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Rhiannon Potkey | D1Softball.com | January 27, 2021

Florida softball preview: Pitching depth might inspire Gators to try out MLB's opener strategy in 2021

All you need to know about the 2021 college softball season

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The Florida Gators have always taken pride in their conditioning. They value the work they put in to get in shape on the field and in the weight room.

But they’ve had to pump the brakes a bit on the intensity of workouts this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have seen more nagging injuries and it’s harder to get the fitness level to the level that you want it to be at this point,” Florida head coach Tim Walton said. “Having been off for so long competitively, it has just really impacted that overall fitness level of the athlete. That is a concern of mine, and we haven’t been able to push as hard as in the past.”

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Florida softball was 23-4 and 3-0 in the SEC when the 2020 season was cut short because of COVID. Senior shortstop Sophia Reynoso opted not to use an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to return this year.

Although Florida’s success has never been a question, the Gators haven’t had as many players recognized at the highest level of the sport in recent years. Walton envisions that changing in 2021.

“This team has probably got the largest number of potential All-Americans on our roster that we’ve had in quite some time,” Walton said. “A lot of them are on the offensive side and have some special talent.”

Making sure the team stays engaged and motivated for the right reasons has been a high priority for the Florida coaching staff. 

“I think not being able to play games can make it feel a little bit more like work and a little bit less fun. I think it’s important to reiterate this is a game and we are playing the game for fun,” Walton said. “When you are not playing opponents and you are playing for roster spots or travel squads, it becomes a little bit more professional and like work. We need to do a better job of figuring out how to balance it all.”

Newcomers

A big get for the Gators this offseason was Skylar Wallace, who's transferring to Gainesville after spending her first two seasons at SEC rival Alabama.

Wallace's eligibility status for 2021 remains undetermined. The left-handed hitter batted .295 as a freshman at Alabama, and .387 during the shortened 22-game 2020 season.

“This is an incredible opportunity and I am very thankful that I have found a home with the Gators,” Wallace said. “I made plenty of great memories at Alabama and am also thankful for the opportunities I had there, but now I’m focused and ready to get to Gainesville, so I can start building relationships with my new teammates and coaches.”

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The Gators have welcomed six freshmen — Haley Pittman, Avery Goelz, Savannah Serrata, Emily Wilkie, Katie Kistler and Kali Reis.

Goelz, Kistler and Reis are all Florida natives. Wilkie is from Georgia, Pittman from Alabama and Serrata from California.

Pittman, the 2019 Alabama 4A State Pitcher and Player of the Year, is a left-handed pitcher with good spin and change of speeds.

“She has really progressed nicely for us,” Walton said. “She’s had some bad innings and some good innings, but she’s definitely different than any other left-handed pitchers we have on our roster. It’s nice to have different types or arms on our staff.”

Goelz is a first baseman/outfielder that bats lefty. She was the 2020 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year, and is the sister of redshirt junior Kinsey Goelz.

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Wilkie is a catcher/third baseman with right-handed power at the plate.

“She is really hard working and has a great engine. Her motor goes,” Walton said. “I have been happy with the way she has been practicing this fall.”

Pitching

Florida returns junior right-hander Elizabeth Hightower, senior right-hander Natalie Lugo and sophomore left-hander Rylee Trlicek. 

The trio combined for 158.2 of the 178 innings pitched last season by the staff. 

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Lugo was 7-2 with a 1.64 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 26 walks in 81.1 IP. Trlicek was 9-2 with a 1.99 ERA, 28 strikeouts and 11 walks in 52.2 IP. Hightower was 4-0 with a 2.55 ERA, 30 strikeouts and 11 walks in 24.2 IP

“Elizabeth Hightower has probably had the most consistent fall of any of our returning pitchers. I like her ability to revamp her mechanics or motion a little bit,” Walton said. “She has been sharp with her location and her consistency overall has just improved.”

Walton anticipates exploiting Florida’s depth in the bullpen, with redshirt senior left-hander Katie Chronister and Pittman possibly being used in situational relief.

“We may do something similar like the big leagues and maybe use them in an opener type situation with short innings,” he said. 

Although fall provides a gauge for assessing pitching, Walton doesn’t believe it paints the whole picture.

“I don’t put a lot of stock into just Orange and Blue type scrimmages in terms of where our pitching staff is at,” he said. “I have seen pitchers not pitch great in this kind of setting and go out in the season and have success.”

Florida Athletics Natalie Lugo of Florida softball Florida softball's Natalie Lugo was 7-2 with a 1.64 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 26 walks in 81.1 IP in 2020.

Offense

Junior third baseman Charla Echols thrived in her first season at Florida after transferring from Michigan State. Echols hit .417 with eight home runs, five doubles and 28 RBIs.

“She has the potential to be a household name in the SEC,” Walton said. “She is a good hitter, but she is really good defensively and does a great job.”

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Senior infielder Hannah Adams hit .375 with four home runs, 16 RBI and 26 runs scored in 2020, and is on track for another productive season.

“Hannah has had a really good fall for us. I have really been happy with her work ethic and her confidence. She is driving the ball well,” Walton said. “We’ve been moving her to shortstop and second base, and she has the potential to be the best second baseman in the entire country. She is so good and does some special things.”

Redshirt senior catcher/first baseman Kendyl Lindaman, who Walton called a “special, special talent,” hit .410 with seven home runs, four doubles and 22 RBIs in 2020.

Junior outfielder Cheyenne Lindsey hit .381 with four doubles and 13 RBIs. Jaimie Hoover hit .325 and Baylee Goddard drove in 14 runs.

Sophomore catcher Julia Cottrill hit .323 with eight doubles and 11 RBIs. Walton said Cottrill has made more strides in the fall in the batter’s box to complement her good arm behind the plate defensively.

“I do like the depth of our lineup and the differences of our lineup. We can go right, left. We have some power and have a little bit of speed,” Walton said. “I don’t think this team will steal 129 bases like in 2007. But we have a chance to be a good base running team with good power and a potential for high average.”

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Florida also gets a huge boost in the offensive department with the addition of Alabama transfer Skylar Wallace. It’s to be determined if Wallace gets a waiver to play for the Gators in 2021, but tea leaves from other decisions would indicate she gets the waiver.

Leadership

The Gators have shown a strong work ethic and good team chemistry on the field throughout fall. But Walton worries about how the pandemic has impacted the chance to build leadership.

He knows certain players possess the qualities needed. He just wonders if they’ll have enough resources to flourish in the role.

“That has been the most difficult task to do since we can’t have large gatherings,” Walton said. “I think on my list of things that I wanted to do that haven’t been accomplished as much as I would like is team-building and leadership training and some of the other stuff I feel like usually can be done in person.”

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