed defense. And in softball, the core of the defense is found at the core of the field — inside the chalk circle.
Historically, Florida has recruited and developed excellence inside the circle. Pitchers like Stacey Nelson set the precedence back in 2006-09. And players like Lauren Haeger and Kelly Barnhill have followed suit in maintaining the pitching excellence.
However, this year is appearing to be much different. For the first time since 2008, Florida won’t return an all-American pitcher to their roster.
Pitching 287 innings — which is over half of last year’s innings in totality — Kelly Barnhill had a rubber arm last season. When Barnhill wasn’t in the circle, Natalie Lugo and Elizabeth Hightower shared the relief position.
And now, days out from the season opener, mystery surrounds the bullpen.
“I don’t think we have a number one (pitcher), to be honest with you,” Walton said during Florida softball’s media day. “We had Natalie Lugo and Rylee Trlicek probably had the two best falls… we’re just going to go with what’s going, and (you) might see five pitchers in every game this season.”
Trlicek is a fresh face to Florida’s program. The freshman hailing from Hallettsville, Texas, was the Lone Star State’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2019. And now calling the Sunshine State home, Trlicek could find herself in early action as the Gators seek stability in the circle.
Orchestrating an Offense
Because Florida’s defense might be lacking — at least more so than in the past — Walton has vowed to a change of play-style for his Gators — one that is more offensively driven.
And while Florida might be lacking Amanda Lorenz, who finished her career in the orange and blue with 29 home runs, the Gators have no shortage of talent in the batter’s box.
One of the players expected to major contibutions from the plate is Michigan State transfer Charla Echols. Despite being a new face to Florida’s roster, Echols brings some familiar talent to the box. Or better yet, a mentality similar to her successor.
“She has the red in her eyes that wants to kill you in the game that Amanda Lorenz had,” Walton said of the sophomore third baseman.
In addition to Echols, the expectations of senior outfielder Hannah Adams are higher than ever. Coming off of impressive performances in last season’s WCWS, Adams’ role is set to grow.
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 1, 2018
“If there is such a thing as ‘it’s your time’,” Walton began. “It’s your time Hannah Adams. It’s Hannah Adams’ time to rise up and be that. Because she’s gotten better and better and better every year… As progression goes, and evolution goes, it’s her time. She’s put the work in, and now we expect her to deliver more and be — not Amanda Lorenz — but be the best Hannah Adams that she can be.”
Jaimie Hoover, Jordan Matthews and Kendyl Lindaman — whose name sits on the USA Softball Top 50 watch list on Jan. 29 — are other sluggers that return to the roster in 2020.
Different Expectations, Same Mentality
Coming up short in the Women’s College World Series last season and graduating two All-Americans, people are viewing the Gators differently.
Heading into the 2019 campaign, the Gators were ranked No. 5 in the NFCA Preseason Coaches Poll. Coming out of the gate this season, Florida sits at No. 7. And while the two spot deviation isn’t a cause for much concern, the SEC’s preseason poll is eyebrow raising.
Though softball coaches around the country rank Florida as the seventh best team in the nation, SEC coaches tab the Gators as just the fifth best team in the conference.
The Crimson Tide, understandably, ranks as the best team in the conference, but taking up the next three spots are Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky, respectively.
And while the Gators didn’t play Kentucky last season, they did play both Tennessee and LSU. And they beat them both.
Heading into the 2020 season, Florida is hearing different chatter. They aren’t expected to be as dominant.
“I don’t think that’s something we’re really worried about,” senior Jade Caraway said. “Honestly, it’s an underdog mentality, and it’s honestly an advantage at this point, because we’re just going to go out and surprise people, so I’m excited about that.”
If there’s room for anything with this team, it’s room for surprises. There’s a battle in the circle. There’s a significant Amanda Lorenz-sized hole in the lineup. All of this is atypical for Florida.
— Gators Softball (@GatorsSB) January 30, 2020
Everyone is in for a surprise.